Church ad emphasizes God's love of gays
By Deb Price / The Detroit News from the Web, December 26, 2004
Three years ago, the message on a postcard in a Los Angeles shop grabbed Ron Buford's attention:
"Never place a period where God has placed a comma."
Comedian George Burns found that instruction in papers his wife and sidekick, Gracie Allen, left for him when she died.
For Buford, the simple rule was a powerful wakeup call -- literally. It jolted him awake at 3 a.m.
Suddenly, the public relations manager for the United Church of Christ, a denomination whose roots go back to the Pilgrims, found himself reciting words from the final sermon before the Mayflower sailed for
America: "Oh God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word."
Inspired by his progressive denomination's belief that God's message for all mankind is continually unfolding, Buford distilled that 17th-century prayer and Allen's TV-age guidance down to their bumpersticker-sized essence:
"God is still speaking."
The United Church of Christ quickly embraced that good news slogan as a godsend for its work in the world:
Sharing God's inclusive love by rolling out a welcome mat for all people -- no exceptions.
Now, through miraculously good timing, the UCC's message of comfort, acceptance and welcome has aired as ads on national TV at the very moment that countless millions of Americans felt traumatized by November's election results and body-slammed by religious groups that equate voting Republican with being a good Christian.
The ad shows a fierce-looking bouncer picking who can come into a church -- driving home the point that God's house ought not be treated like an exclusive club.
Then, the UCC assures viewers, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."
UCC spokesman Robert Chase says, "We view the Bible as a living document. And the history of our church is a reflection of that."
Believing God calls the church to bring Christian teachings to bear on social injustices, the UCC battled to end slavery.
And it was the first mainstream, predominantly white denomination to ordain a black minister, a woman and a gay man.
Now, UCC is delighted that its controversial ad -- two TV networks rejected it for being gay-friendly -- is bringing alienated Christians back into the pews just in time to celebrate the joy of Christmas.
Before creating the ad, UCC conducted focus groups to find out why so many people of faith had stopped going to any church.
Again and again, ex-churchgoers described how they'd been made to feel unwelcome:
They wore the wrong clothes. They were of a different racial or ethnic background.
They didn't have much money. They were single moms, disabled, emotionally needy or gay.
The list went on and on.
"It was very alarming and disturbing to me as a lifelong religious professional to witness the profound hurt and sense of rejection that people in those focus groups expressed," the Rev. Chase recalls.
So the UCC, which had been searching for a way to introduce itself to Americans unfamiliar with its progressive outlook, seized on the theme of hospitality -- echoing Jesus' extravagant welcome to all.
And a hand-holding gay couple was among the would-be church-goers that UCC's ad depicted as being rejected elsewhere.
"Folks try to make (the UCC TV ad) a gay issue. But it's also about racial justice, the poor, and people with disabilities," Chase explains.
"That's what captivates people -- they read themselves into the script, 'God is still
Thanks to the millions of dollars' worth of free publicity generated by the networks' rejection of UCC's all-inclusive message, believers who had no church home are discovering that a UCC congregation is a place where they can feel welcome.
If you're old enough to have rediscovered a belief in miracles, it's not hard to have faith that God is indeed still speaking.
Gracie Allen was right.
You can reach Deb Price at (202) 906-8205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.