Respecting faith is important, especially someone else's.
So is respecting how God made them.
And, if we're really going to walk our talk, helping them celebrate who they are in God's world.
If history is our judge, we haven't been doing that too well, of late. But the good news is, we're getting better. Particularly whenever we're honest about our history, particularly our history of faith.
We've got to remain aware of our past. For example, not much more than 50 years ago, when the Milwaukee Braves came to town, Hank Aaron couldn't stay at the Dixie Grand Hotel. He was billeted, instead, with a family in Parrish.
And it wasn't just bus stations that had separate rest rooms and separate water fountains. Some churches did, too -- for their janitorial staff. And, when necessary, those same churches were more than ready to turn away people who didn't look quite "right."
As a small child visiting relatives here, I remember.
We don't do that anymore. But that doesn't mean we still don't find ways to exclude. The subtle message that certain people with certain "lifestyles" are not welcome in our places of faith is too often emblazoned in invisible paint above our doors.
And, when subtlety isn't enough, outright preaching always does the trick as, from out pulpits, we teach you how to righteously dislike.
It's not with pride that we're able to say that everything we know about bigotry we learned in church (or temple, or mosque, or shrine).
The good news is, we're trying to get out of that box.
The bad news is, we've got a long way to go.
Take the denomination in which I serve: the United Church of Christ. Through our Plymouth Rock Congregational roots, we're a church of "firsts": first to oppose slavery (1700); first to ordain an African-American (1785); first to ordain a woman (1853); and first to ordain an openly gay pastor (1972). The last one usually gets attention; yet it hasn't been an issue in any of our churches for more than 40 years, and we're looking for the day when it's no big deal in any denomination.
To get from where we were to where we are, however, was not easy. It was often downright painful -- usually for whoever didn't agree with us.
Like back in Salem, when we drowned women considered witches, or well before that when, back in England, Switzerland and Germany, we burned them.
Ours was a learning curve, just like everybody else.
Founded on the idea that our theology had to be open -- that no one had the right to insist on their beliefs as the only path; and that everyone had the obligation to respect the beliefs of others. And yes, because that meant having to be open to the points of view of others, it has never been easy to do yet it has always been worthwhile.
It has created great conver
sation, which has resulted in incredible spirituality.
Like during our Not Your Mother's Bible Study Class, where we have gained the understanding that we are "Christians," not "Biblians;" where we have considered the idea God loved us so much we were sent a Person, not a Book; where we have discovered deeper meaning in our lives through the idea that we are People with the Book, not People of the Book. Where everyone is entitled to completely disagree with the previous sentence and still be extravagantly welcome.
There's great freedom in that -- none of it easy; all of it worthwhile. Including the freedom to admit where we've been, the freedom to respect each other and each other's point of view and the freedom to worship together in ways that allow us to better order our lives by sharing the experience of getting to better know God through the Christ we have been given -- the Christ who leads us toward a more inclusive future, while being honest about our past.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Sichta, Congregational United Church of Christ, 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton, can be reached by calling 941-756-1018 or e-mailing PBKAlpha1@gmail.com.