BENNINGTON — Rev. Kathleen Clark has been the pastor at The Federated Church of East Arlington for almost 15 years. She was raised Catholic. In her time in the Catholic church, “I can honestly say I don’t think I ever heard anybody talk about the possibility of inclusion” regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
That lack of inclusivity was part of the reason she left the Catholic Church to join the United Church of Christ.
Clark is one of a few pastors whose congregations make a point of reaching out to and welcoming the LGBTQ+ community.
Rev. D. Mark Blank is the Pastor at Second Congregational Church UCC in Bennington. He was born into a Methodist church that leaned towards evangelical beliefs and a literal interpretation of the Bible.
“I came to be a teenager and started struggling with my sexuality,” he said. “It was really hard.”
When he went away to college, he left the church for 10 years until he ended up a few blocks away from a UCC church. He said it was “kismet.” At that church, the pastor began each service by saying, “Whoever you are, or wherever you are in life’s journey,” and the congregation would respond, “You are welcome here.”
Blank said this helped with his religious healing. He also uses the same call and response at Second Congregational.
When it comes to incorporating the LGBTQ+ community, Clark said, “they are a vital part of our community … It’s more of a why shouldn’t they be (included) is my question and not why should they be.”
Blank acknowledged the amount of power religion has. When a church uses their beliefs to ostracize a marginalized group, he said, “I don’t mean this in the sense of hyperbolically — it’s life or death.”
“If you do not affirm and celebrate and accept (people) then you are not rescuing, transforming or redirecting anybody, except towards the box that you want to fit people into,” he said.
Blank also speaks passionately when discussing how to use the Bible to foster inclusion.
“It’s about liberation. It’s a document of literature of the oppressed … like, who do we think the Hebrews in Egypt were?”
Clark’s attitude towards anti-gay Bible verses is that people use “their own biases against gay people. They feel they can justify using the Bible as a weapon … I’m offended by that.”
In her opinion, “If it isn’t love, it isn’t God.”
Inclusion in communion
Blank and Clark have both made an effort to create an inclusive environment in their churches.
Clark said that she hasn’t come face to face with many people who are opposed to including the community because those people have either passed away, moved away or left the church when the decision to be inclusive was made.
Any hesitant members of her congregation typically become more understanding when they realize their fellow pew-mates have gay family members and children.
“It wasn’t just this vague thought, theory out there, but it was reality,” she said.
She also talks about relevant LGBTQ+ topics from the pulpit and in conversations with church members. She firmly believes that “I, as a straight person, need to be doing something” to make a positive impact for the queer community.
Blank takes a more hands on approach to inclusivity. Pentecost occurred during pride month this year and he combined two celebrations together. All of the communion servers at that service were people who identified as queer.
After the service, during fellowship, one of the queer members of the church took it upon herself to make all the food and refreshments pride themed.
He also makes sure the language and music that is used in worship are inclusive.
Sermon to the public
While Clark doesn’t like giving advice to other clergy, she does think that, if you want to be more inclusive, you should “do it with people who know what they’re talking about … there are people who’ve been trained and know how to talk about this issue and how to counter the biblical (arguments).”
Blank said other religious leaders should “talk to gay people. Listen, listen to queer people. Listen to black people, listen to women, believe them. Believe our experiences. Don’t get defensive.”
He also said there needs to be an understanding that queer people have a good reason to be wary and skeptical of religious institutions.
“No queer person owes any religious institution a relationship,” he said.
If Blank could, he would tell the members of the LGBTQ+ population who are wary of the church his story. He would also tell them that their lives matter and they have value. But most of all, he would want to listen to what they have to say.