After hours of discussion, one man -- uncharacteristically -- rose to speak.
It was my honor to sit next to Russ in the church choir.
He was pushing 80, but I always relied on his rich baritone voice to help me find those notes I could never quite locate among the musical symbols. Russ always helped me find my way.
With gay marriage now inexplicably elevated to a constitutional debate, I often find myself thinking about Russ. Like all mainline churches, we, too, struggled with the issue. Of course, back then, the debate was spiritual, not secular.
Our Christian denomination had always drawn a clear line between God and Caesar. We did not require spiritual guidance from those seemingly compelled to legislate their own religious beliefs onto others.
We found more than enough contentious debate within our own church family. In fact, the schism left in the wake of adopting a new hymnal years earlier was only just beginning to heal. And now we were going to consider something of far greater import -- whether to become an "open and affirming" congregation.
To help calm the divisive debate that such emotional issues can bring, we first embarked on a two-year period of thoughtful discussion and prayer. Rather than rely on the advertising distortions that millions of national dollars will buy this year, our vote would come only after we had informed ourselves about the social and human ramifications of our decision.
The Sunday before our vote, several parents, young adults and teens read excerpts of letters that had been privately shared by members of our own congregation. They related heartfelt stories of the many moments, both small and monumental, their GLBT friends and family members had lived.
Next week, the decisive meeting began with our study committee's recommendation that our congregation be open and affirming to gays and lesbians who shared our spiritual beliefs. It was a simple declaration that triggered an understandable outpouring of emotional concerns. Everyone who wished had their say.
Should congregational membership be limited in any way? Baptism and communion, but not marriage? Were special rights being granted to some over others? What did it mean to be a Christian?
As the discussion entered its third hour, Russ rose to speak. It was the first time he had ever done so.
Russ told us about his men's organization, and how difficult it was for them to recruit new members to carry on their mission of community service. A young man had joined several years earlier, and had only recently shared with them that he was gay. Many wanted to kick the young man out, and Russ admitted that his first reaction was similar.
But after prayerful consideration, he changed his mind. Russ realized that this young man was everything his club stood for. He was devoted to serving his community, was an enthusiastic participant in their activities, and he was respectful of others.
Russ told his colleagues that this young man was exactly the kind of person they needed in their service organization ... and, he happened to be gay. That one adjective did not define the strength of his character.
Shortly after Russ spoke, our congregation voted overwhelmingly to embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. There would be no second-class members of our congregation. All who shared our covenants with God and with one another were welcome. Fully welcome.
I would like to think that our decision had something to do with Russ' eloquent testimony. I know it did for me. But then, Russ always helped me find my way.
John Gunyou is recently retired. He lives in Minnetonka.
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