MAXWELL: In this church, all are welcome  

6/13/2004 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Today is a special time for the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater. It is Gay Pride Sunday.

While many other churches condemn homosexuality and support President Bush’s call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, the American Unitarian Universalist Association, with nearly a quarter of a million members, makes no distinction between gay people and heterosexuals.

In essence, people are people.

The UUA is a “welcoming” and “inclusive” faith. The church does not follow a creed, an official dogma, but parishioners covenant to “affirm and promote” six principles, one of which is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (and) justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”

The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, who has led the Clearwater congregation since 1999, is an exemplary UUA minister, and this Gay Pride Sunday service demonstrates his and the church’s commitment to justice and fairness for gay people everywhere.

I shall quote Janamanchi at length because, in my estimation, his self-analysis and wisdom are worth sharing in his own words. His enlightenment has deepened my respect for gay people, and it has inspired thousands of other UU heterosexuals to be accepting.

“I believe gay marriage is a religious issue because it’s about honoring the dignity of people who want to celebrate their love in meaningful ways, and they want to commit to each in partnership, which, to me, is part of what the human experience is all about,” he said during an interview in his office. “I feel that gay marriage is a civil right because people have the freedom to come together. They’re entitled to rights as human beings, rights gay people are being denied. And when rights are being denied, you fight for them.

“Locally, we have a lot of prejudice toward people who are gay and lesbian or bisexual or transgender. That deeply disturbs me. We need to come together as a community in the Tampa Bay area. We need to stand up against hate and prejudice of any form. Well, the UU congregations in the region are openly committing themselves to being welcoming congregations.”

Janamanchi said that area UU churches will work with nonreligious organizations, such as Equality Florida, to support gay people’s rights to adopt children and to marry. The right to marry is of special concern.

“I believe that strong healthy marriages make a community stronger, whether they are between same-sex couples or heterosexual couples,” Janamanchi said. “Unions of two people built on mutuality, love, faithfulness and commitment are good for everyone they touch. And while I also believe that friendships between two people, or relationships between parents and children, or relationships between siblings that are built on love, loyalty and commitment also are good for everyone they touch, there is a difference between these relationships and marriage.”

But Janamanchi, born and reared in India, was not always enlightened. His enlightenment came the hard way. Following are excerpts from a recent sermon that trace his intellectual and ethical growth:

“I grew up in a culture that was, for the most part, oblivious to homosexuality. It didn’t exist. Those who had such inclinations were ridiculed as not being male enough. “Khojja’ or eunuch is what such people were called. I did nothing to stop some of my friends being made fun of because of their attraction to other males. As an adult, I read about the gay rights movement in the United States and became more interested in the issue. I was surprised to find that some of the famous people I liked or admired were gay _ Freddie Mercury, Tchaikovsky, Alexander the Great, Greg Louganis, Walt Whitman, E.E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson.

“Only in theological school did I address this issue from an ethical perspective. Some of my friends were gay and in committed relationships. I found areas of commonality with gay people as a person of color. We realized that discrimination, prejudice and hatred were the same whether you were a person of color or gay. We had some deepening conversations on the issues that affected us and how we could come together to bring more awareness and understanding in our faith movement.

“There was movement in me _ painfully slow growth. I moved from viewing homosexuality as a variant lifestyle to affirming it as a positive and alternative way of being in the world. And now I stand before you to explain why I support same-sex relationships. As Anais Nin once put it, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Simply put, I have changed. . . . Despite all my intellectual research, I confess that my experience in knowing gay and lesbian and bisexual people is what has most powerfully changed my mind and heart. And while I have done only two ceremonies of holy union _ the term used for same-sex marriage without legal standing _ I have had the privilege of having friends, colleagues and parishioners in same-sex relationships living lives of loving commitment.”

Bill Maxwell has been a Unitarian Universalist since 1969. He joined the Clearwater congregation last year.