During spring 2014, Suzi Chase, 57, began her search for a faith community. For the first time since her marriage ended, she lived alone and felt she needed a spiritual home.
Raised in a Jewish household, she said she no longer felt the religion served her faith needs and came across the website for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia.
“I have a friend who goes to UUCC, and she told me a little bit about it,” the Columbia resident said. “It sounded very attractive, and I thought it would be a good fit for me.”
Enticed by the idea of the church being a “welcoming congregation,” Chase registered for a “Get Connected Class” and found that five of the 10 women in attendance identified as queer, including the course instructor.
While attending her first weekend service, the Rev. Paige Getty preached on the topic of family, while three congregants from diverse families shared their testimonies; one was a gay man who spoke about finally being accepted by his partner’s mother.
Eyes filled with tears, it was in that moment Chase realized she had found a faith community that would accept her as a transgender woman.
Nearly 25 years have passed since the Unitarian Universalist Association, a nationwide religious movement headquartered in Boston, officially became a “welcoming” or LGBTQ-friendly congregation.
UUA, which is made up of more than 1,000 congregations, adheres to the teaching of its Seven Principles — the first being affirming and promoting the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
During a time when religious institutions have been pressured to include the LGBTQ community, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia is one of the many across the country to reach out.
According to Changing American Congregations, a religious survey conducted by researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago, more churches have become welcoming to openly gay and lesbian couples. The shift, according to the survey, parallels the wider trends of acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage among the general population during the same time period.
The Unitarian Universalist Association began the process of becoming a “welcoming congregation” early on. In the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, the association began using the code word “welcoming” to include lesbian, gay and bisexual people. In 1994, the association launched the Welcoming Congregation Program to dismantle homophobia and, later, transphobia within the congregation.
“[Unitarian Universalists] launched [the program] to encourage congregations to align themselves with the [UUA] to create a space for the LGBTQ experience,” said Michael Crumpler, 44, LGBTQ and intercultural programs manager at Unitarian Universalist Association. “[Unitarian Universalists] were also very supportive of marriage equality before it became national in the early days of Massachusetts, one of the first states to legislate marriage equality.”
In addition to their support of marriage equality, UUA ordains LGBTQ ministers to serve as religious leaders in the congregation.
Getty, 48, who has been serving as senior minister at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia for the past 16 years, came to Unitarianism at the age of 24 after being rejected by her childhood church for having a girlfriend.
“I found a group of people who were open in their questions about God and what is right and wrong and were actually welcoming of gay and lesbian people,” she said. “It was a struggle for me to know there was a church that could welcome me and tell me I was loved and beloved.”
Over the years, the church in Columbia has introduced ministries and programs to further include the LGBTQ community. Once a month, the church opens its facilities to the Howard County Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and offers Our Whole Lives, a sexuality education curriculum for those ranging from kindergarten to older adult.
Jen Raffensperger, 47, youth director and former elementary OWL educator at UUCC, said the program has become a vital tool for the church to continue to provide a safe space for the LGBTQ community.
“Every Sunday you will see same-sex couples and mixed-gender couples,” she said. “It is a known quantity and part of our way of being in the community.”
In recent years, the church has shifted to include those who do not adhere to traditional gender norms by encouraging gender neutral pronouns and adding gender neutral signage to the restrooms.
“[The church] is dismantling the binary understanding of gender and understanding that transgender is not just one thing,” Getty said. “Using terms like genderqueer, bisexual and pansexual dismantle binary gender. [We] are committed to learning and growing and evolving in our understanding of these things.”
Like UUCC, Channing Memorial Church in Ellicott City has shifted to include the LGBTQ community. In 2008, the church officially became a “welcoming congregation,” and aims to promote acceptance, inclusion and understanding for all members of the LGBTQ community. It began by participating in pride festivals, supporting members of the national LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG and placing a “welcoming congregation” banner on its website.
The Rev. Madelyn Campbell, 57, interim minister at Channing Memorial Church, described the congregation as small but deeply connected to its spiritual roots. The church is named after William Ellery Channing — who delivered the “Baltimore Sermon,” the speech that first defined the faith — and Unitarianism in Baltimore dates as far back as 1819.
“The culture is very supportive of one another and very theologically reflective,” Campbell said. “The church is very in tune with what is happening with each other and very in tune with what is happening in Howard County.”
Pastor Jane Smith, 29, who will begin her role as senior minister at Channing Memorial Church in August, said she plans to utilize her research on gender and mental health from the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
“[I want] people to feel welcome coming into the congregation and feel secure,” she said. Through her ministry, she said she plans to preach on gender and encourage congregants to be “fully themselves without judgment.”
Five years have passed since Chase attended her first service at UUCC.
Since then, she has helped lead services, taught religious education classes and, after her gender confirmation surgery, came out as transgender to the entire congregation.
In 2017, she attended the annual UUCC women’s retreat, a three-day conference packed with workshops for women. During the retreat, she said, no one questioned whether she should be there as a transgender woman.
After finding UUCC, she said the loneliness she once felt now seems to be “a distant memory.”
“Unitarianism is an affirming faith and they will not judge you no matter who you are,” she said. “All genders are valid and all lifestyles are valid and UUCC follows that.”