“Perch-coo, coo, coo.”

“Perch-coo, coo, coo.”

This gentle, repeated cooing sound is one of the most powerful memories of my childhood.

But for most of my formative years, I was wrong about these birds.

I was most often awakened by these gentle creatures in the morning. So, when as a child people said to me these birds were ‘mourning doves’ I heard ‘morning doves.’

It wasn’t until deep into my adolescence and having a few experiences of grief, that the cooing of the mourning doves took on a different meaning altogether.

I saw them differently.

I experienced them differently.

They were even more precious than before.

They were now multidimensional.

Over time, the morning/mourning doves outside of my window became an audible and visual reminder to me of God’s presence.

God’s presence on every bright filled expectant morning.

God’s presence on days that mourning greeted me.

God’s presence every day.

Morning and mourning, and the interplay of both in the life of faith, are the best way to describe how First UMC in Holland, Michigan, came to develop an interactive prayer station, a Service of Atonement, and personal testimony videos, to accompany the Reconciling Ministry Toolkit process.

Early in the process, the Core team attended one-to-one visits, gathered information about the history of this faith community, and began discussing a very challenging time in the history of LGBTQ+ inclusion at First. As we became aware of this pain, it made us pause. It made us wonder and think about what it might look like to tend to these deep wounds that, although many years had passed, still had their hold and presence in the system of this faith community.

It made us consider if we are to greet the new morning of inclusion and identity as a Reconciling Congregation, what kind of mourning needed to happen first?

From these conversations and attention to the emotional system, grew the idea of hosting a Service of Atonement so that we could accurately name the hurt and grief still present and work towards a path of forgiveness and healing. We also wanted to provide a platform so that people could individually, and also as a faith community, say that we were sorry for the ways in which LGBTQ+ persons and community have been harmed by our church. In this very moving and touching service led by the then Core team, we asked for forgiveness and prayed for reconciliation with the LGBTQ+ community.

In preparation for this service, we constructed an interactive art/prayer installation created out of doors that walked a person through interacting with and praying through Acts 16:16-26 (the story of how Paul and Silas were imprisoned and how, as they prayed and sang, their chains were broken). This scripture was chosen because it presented what happens to us when we wear chains of exclusion and how God’s desire is for those to be broken and for all of us to be set free in God’s all-encompassing, completely inclusive love.

This scripture was then woven together with the visual imagery of the doors that represented how our church doors have been closed to the LGBTQ+ community. In each of the three stations, people moved from naming the discrimination and pain the church or they individually had caused LGBTQ+ persons (Station 1), to receive God’s love and forgiveness (Station 2), to then being invited to participate in inclusion by helping to create a cross created with nails and rubber bands to emphasize Christ’s desire for us to be interconnected and woven together (Station 3).

Over the course of time, it was very powerful to witness the chains growing on Station 1 as people named the harm and also to see the cross evolve as participants embraced inclusion. Some folks participated before or after service, but it was not uncommon to find an individual going through them on their own.

At the Service of Atonement, we invited those participating to come to cut the paper chains on Station 1 as a visual demonstration of this new day, albeit imperfectly, that we are living into at Holland First. As long as I live, I will not forget the power of seeing those chains falling to the floor as those present sang the song Welcome Table by Alice Walker.

In addition to these two invitations to participate in the work of healing, we also felt the need for people to share their personal stories and desire for LGBTQ+ inclusion via videos that were then shown in worship and posted on our church’s website. These heartfelt videos, which focused on relationships more than anything, became another tool to witness to love.    

We at Holland First are now in the part of the Reconciling process in which we are awaiting the final results of our survey. As we engage this dance of justice and relational work, knowing fully that we are just at the beginning of it, I give thanks to the One for the opportunity to serve in this context in this time. I pray we greet the new morning/mourning at Holland First as a Reconciling Congregation this year.

Rev. Tania Dozeman, LPC

Associate Pastor, First UMC Holland, MI

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