STONINGTON — While Supreme Court justices debate a hotly contested issue involving a wedding cake, gay rights and claims of religious freedom, a small church in Pawcatuck proudly flies a colorful rainbow flag outside its Pequot Trail property to highlight its policy of inclusion.
The United Congregational Church of Westerly is quietly opening its doors to people of all ages, races, cultures, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, family configurations, economic circumstances, physical, cognitive or emotional abilities, education, and spiritual and religious traditions.
“We are an open and affirming church,” said the Rev. Ruth Shilling Hainsworth, the pastor at the church since 2012. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. People don’t think there are a lot of LGBTQ folks around here, but there are.”
Often, Hainsworth said, members of the LGBTQ community are “deeply quiet” about how they identify, for safety’s sake.
”Especially given the current political state,” said the ordained pastor, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2011. “There's all the more reason.”
Hainsworth said church members fly the red, orange, yellow, green, violet, indigo and blue flag outside as a sign of welcome, a sign of inclusion.
“We want to say, ‘Hey, we are here,’” she stressed. “We want people to know that this is a safe place to come.”
“A lot of LGBTQ people have been badly treated … by their churches and by their families,” Hainsworth added. “We’ve had people come here who have been kicked out of their homes. We believe God is still speaking about LGBTQ rights. God does not discriminate.”
Being “open and affirming,” continued the pastor, “is a very important part of who we are and who we are becoming.”
”Our motto is to be a beacon of hope for the community,” said the Pittsburgh native. “Together we are discerning what God’s church of the 21st century is going to be. It’s not what it has been. That is obvious.”
Hainsworth said that while she believes traditional churches will always exist, the churches destined to thrive are the ones that make a difference.
“We believe we are called to make a difference,” she said, explaining that members of the church are working at “trying to discern what needs aren’t being met” and asking “how can we meet and empower people.”
”We are working very hard to be outside these four walls,” Hainsworth added, describing the church and its members as “outwardly focused.”
Hainsworth, while listing the vibrant ministries at the church, said members of the United Congregational Church of Westerly are actively involved in many community projects and regularly collaborate with and contribute to the WARM Center, the Jonnycake Center of Westerly and the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center.
Those of all faiths — or of no faith at all — are welcome to attend the church and are invited to become involved, Hainsworth said.
In fact, she added, taking a quick tour by a table full of unusual baskets left over from last week’s successful Christmas Bazaar — all wrapped, themed, full of goodies and ready to go — many of the volunteers involved in the popular annual sale are not members of the church. But they’re all part of the church’s mission, welcoming people “where they are.”
Nonmembers are also involved in other church activities, like the annual Almost Iron Chef cooking competition, the Homelessnes Awareness Vigil in January, the Valentine Tea, the Attic Treasures indoor yard sale, and the pollinator gardens.
The garden, she explained, is the church’s biggest community project, and volunteers are actively being sought.
“It’s part of our eco-justice ministry project,” she said, “designed to increase awareness of the fragility of the web of life, beginning with some of the tiniest of God’s creatures."
The vision for the garden, she said, is to foster a public space where all people feel welcome to visit for contemplation and prayer and to connect with “the beauty of God’s creation: the fragile, interdependent ecosystem of unsung heroes” like birds, butterflies, bees, and bugs “critical to the web of life, and the flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees that sustain them.”
A labyrinth is also in the works, she added.
Located on Castle Hill Road, the church — a one-of-a-kind building — was built in 1968 but has roots back to the Colonial days and the founding of America.
”We are the church of the pilgrims … Congregationalists are modern-day pilgrims,” said Hainsworth with a smile as she sat in the church one afternoon last week dressed in a red holiday sweater adorned with two pins: a small Christmas wreath and rainbow ribbon, a symbol of LGBTQ unity. “We strive to be a sensitive, safe and nurturing community.
The current congregation was united in 1964 by the merging of two local churches — the Broad Street Christian Church in Westerly, housed at what is now the Granite Theatre, and the Pawcatuck Congregational Church.
”The United Congregational Church was the first mainline Protestant church to ordain an openly gay man … in 1974,” said Hainsworth. “We have always been leaders in all the social justice movements.”
Becoming officially approved as an “Open and Affirming Church” is no simple process, said Hainsworth, who lives in East Providence and commutes to work. It is a deliberate process that takes time and thought.
“First you have to draft a statement,” Hainsworth said, a job that was initially undertaken by the church’s Open and Affirming Committee. Once the draft is approved, the committtee organizes a forum where the statement is discussed before it is sent to the entire congregation for approval.
The full congregation of United Congregational Church of Westerly approved the statement, she said.
“We are following in Christ’s footsteps, quite literally,” said the pastor. “We are trying to meet people where they are instead of telling them where they should be.”
Claire Calabretta of Ledyard, a member of the church’s board of deacons who also serves on the mission and pollinator committees, has been a member of the church for about 20 years.
“I am excited to be part of a church that welcomes people ‘to the table’ regardless of faith background, questions about God, sexual orientation, or any other potential barrier,” she said. “We welcome anyone seeking a closer relationship with God through a faith community.”
“I love the UCC’s motto,” added Calabretta. “No matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey, you are welcome here.”