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Why the big deal over church's ad?

THE UNITED Church of Christ began airing a television commercial nationwide on Dec. 1 to convey the message that all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance, or sexual orientation will find a welcome in the church.

The ad features two "bouncers" standing guard outside an unidentified church and selecting which persons are permitted to attend worship. Persons of color, a man in a wheelchair, and a gay couple are turned away. A written text interrupts the selection process, announcing, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." A narrator then proclaims the UCC's commitment to Jesus' extravagant welcome: "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." How controversial is that?

Well, it must be, for I have seen people weep in relief and joy at the message of welcome proclaimed in this 30-second commercial.

It must be, because the CBS and NBC networks have refused to run the ad. "Too controversial," said NBC. CBS went further: "Because the commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations and the fact that the Executive Branch has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."

In an extraordinary leap of imagination, CBS has reinvented an ad that expresses a wide and varied welcome into a referendum on equal marriage.

Let's set the record straight. At the heart of our campaign is an effort to reach out to those who feel alienated from God and disaffected from the church. The ads were created in response to focus groups held across the country. We invited unchurched people (some had once been churched, others had never been) to talk about their experience and/or perception of church. The overwhelming majority expressed negative feelings, claiming that churches (of every ilk) are judgmental, archaic and make you dress and think a certain way.

The good news is that many of these people expressed a willingness to come to church -- or come back -- if they are invited, made to feel welcome, and given good information without judgment. Our campaign is designed to extend a welcome to them.

This is not the first time the United Church of Christ has ignited controversy by offering an extravagant welcome to the disenfranchised. We were the first mainline tradition to ordain an African-American to Christian ministry (1785), the first to open the doors of higher education to women (1833), the first in the modern era to ordain a woman to ministry (1853), and the first to ordain an openly gay person (1972).

None of these "firsts" was achieved without controversy, pain, and struggle. Additionally, in each case controversy existed both in society and within the church itself. Christians argued long and hard, over decades and centuries -- and are still arguing -- over the full inclusion of groups that had been, or are still, deemed inferior or unsuitable.

This remains true in the UCC today, as not all of our own churches embrace this ad campaign. Half of UCC churches in Massachusetts support the campaign (210 out of 420) and, nationwide, over one-third of UCC congregations do (over 2,000 out of 6,000).

In a case with many parallels to the current controversy, in 1959 the UCC organized its members to monitor the racist practices of WLBT, a television station in Jackson, Miss. The station refused to show people of color (including Thurgood Marshall) and instituted a news blackout of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. asked the UCC to help. Eventually, we won a federal court ruling declaring that the airwaves are public, not private, property. That decision ultimately led to an increase in the number of persons of color in newsrooms and television studios.

In the midst of this controversy I am reminded that Jesus remains among the most controversial figures in history. He taught a counter-cultural message, and welcomed outcasts, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreign women, and unclean outsiders. He invited us to love our enemies as he broke the social and religious conventions of his time. He gathered a unconventional and, frankly, controversial community of followers.

It is in that spirit that over half of the UCC congregations in Massachusetts stand by the message of our ad: No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.

Nancy S. Taylor is minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. 

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