Saturday, August 10, 2013

One Couple, Two Congregations

The couple mentioned in this story have given their consent to share the details of their experience. All identifying information, including references to gender, have been removed to protect their privacy.

Dana and Jordan were looking for a spiritual community, and the UU church in their city seemed the right balance (Dana had grown up UU, and Jordan had left a conservative denomination). After attending and making new friends, they decided to formally join. Jordan became part of the choir, and Dana joined the Religious Education committee.

What they didn't share with others in the congregation was their interest in BDSM. Given how they saw it as "irrelevant" to their church life, they saw no reason to tell anyone outside of the local kink community. And they found it not too difficult to keep the two separate.

Then the RE committee began plans for their Coming Of Age group, including teaching Our Whole Lives. Someone wondered, with worry, about what to do if one of the teens asked about "weird stuff" like bondage and sadomasochism. Dana spoke honestly that it might be helpful for the OWL facilitators to know some background information about BDSM, in case such questions were posed in class. "What kind of information?" another committee member asked, and Dana talked about some of the basics, but nothing explicit. After the meeting, the RE director took Dana aside and asked: "How do you know about this BDSM stuff?" Nervously, Dana replied about having "researched" the subject earlier.

Things went downhill soon afterwards. The couple started to get phone calls with "all sorts of bizarre questions and snide remarks" about their sexuality. A number of friends at church stopped talking to them. Dana was no longer receiving notices about the RE committee, and became "shut out" from discussions during meetings. The choir director related that some members of the choir were pushing to have Jordan removed, saying they were "uncomfortable"; to this person’s credit, the director refused to acquiesce to their request.

The worst, however, was when our couple went to the minister for support and guidance. They expected at least a sympathetic hearing. "We'll never forget [the minister’s] only words to us on this: 'There's nothing I can do, even if I wanted to.'"

Around this time, Dana was being considered for a new job in another city. With all that was going on, they did not hesitate to accept that company’s offer and relocate. Once they settled in, they considered whether to join the larger UU congregation there. "It was difficult at first," Jordan admitted, "but when we first went in, we could see the difference was night and day, [the previous church] seemed UU in name, … [the new church] really takes seriously what that means." And, to top it all off, they eventually found out that a couple of the new congregation’s members were also part of the local kink community!

It seemed they could now begin a fresh start, albeit at a more cautious pace. Then, the minister for this new congregation asked to meet with them. The reason? Someone at their old church had sent an email, not only outing them, but outright defaming them. "They accused us of wearing fetish gear on Sunday, trying to push a BDSM workshop on the whole congregation. We’d done none of that, not one, and we said so upfront."

And here was another difference between the two congregations. "[The new minister] made it clear from the get go: 'I don't care about your sex lives, I just want to get your side of the story here.' And [the minister] was so supportive, so open to hearing what we had to say … even suggesting that the staff have some sort of training around being sensitive to alt-sex issues."

In fact, it was that minister who directed this couple to Leather & Grace which led them to me. After an email and a long telephone conversation, I gave them some options for how to proceed, especially given the very real fear that some in the old congregation might continue to harass them.

This tale gives me very mixed emotions. I am delighted that this couple has found a spiritual home, and a pastor who will genuinely hear and respond to their needs. I am also infuriated that they had to go through such horrid treatment in another congregation, and especially by a minister. I've heard others say that we should be loving towards those who would marginalize, defame and harass. All well and good – but too often, this well-intentioned message lacks a prescribed remedy, and becomes yet another way of telling marginalized folks to develop a thick skin and forbear the wounds inflicted on their souls. We can love the sinner, but that doesn’t mean we put up with their sin. It means we expect better, and that we offer them a way to grow and change.

And yes, I said that dreaded "S-word" that Unitarian Universalists are loathe to use: sin. But there’s no other word I can find that is appropriate. Discriminatory actions and attitudes are sin, regardless of whom they are directed against. If someone we love commits such a sin, the most authentically loving response is to bear prophetic witness and provide means for penance and redemption. Likewise, those who are sinned against require an authentic response of support, affirmation and healing. Yes, it is demanding, but that is the cost of the covenant, and anything less is cheap grace.

UPDATE: Since this came to our attention, the Steering Committee of Leather & Grace has called for a day of silent witness, to bring greater awareness to the issues facing kink-oriented Unitarian Universalists, and to underscore the continued silence of UU leaders. Sunday, September 29th has been chosen for this action of witness. We call on our members and supporters -- including and especially vanilla UU allies -- to pledge to join us in Silent Sunday.


  1. My congregation is teaching Adult OWL in the fall and I have provided this to our DRE so the first church can be discussed as an example of "being complete assholes" and what not to do.

  2. Very moving story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I am heartened to hear that as a Candidate for UU ministry, one of my colleagues and congregations was able to provide welcome and spiritual home to this couple. Without knowing all of the circumstances, it at least sounds like perhaps the first congregation might become a bit more familiar with the OWL curriculum for all levels, but that said, even in the best of congregations, not all members will always respond well in all situations no matter what the topic. Likewise, while ministers are given extensive training in a wide array of areas, we are human and will each have areas we know more or less about and handle with different levels of skill and finesse. The opportunities to keep learning and improving our skills, whether professional or lay leaders, is an ongoing and life-long process. Thank you for raising up an area where clearly some need further education, resources, and practice.

  4. I wish more congregations would offer Adult/Young Adult Owl for those of us who did not grow up UU or with adults open to discussing sex. My high school is/was among those still teaching "practice holding an aspirin between your knees."

    1. Aspirin between your knees?? Do they seriously expect people to have fulfilling and happy relationships (marriage or otherwise) by linking sex to fear? Oysh!

    2. lol Desmond- having been through what I'm guessing is a similar program to Aimee's- yeah, the care isn't about fulfilling and happy- just waiting to marriage and then producing children. Very sad.

      But Aimee- I can tell you a bit of my story. I personally bought the curriculum for Young Adult OWL and have been struggling to get the training. It's offered far less often than the other levels (maybe 2 or 3 times a year across the country) and I'm trying to find it in my region so I can see about getting a scholarship because I can't afford to attend without that.

    3. Everything about this story makes me shudder, but I think the part that still makes me most angry is that first minister's comment. "... even if [he] wanted to"- what a sad commentary on this minister's ability to minister. Something tells me that the L&G page to ministers about giving appropriate pastoral care to us kinksters wouldn't help