The change taking place in religious institutions was made vividly evident at the outset of a “Progress in the Pulpit” discussion in South Orange on June 8.
Four of the seven clergy members on the interfaith panel at Congregation Beth El made it clear that they are gay themselves. They are: the Rev. Warren Hall, a priest of Archdiocese of Newark; the Rev. Janyce Jackson Jones of Unity Fellowship Church of Newark; Bishop George Lucey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi American National Catholic Church, and the Rev. Bernard Poppe of St. George’s in Maplewood.
The other three, Beth El’s Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, the Rev. Emilie Boggis of the Unitarian Church in Summit, and the Rev. Charles Rush of Christ Church in Summit, were equally clear about their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and committed to protecting children and adults from prejudice based on religious teaching or traditions.
As Olitzky put it, “If you go back 15 or 20 years, most congregations were unfriendly” to openly gay members. “Many people were rejected by their communities. Now, the only people we don’t welcome are those who use hate speech.”
The panel discussion was moderated by WNYC Radio’s Arun Venugopal, creator and host of “Micropolis,” a multi-platform series that examines race, sexuality, religion, and other issues. It was one of a week-long series of events scheduled as part of the annual New Jersey Pride Week, organized by the Maplewood-based nonprofit North Jersey Pride.
The group’s executive director, C.J. Prince, thanked the participants for “inspiring us all to push the boundaries.” She and the panelists emphasized that furthering efforts to celebrate — not just condone — different sexual orientations and gender identities is unfinished.
Boggis pointed out that even progressive clergy must overcome stereotypical thinking and learn to use acceptable gender terms.
“We adults have to do a ‘brain meld’ with our youth, to learn from them,” she said.
Clergy also need to keep spreading the message of inclusivity to more conservative colleagues and communities. “We need to have the courage to have the hard conversations,” said Rush.
Jones said that for her congregation, Unity Fellowship Church, diversity has meant welcoming straight people, and making it clear that being LGBTQ-supportive goes along with an adherence to church doctrine.
The “out and proud” group included Hall. The former director of campus ministry at Seton Hall University was dismissed last month after putting a pro-LGBTQ post on his Facebook page. He was welcomed with extra applause, and a copanelist, Bishop George Lucey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi American National Catholic Church in Glen Ridge, handed him his card afterward and invited Hall to come and discuss employment.
Missing from the scheduled line-up was Barza Hashmi, chair of the NY/NJ chapter of Muslims for Progressive Values, who had to withdraw because of a personal event.
The program included a performance by the Golden Ochtaves, the a cappella choir of the Golda Och Academy High School in West Orange, which has made a point of creating an LGBTQ-supportive environment at the school.