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Gays welcome outreach by churches

Cite Unitarians for efforts to end prejudice

Support by the region's Unitarian Universalist churches has played an important role in helping area gays feel less isolated and more at home in the region, organizers of the second annual South Shore Gay Pride Parade in Plymouth said.

South Shore Pride, a volunteer organization that promotes acceptance and respect for gays and lesbians, held its second annual parade Saturday in Plymouth. The event, which drew about two dozen marchers, fewer than last year, included an interfaith service at Plymouth's First Parish Church, a march through the town center, and a picnic with entertainment by singer-songwriter Nedra Johnson.

''Historically, people came to Plymouth looking for their freedom," said Abby Diamond-Kissiday, South Shore Pride's chairwoman, who said the town was chosen for the event because of its historical associations. ''We're basically like everyone else: your neighbors, your police, your cousins, your family members."

But on the road to being seen ''like everyone else," some gay and lesbian residents of the area have found welcome assistance in Unitarian Universalist churches.

Over a decade ago, a number of area parishes began establishing Welcoming Congregation committees, adopting a national Unitarian Universalist Association initiative to educate its members on prejudices against gays and lesbians -- and make sure all felt welcome and respected in their churches.

''We are aware that gays and lesbians do not always feel they find a welcome at all places of worship, and we wanted to be sure they would find a welcome here," said the Rev. Ken Read-Brown, minister of the Old Ship Church, First Parish Hingham, where Diamond-Kissiday is a member.

He said his church began eight to 10 years ago to hold forums on the issue, with the purpose of ''changing our way of looking at things, to become educated, to increase our diversity." The result is that gay members are ''a routine part of who we are," Read-Brown said. The welcoming program benefits the whole congregation, he said, including helping parents of gays and lesbians to find it easier to talk about their children in free and open ways.

Diamond-Kissiday became a member of Old Ship Church, whose welcoming committee held social events and lectures, hosted the parish potluck supper, and offered programs of purely practical benefit, such as a workshop on what married gay couples needed to know about filing their tax returns. Diamond-Kissiday and her partner were married in the church.

The Rev. Eric Cherry, minister at the Unity Church of North Easton, said there is nothing controversial about sexual orientation in his congregation, where 30 to 40 percent of the members are gay. The Unitarian Universalist church's decision to be active in welcoming gays, he said, stems from a deeply held religious principle: ''Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person." The decision ''to put its faith in action" has not only increased diversity within the congregation, but fostered greater acceptance within the larger community, he said.

First Parish in Plymouth began its Welcoming Congregation program 12 years ago, said Deborah Rudolph, its Parish Committee chairwoman, who proposed holding the gay pride parade in Plymouth last year.

''In terms of creating a supportive spiritual home for gay and lesbians people, the church started doing that work a long time ago," Rudolph said. The program helped break down ''a really terrible sense of isolation on the South Shore," she said. ''It was an effort to help people find each other, and not feel so alone down here."

The First Unitarian Universalist Society in Middleborough was the first area congregation to adopt the welcoming program, according to Rudolph, who said she and fellow First Parish member Sandra Wilbur took a look at its program and and brought it back to Plymouth. They began a women's support group and held educational programs for the whole congregation, including a regular Friday night film series. A gay men's group followed and still meets weekly.

No Place for Hate groups in towns such as Plymouth and Duxbury have recognized anti-gay prejudice as a local issue in recent years, and marched in Saturday's gay pride parade, building support for the local gay community, Rudolph said.

When the gay marriage issue came up last year, ''it caught a lot of people by surprise" and caused controversies in many churches, Rudolph said. First Parish in Plymouth, however, was among those issuing a statement of support.

''In our congregation people have been hearing the word 'gay' for a long time, " she said. ''You learn the stereotypes about gays don't match reality if it becomes a part of your life."

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox@gmail.com.

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