Prairie Pride is a series by Local Journalism Initiative reporter Julia Peterson that celebrates queer life in rural Saskatchewan. Visit thestarphoenix.com/prairiepride to read more.
Nora Vedress has vivid memories of being a teenager in 1988, when the United Church of Canada was debating ‘the issue:’ Could gay and lesbian people be ordained?
“I remember the anger and the fears — oh, that has stayed with me,” said Vedress. “I remember my mom in the car as we were driving home from this meeting, and she was crying.
“She wasn’t crying about ‘the issue,’ which is what they called it. She told me she was crying because God is love, and we either believe that or we don’t. There’s no in between.”
For Vedress, now the minister at Calvary United Church in Prince Albert, her mother’s words have guided her as she works on making her church a welcoming, inclusive place for LGBTQ2S+ community members.
A decade ago, she led Calvary United’s first Pride service.
“That was a really scary time for the church, and for me, personally,” she said. “The anger and the hate mail and the threats we got were palpable, and I was worried.”
But in the face of that resistance, Vedress said something extraordinary happened — the church community in Prince Albert stepped up with full-throated support.
“There was this moment when the church decided — you know what? This is who we are, and this is important for our community. We need to stand together,” she said.
“It was an amazing thing where even people that I knew weren’t necessarily affirming, who had lots of questions and lots of concerns and all this history of being taught homophobic lessons, came and said ‘I don’t know exactly where I stand, but I know I don’t stand with this anger and this hatred. And if that feels wrong, then this must be right.’ ”
From that point on — and after the service went ahead as planned and “no lightning struck” — Vedress says they've never looked back.
“It was a really profound shifting of the tide for this congregation,” she said.
Since then, she says more young families have joined the church, because they feel like this is a good place to raise their kids.
Building safe and supportive places for kids to grow up, where they will be able to explore and become their full selves, has been a priority for many churches throughout the province.
At First United Church in Swift Current — where community members have just finished painting the church steps rainbow colours in advance of Swift Current’s upcoming Pride celebrations — minister Annette Taylor said it was important for the church to send a loud, welcoming message to LGBTQ2S+ people in the area.
“When we first started (the process of becoming an affirming church), we recognized that the LGBTQ2S+ youth in Swift Current needed to know that there was a safe place — and so did the adults, but at the time, we were thinking more of the youth,” she said. “I mean, we have people in our congregation who have family members who lived here as gay teens, and who no longer live here.
“There’s a reason for that. And so we knew there was a need.”
At Humboldt’s Westminster United Church, young people have led the effort to make it a more queer-positive space.
“We had quite a bunch of youth who were attending conferences and gathering between 2008 and 2016,” said Allison Sarauer, chair of Westminster United’s Affirm team, which works on making the church more inclusive. “They were finding out more and more about being affirming, so we found out more, as the youth were coming back from these conferences and talking about these things.”
When Sarauer’s own child came out, she started to notice even more ways that “this could be a safer space, if we were intentional about it.”
“We’re working on being more aware of what the barriers are to people who might come into our community or into our church, and why people might think they don’t belong,” she said. “How can we address that? That’s not the way churches are supposed to be. God’s love is for everyone, and we have to work at living that out.”
This year Westminster United’s minister Brenda Curtis led a Pride service focused on the intersections of queerness, Christianity and rural life.
“It’s important to me that people feel safe and be able to fully bring their gifts into the life and culture of a small community,” said Curtis. “It’s gospel, right? It was Jesus who welcomed everyone — so it’s gospel. It’s part of who we are as a Christian community to welcome our neighbours and build our community.
“It’s a Christian imperative for us to do that.”
To welcome people means so much more than just allowing them in the door.
“One of the important things, at the very beginning, is not ignoring the reality of transgender and queer people when they come into the church,” said La Ronge United Church minister Janae Brownley. “To me, that’s like whitewashing — to say that as long as we whitewash out that person’s identity as transgender or queer, then we can live with them. So don’t ever say anything about it. Don’t ask questions.”
Instead, for Brownley — a trans woman herself — it all comes back to love and deep appreciation for every member of the community.
“It’s about celebrating,” she said. “If you’re just looking for acceptance, that’s not much of a goal. But celebration is a goal that has some life to it.
“So we really need to love each other, and I don’t mean a kind of half-hearted love. We need to be in love with each other.”
Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix