Radical Welcome

A sermon by Zr. Alex Kapitan

I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist for thirty-four years now, ever since my parents joined a UU church outside Milwaukee, when I was six. My dad is the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, and my mom was raised a devout atheist in small-town Wisconsin. The family joke is that when they became UU, my dad’s family all said, “oh no, he’s lost religion,” and my mom’s family all said, “oh no, she’s found religion!”

I’m so grateful my parents joined my home church. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I was taught to honor my own truth. I came to believe that living our faith meant working to make the world a better place and fighting oppression. And as a queer and trans person, I was able to grow up without any sense that these deep truths about myself were at odds with my faith.

In fact, I credit being raised UU to a large degree with my ability to be the person I am today, my full, authentic, queer, genderqueer, gender fluid, flamboyantly masculine and feminine all at one time, neither here nor there, Mary-Martin-as-Peter-Pan, bowtie-flashing, motorcycle riding, roller derby playing, femme boy self.

And yet. Even though I was raised here, in Unitarian Universalism, even though this religion has given me so much—I have never found a church home. You see, not actively making it harder for me to be myself in the world was not enough for me to feel a sense of unconditional welcome and belonging in my church as I grew into adulthood. Nor have I felt that way in any of the dozens of UU churches I’ve been to since. I’ve never felt like any of them were places where I could be my whole self and fully get my spiritual needs met.


Well before I answer that question, I want to talk to you a little about welcome, and what it means to be a Welcoming Congregation.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Welcoming Congregation Program is a UU program for congregations to intentionally increase their welcome and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. This church was first recognized as a Welcoming Congregation exactly twenty-three years ago, in June 2001, which is awesome.

Now, I want to let you in on a little secret. When a lot of churches first went through this program, they often focused on “those people.” They talked about welcome as if it’s something “we” need to do for “them.” But here’s the secret: Being a Welcoming Congregation isn’t about “them.” It’s about “us.” It’s about what our definition of “us” is. And. It’s about what we are willing to do to expand that definition.

The program was started in 1990 because of a shocking recognition that our denomination’s values around welcome were not being practiced when it came to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that were ingrained in of our larger culture were unconsciously mirrored in our congregations. We didn’t think that LGB people were really a part of “us.” Non-straight people were “them.”

We learned that real welcome takes hard work. It takes actively fighting the messages we are taught by our larger culture about what—and who—is “normal” and “right” and most valuable, and it also takes transforming the idea that “we” are straight—that heterosexuality is the default for our community.

Back in the ’80s, we thought of ourselves as one of the good religions, one of the ones that didn’t condemn gay people. After all, we’d been ordaining LGB people for years and had even passed a resolution supporting same-sex services of union. Gay, lesbian, and bi people were welcome in our congregations. But as a collective whole, most UUs still had an expectation that their kids would grow up to be straight. That their minister would be straight. LGB people weren’t bad and wrong, but they were still “them,” not “us.”

You see, the transformation that we were invited into wasn’t from “gay people are bad” to “gay people are not bad”—it was from “gay people are them” to“gay people are us.” It was from “we welcome gay people” to “we are people of all sexual orientations.” Do you feel the difference?

At its best, being a Welcoming Congregation invites us to practice redefining our understanding of who “we” are—who we consider to be “one of us.” It offers us the chance to see this practice as part of our purpose as a community—growing our understanding of “us” wider and wider until eventually every living thing is “us” and there is no longer any “them.” Can you imagine that?

My friends, I can’t find a church because I have never found a UU congregation where I felt like I was fully part of the “us.” I’ve never found a UU church where I felt like all of who I am can shine, where my spirit can be fully fed, where my gifts can be truly received.

And I’m not alone. Despite more than three decades of the Welcoming Congregation Program, which was expanded in 1999 to explicitly include trans people, according to a recent denomination-wide survey, 72% of trans UUs don’t feel fully included in our congregations. 72%.

This is not because the average UU congregation is actively hateful or unfriendly to trans people. But there’s more to welcome than friendliness. The truth is, the entire three decades that I’ve been a UU, Unitarian Universalism has told the world, and has told me, that LGBTQ people are welcome here, but that entire time, I have experienced that welcome as conditional.

My whole life, I’ve known that I could attend any UU congregation and not be actively rejected, as long as I wore certain clothes and said certain things and acted in a certain way. I’ve known that I could be openly queer and trans, as long as I didn’t get too demanding about my basic needs around pronouns and bathrooms. I’ve known that because I’m white, and college-educated, and nondisabled, I can appear to fit in, in a way that many of my people can’t. I’ve known that because of this, people would be friendly to me. But that’s not the welcome I need. I need a welcome that isn’t conditional. I need a welcome that goes beyond friendliness, goes beyond tolerance or acceptance. I need a welcome that’s celebratory. A welcome that transforms hearts.

And my friends, my heart is heavy. Because I don’t just want to find a home myself. I want Unitarian Universalism to be the saving power in my people’s lives that I know it can be. I want to be able to tell Black trans women, and LGBTQ asylum seekers, and struggling nonbinary youth, that they can go to their local UU congregation and find healing, and strength, and resilience to keep up the fight for survival in a culture that is trying to annihilate them. But I can’t. Because I can’t trust that their local congregation will even be safe for them, much less a place of resilience.

The worst part is how much my people need this right now. We are living in a truly terrifying, life-threatening time for trans people. Conservative political actors have decided that trans people are their elections-winning wedge issue of the moment, led by a far-right fringe that speaks openly about their goal to eradicate transness. Five years ago, in 2019, there were twenty anti-trans bills proposed in state legislatures nationwide. Last year there were almost 600, in almost every U.S. state. This year there have been 600 more. Half the states in our country have now banned best practice medical care for trans youth and have banned trans youth from participating in sports, among scores of other new laws. Trans people now meet the UN’s criteria for internally displaced refugees. 

I need to know that the religion that has told me and the rest of the world that LGBTQ people belong here—I need to know that my religion has our backs and will do the work that it takes to become places of belonging for us in this moment. And yet I constantly hear from trans and nonbinary UUs that they feel the opposite of belonging. That they have to steel themselves in UU spaces for invasive questions, or intolerant or ignorant comments, or resistance to the things they need in order to feel seen and whole.

Back in the ’80s, UUs believed that simply being friendly to gay people was enough. But it wasn’t. Straight UUs needed to do the work to unlearn all the things that made them think of gay UUs as the “other.” As abnormal. They needed to do the work to challenge, in themselves and in each other, the messages they had received about gay people from mainstream media—that gay people are a threat to children, that all gay people have AIDS, that being gay is a curse to be ashamed of and hide. That gay people shouldn’t “flaunt” their sexuality.

It’s been forty years, but the same messages are on the rise again—they are just primarily targeting trans people now. What do you believe about gender? Do you think there are only two sexes? Do you think that men are naturally more agressive and women are naturally more nurturing? How do you feel when you see someone whose gender is unclear to you? What were you taught about the “proper” ways for men and women to behave? What have you heard about trans women playing sports, and health care for trans children and youth? How do you feel about pronouns?

It makes sense that a lot of people have questions and assumptions about these things. How could we not? These are the pressing questions that we have to actively engage with if we are serious about welcome. Trans people challenge the social contracts we all inherited, the rules we were taught, the things that fall into the “that’s just the way things are” category—just like just like gay, lesbian, and bi people did forty years ago.

The truth is – queer people still challenge these things, too. Remember how I talked about the conditional welcome I’ve experienced in Unitarian Universalism? A welcome that feels dependent on things like how I dress, how I talk, how I act—a welcome that’s related to things like race, and class, and ability? The truth is, the Welcoming Congregation Program helped a lot of people widen the circle of belonging and their definition of “us” a tiny bit, to include “gay people like us”—that is, gay people who looked and dressed and acted a certain way. But the more ways people don’t line up with the assumptions and expectations about who “we” are, the harder it is for us to feel like we belong. If you’re gay and white and have a PhD and a house and a monogamous relationship, it’s a lot easier to feel welcome in most UU spaces than if you’re bisexual and Middle Eastern and have a GED and rent a room and practice consensual nonmonogamy, right?

This is why my best friend Rev. Mykal Slack and I created the program that this congregation is planning to engage with this coming fall. It’s called Trans Inclusion in Congregations, but it’s about so much more than trans inclusion. For years, as trans UU leaders, Mykal and I were asked to come teach UU churches about trans people. People wanted to understand all the vocabulary. They wanted to learn what the right things to say were. They wanted to feel a sense of mastery over this new, unfamiliar terrain.

And we got really tired, because although, as educators, we love helping people understand things, going around doing trans 101 trainings wasn’t changing the things that keep us from finding a UU home. It was helping a lot of people feel like they intellectually understood trans people. But they still joyously sang songs about brothers and sisters, and continued to misgender every single youth who came out as trans or non-binary within the congregation, and didn’t make any changes to their women’s group or their annual men’s retreat. Their welcome was still conditional on trans UUs looking a certain way, speaking a certain way, acting a certain way, and honestly being willing to betray parts of ourselves in order to fit in.

So we created a program that helps people really engage with the depth of what’s required if we are serious about welcome. It takes you on a journey, starting with the theological grounding for welcome, our denomination and this congregation’s gender history, and your own experience of gender. We offer expansive frameworks for how to understand gender and sexuality, talk about the lived experiences of trans people of many different races, abilities, ages, classes, and sexualities, and discuss trans spirituality. The program ends with a conversation about culture, about the difference between understanding welcome as a superficial “friendliness” and understanding welcome as a spiritual practice that transforms your heart, and about how to shift the culture of your congregation to be radically welcoming to all who are currently here and all who want to be here. 

I want everyone who needs Unitarian Universalism to be able to feel a sense of home here. I want all of us—no matter who we are, no matter what experiences and identities we carry that the world has shamed us for or taught us are wrong or unwelcome—to be able to feel a sense of home here. I want all of us to be able to come to church without having to brace ourselves for the pain of people denying or resisting or ignoring or downplaying our needs.I want us to feel like we can bring all of who we are forward and be celebrated for doing so.

Do you want this too? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust that you do. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that I’m not the only one here who is yearning to experience radical welcome—a welcome that is not conditional. I know I’m not the only one here who has felt the need to leave certain parts of myself behind, who has felt pressured to look, or talk, or act in ways that make me appear to fit in, in order to feel a sense of belonging here.

I know I’m not the only one who knows that in order to survive this world, this dominant U.S. culture of division and intolerance and violence and environmental destruction, we need spaces like this one to be more than simply friendly. We need spaces like this one to be places where we can unlearn the judgments and assumptions and biases that have soaked into us from wider society, and practice healing the divisions that are tearing our communities — and our world — and our very souls — apart. We need spaces like this one to constantly redefine our definition of “us,” drawing an ever-widening circle across lines of gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, neurotype, age, language, nationality, substance use, mental health, family structure, belief, and more, so that none of us ever feel like we have to leave any parts of ourselves behind in order to feel like we belong. 

What do you think? Are you in? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that you are already on the path. That the good people of this congregation have drawn the circle wider again and again over the years, and are eager to draw it wider still. I know this is a space that has the potential to be radically welcoming.

If you’re eager and willing and want to gain some new tools and skills for being radically welcoming, I hope you’ll consider taking the Transforming Hearts Collective’s program this fall. I also hope that in the meanwhile you’ll ponder both the ways you are longing for greater welcome for yourself and your loved ones here, and also the ways you personally need help to widen the circle of who “we” are here, in your own mind and heart. 

Being a Welcoming Congregation is not a static identity, any more than being an ally is. It’s not a sign you can put up or a box you can check or a statement you can make. Because being a Welcoming Congregation isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Because welcome is a verb. It’s an action. It’s a spiritual practice. One that never ends.

So, I hope I can count on you to join me in the spiritual practice of radical welcome. Because it is truly one of the most holy, heart-transforming, and world-changing things that we can do together.

Amen. Ashe. Aho. and blessed be.

Additional Resources

To see the full sermon, click above.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

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