Making The Rainbow Connection

January 22, 2006
Rev. Richard M. Fewkes
Minister Emeritus

The symbol of the rainbow is as old as Noah in the Bible—a promise of hope and survival after 40 days and nights of storms and floods had finally subsided—and as new as a rainbow flag symbolizing the welcoming of gays and lesbians into a church community. It is Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", and Kermit the Frog singing about "The Rainbow Connection". It is Jesse Jackson preaching a political sermon on disparate racial and social groups in American society joining together into a ‘rainbow coalition". And yes, it' s the ongoing struggle of gays and lesbians to be welcomed into houses of worship, to serve as lay leaders, and also as ministers and priests, and to have their love honored and celebrated in church and society, not only as a union of partners, but also as holy matrimony and marriage. Rainbows are signs of hope, love, peace, joy and connection. Making the rainbow connection is what being and becoming a church is all about.

When Ellie and I retired to the Cape in June of 2000 we felt somewhat in a quandary as to what UU church in the area we should affiliate with and eventually join. It took a couple of years or more to decide mainly because I was tied up doing part-time interim ministry and a fair amount of pulpit supply to boot. The UU Meeting House in Chatham was the smaller of the three churches and we thought they could use our support a little more than the others, and the congregation seemed quite friendly, and they still are.

After we had joined I learned that the congregation was having problems with vandals tearing down, stealing, and destroying the Rainbow Flag which was a sign of welcome to gays and lesbians. The flag had been prominently displayed on the church sign board about a hundred feet from the front door of the Meeting House. Vandals would tear it down and the Social Justice Committee would put another one back up a few weeks later. This had already happened a number of times. I suggested to our new congregants in Chatham, "Why don' t you put the flag up on the Meeting House away from the easy reach of reactionary fanatics, or keep it inside, or both?" I said to them, "My former parish in Norwell has one high up on the Meeting House and no one had ever attempted to steal it or take it down."

No way Jose, was the response I got. Anti-gay fanatics are not going to tell us where we can put our Rainbow Flag. Later on I learned that there was disagreement among you folks here in Norwell as to where to put your Rainbow Flag. Move it to the sign board or keep it where it was. I am told there were strong feelings on both sides. Maybe there still are. I thought to myself, maybe Chatham and Norwell could learn from one another. Oddly enough the folks in Chatham ended up doing a twofer. They have one on the sign board, and a second one above the side door of the Meeting House which they take inside when there is no one in the office.
Making the Rainbow Connection can sometimes be a challenge to differing points of view both inside and outside the Meeting House. It' s hard work living up to this challenge, but there is reward in the effort to make the rainbow connection a living reality in the real world of religion and politics. It' s not just for dreamers, but it certainly helps to have one.

My memory takes me back to a time 16 years ago, January 28, 1990, when I preached my first sermon about becoming a welcoming church to all persons regardless of color, gender, or now most importantly, sexual orientation. The UUA General Assembly had recently approved the definition of what it meant to become what they called "a Welcoming Congregation." A Welcoming Congregation, they said, was one that was "inclusive and expressive of the concerns of gay, lesbian and bisexual persons at every level of congregational life, in worship, in program, and in social occasions, welcoming not only their presence but the unique gifts and particularities of their lives as well." I did my bit to present this challenge to the congregation as a new form of radical inclusiveness in the spirit of Universalism as expressed in the old hymn, "In Christ there is no East or West, in him no North nor South, (and in the words of Paul "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,") but one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth." Our challenge as Unitarian Universalists, I said, was to add the words "neither gay nor straight" to the list of radical inclusiveness, and to make it affirmative in word and action.

I cut my sermon short that day to give our organist and choir director, Edwin Light, an opportunity to share his experience of being a gay man in Boston and a member of the Arlington Street Church, one of the first UU churches to welcome gays and lesbians into active membership. Edwin spoke from the pulpit with great feeling and authenticity about his work as a volunteer counselor to gay men in Boston who had been bashed and brutalized by homophobic zealots and thugs. He did this work, he told us, because he himself had been bashed and brutalized, nearly lost his life, and then ministered to by caring members of the Arlington Street Church which he later joined. My friends, you could have heard a pin drop that day here in the First Parish Norwell Meeting House. Suddenly this topic was no longer just a theoretical subject of ethical debate and import, but one that mattered to us personally and deeply. This was our Edwin talking to us, our talented organist and music director, whom we cared about and respected. He helped us realize that we had our own work to do to become a welcoming congregation.

One of the things that stands out in my mind during those years was the positive impact that our support of SSHAGLY (South Shore Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth), that met upstairs in the Parish House, had upon the youth (from various towns on the South Shore) who were struggling with the question of their sexual orientation, and also upon their parents. I remember a special Sunday morning worship service put on by the group and their advisors. I also participated. When the service was over the father of one of the boys in the group said he wanted to express his gratitude to our church for being a sponsor of the group. "It literally saved my son' s life," he declared. "I don' t know what we would have done without it."
How many young people have committed suicide or been murdered over the years because of their sexual orientation? That we had helped provide a safe haven where they could meet and be themselves and share their deepest thoughts and quandaries with one another, without fear of reprisal or derision, made all the difference in the world.

During my years of ministry in Norwell I only performed one Union Ceremony for a lesbian member and her partner. She indicated that they could have gone to the Metropolitan Community Church in Boston for this ceremony, but she wanted to do this in her own church. How could I possibly refuse her? The Norwell Mariner was kind enough to publish the complete text of a sermon I gave a few years later "In Defense of Marriage Gay and Straight", but in spite of my public advocacy no gay or lesbian couples asked for my ministerial services though I was more than willing to do so. That of course has all changed since marriage for gays has been declared legal in the Commonwealth, at least for time being. I know Vicki has had her share of rainbow weddings as have many other UU colleagues.

Last July I performed my first official gay wedding at the Four Seasons Motel in Boston. The two men were well heeled and successful business men, and they had obvious affection and regard for one another. During the ceremony one of the two Best Men was slated to do a Reading. When it came time to do so he got all chocked up with tears, and was unable to continue. The other Best Man had to do the Reading for him. After the ceremony the mother of one of the men told me she had originally intended not to come to the wedding, she had been opposed to her son' s sexual orientation and to his getting married to his gay partner from the very beginning, for both personal and religious reasons. But she said she was now glad she came because she realized how important and meaningful this was both for her son and for herself. She had been changed by making the rainbow connection.

Just last weekend I officiated at another gay wedding at the Peabody Marriott. This time it was for family—for our daughter' s brother-in-law (her husband' s younger brother), David Cabral, and his partner Joshua Cabral. Not only did they have the same last names (though not related), but also both of their mothers are named Denise! When they got their marriage license they had to sign a declaration stating that they were not relatives. I can tell you this, I was pleased and proud that they asked me to perform the ceremony. A few weeks before the event we attended our first wedding shower for a gay couple. Both sides of the two Cabral families were well represented and came to offer their love and support for David and Joshua and their union to be. Only one family member seemed opposed to the wedding, a female sibling, and at the last minute, the night before the wedding, threatened not to come. But she did come and confessed that it was indeed a beautiful ceremony. Perhaps one more soul had been changed by making the rainbow connection.

Probably no other issue of late, save the war in Iraq, has generated such heated debate in the public arena as that of gay rights and the prospect of same-sex marriages. I suspect that is because one's sexual orientation and the institution of marriage touch on the deepest and most intimate aspect of one's being, things which none of us are wholly confident and comfortable with, and do not find it easy to talk about with friends or strangers. They touch on matters which are fraught with feeling and emotion and relate to the core of who we really are. Moreover, these intimate matters are hooked into religious definitions and views, and moral concepts, which are thousands of years old. They seek to define who we are and ought to be both personally and socially.

Virtually every religious denomination is wrestling with issues surrounding homosexuality and the acceptance or rejection of gays and lesbians as members, leaders, ordained clergy, and the blessing of same sex unions and gay weddings. Views run the gamut from church to church and denomination to denomination, and also within each church and denomination.

Conservatives cite the Bible as their authority for rejecting homosexuals as clergy or members. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, they say. Homosexuality is declared a sin by biblical writers and that settles the matter. But the Bible, they forget, also permits polygamy, at least in the Old Testament, forbids lending money at interest (which would put our banks and mortgage companies out of business), condones slavery, declares that children should be executed for swearing at their parents, and authorizes stoning to death for those committing adultery and the same punishment for those picking up sticks on the Sabbath. And do you know what Jesus says about homosexuality? Absolutely nothing, not one word. But he does say to love your enemies, to forgive seventy-times-seven, to liberate those who are oppressed, and to welcome Samaritans, tax collectors and Centurions (those who were despised in his day) into your midst. I would like to think that he would be in favor of making the rainbow connection.

In any event, I would argue, as I did in a sermon from this pulpit some ten years ago, that we need a defense of marriage both gay and straight to strengthen responsible long-term loving relationships for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Love, said the apostle Paul, is the fulfilling of the law, while St. Agustine said, love and do as you please, because love, he implied, will only do that which is pleasing. So why are we in such a quandary in our culture about the meaning of love and marriage? Because it touches us where we are most vulnerable, in the deep places of our souls, and in the heart of who we are. I would like to believe that if we learn to make the rainbow connection we will discover that the power of love transcends both gender and sexual orientation and embraces both in that love divine and human that will not let us go till we become that something we' re all s' posed to be. God willing, someday we' ll find it.

Let us pray: God of love, we do not know the reasons why we love and feel the way we do, why some of us are drawn to persons of the same sex, and others, the majority of us, are drawn to persons of the opposite sex, and some of us seem to be drawn to both. Love and sexuality is a mystery we do not fully understand. Sometimes it bewilders us and scares us because of the demands, passionate and social, which it makes upon us. We only know that love comes from you who are the source of life and love within us, and that if we follow love wherever it leads we may someday find ourselves in the heart of that which is most holy and intimate and divine. Amen.