A local church took a big step towards ensuring that everyone in the community feels welcome and safe within its walls.
On Sunday, Sept. 25, Crossroads United Church on Scott Road was officially recognized as an affirming ministry by Affirm United, an organization working for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in The United Church of Canada and in society.
The transition was a long time coming, according to Rev. Cari Copeman-Haynes.
In May 2013, Copeman-Haynes received a call from a woman looking to marry her same-sex partner in a church in Delta. The woman had already endured hang-ups and rude comments from other parishes in the municipality and was growing discouraged.
“I was telling her this is a very open congregation, very friendly, warm and affirming for everyone, but we’re not formally or officially an affirming congregation. And she said, ‘well, how would I known that you’re a warm and friendly and welcoming congregation if you’re not formally an affirming congregation? How would I read your mind? How would I know that?’” Copeman-Haynes said. “It made me go, ‘oh my gosh, it is not enough just to be the lovely hospitable people that we are who think that it’s okay for anybody to love anybody. We need to actually take this step.’”
Copeman-Haynes brought the idea to her congregation and not long after the church’s Affirm Team was born.
Rev. Cari Copeman-Haynes gives her opening remarks at Crossroads United Church’s “Transgender Experience: A Heartfelt Discussion” on Sept. 23. Image Credit: James Smith
“That little group has been leading our congregation in its exploration of diversity, not just in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, but all kinds of isms: racism, sexism, ageism, disability. We’ve got some folks with special needs in our congregation and we’re really working to help everyone feel that they’re a beloved child of God,” Copeman-Haynes said. “It was provoked by this call out of the blue. I never did end up doing that wedding, but this whole new direction, this whole new ministry for our congregation kind of flew out of it.”
The church kicked off its affirmation celebration by hosting a talk on Sept. 23 titled “Transgender Experience: A Heartfelt Discussion” with guest lecturer Lukas Walther, a gender diversity consultant who previously worked as a community counsellor and coordinator for Vancouver Coastal Health’s transgender health program.
About 100 people listened intently as Walther drew from his 19 years of personal and professional experience to tell funny, gut-wrenching and heartfelt stories and answer questions from the audience.
“The idea is for it to be interesting for all sorts of people,” Walther said. “My reason for doing it is just to activate compassion and help people understand a little bit. People want to know, but they don’t know how to ask the question. They want to be an inclusive congregation, but they’re not quite sure what that would look like.”
Walther said events like this are important for both the trans community and society at large as they help to foster understanding and compassion between people of various backgrounds.
“It’s crucial to the trans person that calm, insightful, kind information be provided, not in a way of ‘you have to accept this,’ but in a really heartfelt way so there’s this warm regard shared back and forth so that people, rather than being shut down because they’re scared they’re going to be labelled as transphobic if they ask a question, that they’re open and it’s an exchange,” Walther said. “It’s important for the trans community to know that there are people out there providing accurate information in a really kind way, because even though I don’t speak for everyone, I know that I represent them and if someone has a bad experience or an uncomfortable experience, they’re not going to want to come back.”
Walther added it’s important for people to learn in safe and open forums like this rather than by asking questions directly of people, especially young people, who are trying to come to terms with their own sexual and/or gender identity.
“You don’t want the person going through it right then to be also explaining all about it because they need so much [support], they need the attention. They can’t be there trying to fumble over their words; they don’t even have the language,” he said. “Not everyone is able to be an ambassador. Not everybody has the right mix of skills and motivation, personality etc. to be articulate and comfortable fielding questions of any kind. I happen to have enough of a collection of those particular qualities that it’s a way that I can serve.”
Copeman-Haynes said last weekend’s designation is only the be- ginning of the church’s journey along the road of inclusion and compassion for all.
“What we’ve got here is an agreement that what we do and what we say are going to be more inclusive and hospitable to everybody,” she said. “There are definitely further opportunities to engage in learning and to offer things to the public like this.”
For more information on goings on at the church, visit crossroads-united-church.ca.