May 23, 2023

The Power Of A Name

As anyone who has grown up with a “weird” name can attest, getting a name right is a very powerful thing. We spend our childhoods with even grown-ups, who are supposed to be able to pronounce all the things, getting our names wrong. Every Sunday, I debated whether I should correct my pastor when he called me “Doria,” which certainly wasn’t my name. I sometimes considered not responding, “Here,” when substitute teachers called out “Darla Schaffer” or “David Schaffnik.” It didn’t help that one of my friends was named “Daria,” as well, but pronounced her name as though the “Dar” rhymed with “stair” rather than “star,” which mine is. We still giggle about confusing folks. Our classmates sometimes (or often) tease us because of our names. I can easily think of a bunch of names from my childhood for which their owners got grief–Coltrane, Twilight, Mocha, Rashonda–and more. I also think of the difficulties people with “ethnic” names (well, but only the DeShawns and Jamals, not so much the Svens and Pierres) have getting a job interview–in one study done by 20/20 in 2015, those with Black-sounding names had their resumes downloaded 17% less than those with White-sounding names.

A name is at the very heart of who we are. There are many biblical characters whose names are key to the story. Adam and Eve, whose names mean, literally, “earth” and “life,” Abram and Sarai, who receive new names in connection with God’s covenant with them, their son, Isaac, named “he laughs” after his mother’s laughter at the idea that she was going to become a mother, Jacob, who becomes Israel after wrestling with God. I could continue, but you get the point. People routinely take new names to mark changes in their identity–when being confirmed in some traditions, when entering a religious order, when getting married or divorced, when coming out as transgender, when embarking on a career in which having a certain name may help (such as an actor or author), when converting to a different religion. A name is important for a business or a church or any other organization, too. Much thought and care goes into whether to call a church Fearless Church or St. Lydia’s Church or Revolution Church or First Presbyterian Church. These names call to mind entirely different things.

So, too, can titles adopted by churches. Every church I’ve been part of while it has gone through the “Open and Affirming” process has proclaimed itself a welcoming church to people from the LGBTQ+ community. In every one of them, I have heard, from at least a couple of people, “We already welcome everybody! All people have to do is come in and they will see we are welcoming. Why do we have to become ONA?” In an ideal world, there would be no need to designate oneself as “ONA” to affirm one’s welcoming stance. If a church said, “All are welcome” or “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” or “Jesus loves everyone and so do we,” members of the LGBTQ+ community, and those who love them, could trust that all truly means all. It would be safe to assume that “welcome” means “not only may you attend and give us your money, but you will be fully included and not have to fear attempts to persuade you that expressing who you are is wrong.” I don’t know any person in the LGBTQ+ community who trusts “all are welcome” applies to them, unless there is an explicit welcome for them, such as an ONA designation and statement, a rainbow flag flying out front, an openly LGBTQ+ pastor, a church presence celebrating at the Pride Festival, or something along those lines. For a church which is truly welcoming, getting the name right is crucial. Tackling the question of “To ONA or not?” is crucial. Without that designation, many will simply bypass the church, unwilling to risk exposing themselves to spiritual harm. A church that is unwilling to adopt a title that reflects who they truly are is probably not as welcoming as it believes itself to be. As Mary did not recognize the resurrected Jesus until he said her name, LGBTQ+ people may very well not recognize his Church without hearing their names spoken aloud and with love.

If your church has not yet gone through the process, you might consider it, especially if your church prides itself on welcoming all people. There is tremendous power in a name. I can tell you, as a Daria, if I find something that bears my name, I am always tempted to buy it, even if it’s not something I would ordinarily buy or something I need, simply because it’s so exciting to find something with my name on it. When my wife and I have been seeking churches in the many places we’ve lived, we have always visited all the ONA churches in the area, even if they didn’t entirely fit what we were looking for in a church, even if they weren’t conveniently close to home. Having been on many hunts for a new church, I can tell you that ONA churches are still rather shockingly few and far between. In fact, as recently as 2020, only 32.6% of churches in the UCC, one of the denominations most known for being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, were ONA.

As we move into Pride Month with the imminent arrival of June, I celebrate this denomination’s early adoption of full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. As far back as 1972, we ordained an openly gay man. In 2005, we adopted a resolution on marriage equality, entering a lawsuit against North Carolina on the subject in 2014. In 2022, UCC leaders issued a pastoral letter regarding trans/nonbinary identity.S We have achieved a great deal. There is also a great deal more to be done. Shoulders to the wheel and rainbows waving high!

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