When Jack Murphy’s spouse was dying of cancer years ago, he did what any loving husband would. He provided care, comfort and support and when the time came that no more could be done, he said his goodbyes as his loved one – who he had been with for 17 years – died in his arms.
They were a loving, married couple.
That they were also a gay couple, Murphy says, shouldn’t have set them apart from others.
When Murphy married his husband Danny Poirier in the spring of 2006 – like other married couples announcing their nuptials – they placed a wedding announcement in the Yarmouth Vanguard and Chronicle Herald newspapers.
They were still the same people after the photo was taken that they had been before it was taken – the only difference was they had become more public about their relationship.
But their marriage caused changes for them in the Catholic church they belonged to. Murphy says their archbishop said they could no longer receive communion. And Poirier, who for years had helped to direct the choir, wasn’t allowed to do that anymore.
Religion was still very important in the couple’s lives so they sought a new church.
They found Beacon United Church in Yarmouth. At their first service Murphy recalls a hymn being played in which the lyrics said: come in and sit down, you are a part of the family.
“They saw us as a loving gay couple, but they also saw us as a couple just like anybody else, because we were,” he says.
Murphy says the church always made them feel as if they belonged.
And now the church is taking more steps to ensure others have this feeling.
In June, Beacon United Church voted to become an affirming church that publicly welcomes members of the LGBTQ community and will also confirm them if they so choose. Following work carried out by the church’s affirm committee, there was a vote taken by the congregation. Thirty-eight people voted and all 38 voted to affirm the church.
“We were aiming for 75 per cent but it was 100 per cent so that made us happy,” Murphy says.
The goal of the church is to be as inclusive as it can be. The next step for the church in this process is to look at its mission and vision statements to make sure the wording is as inclusive as it can be. Once that is complete an application will be submitted to Affirm United, which is the overall body within the United Church of Canada. Then they will officially recognize Beacon as an affirming congregation.
“At that point we will have a service of celebration and officially announce it,” says Reverend Sharon Lohnes.
She says they won't be the first United church to go through an affirming process in western Nova Scotia. "Along the south shore, what used to be South Shore Presbytery there’s four that are already affirming," she says. "There is another that is in the process of working through this, and that’s just in our area of Nova Scotia."
Asked what the significance is of going through the formal process, as opposed to just saying the church welcomes everyone, she says, “One of the really important things for me is that as part of Affirm United, we are held accountable. Each year we are required to submit a plan for the coming year of what we will do to increase our inclusion – and that is inclusion of people of all types, it doesn’t focus entirely on sexual orientation.”
Rev. Lohnes says sexual orientation and gender issues helped to trigger Affirm United and it is still very much a foundational point, but once churches become affirming they are encouraged to look at who they are excluding from all walks of life.
“That can be economic, it can be accessibility, it can be racial – whatever exclusions you find. It challenges you to each year look at that and come up with a plan of how to deal with those exclusions and make your church more inclusive,” she says.
Asked how he feels Beacon United Church currently ranks in this regard, Murphy says, “Danny and I became members and we were very much accepted and there was no problem with us being confirmed. Other churches in Digby and Yarmouth County would accept us as members to participate, to contribute financially, but they would not confirm us – as an out couple. If we were in the closet there would be no problem.”
But Murphy and Poirier didn’t want to hide who they were and what they meant to each other.
“We looked around and we found Beacon to be very accepting, totally,” he says.
An accepting environment is important to members of the congregation.
“We have a very open community here with very strong leadership by some of our folks here that are in our community,” says congregation member Lynn Brown, who was also a member of the affirm team and returned to the area two years ago. “It was just wonderful to come into a community that was already very open and accepting and folks were really involved in all levels of the church.”
The church’s congregation numbers aren’t going up, says Rev. Lohnes, but it is holding its own. But they aren't measuring their successes just on the size of the congregation. Where the church has made great strides is in continuing to offer community programming and activities under its roof. A prime example is the community meals initiative, which has been going really strong.
“I think that we’re probably even more aware now of people we inadvertently excluded and we’re working towards making it more inclusive, and I think the community meals are a great example of that because people of all walks of life come in and feel that this is their community meal,” she says.
Rev. Lohnes says Beacon Church also supports other initiatives aimed at promoting inclusion. For the past two years the church has walked in the Yarmouth Pride parade. And this was before the church had even started the most recent affirm process.
The affirming process is expected to be completed within a year. The summer months and Rev, Lohnes being away in the fall on sabbatical is slowing things a bit.
But the first step was knowing that the congregation supported it.
In the interim, efforts will continue to make the church as inclusive an environment as it can be for everyone. For instance, the church building’s interior is accessible, but it doesn’t have power doors. If people with disabilities struggle just to get inside then the church isn’t being inclusive enough, Rev. Lohnes says. They have secured a grant to install power doors.
So whether it is the little things, or the big things, the church continues to move forward, Rev. Lohnes says. And becoming an affirming church for the LGBTQ community is another way of doing this.
“We want to make sure that people not just know they can come in, but that they truly feel comfortable,” she says. “Not just welcomed, but feel comfortable.”