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Where openness is everything

By Donna Sinclair

It's Sunday evening at Emmanuel-Howard Park United Church, and the worshippers, some of them Toronto street people, are scattered among the front pews. It's more relaxed than the morning service and there are fewer here on this cold winter night, but Rev. Cheri DiNovo wears her robe and vivid preaching stole all the same.

We begin with Amazing Grace. The small, ad hoc, red- robed choir sings, not especially tunefully but with vast understanding.

Then DiNovo wonders what they would like her to talk about. "Forgiveness," someone says, and there is silence. "Forgiveness," someone else agrees, and from behind me a small voice suggests, "What is truth?"

These are not inconsequential topics, but DiNovo begins without notes or preparation. "Us in the evening," she says, "we are extra hard on ourselves. But here's what God sees when God looks at you." She launches into an extraordinary sermon, direct, personal and completely authoritative. God sees "the most beautiful child, the wisest, most wonderful, most generous person, one of a kind, a miracle," she says. "You are a miracle and God sees that when God looks at you."

We all have made mistakes, she acknowledges. But "God doesn't care," because none of us is capable of doing "anything so great as to be unforgivable." We never get told we are perfect, she says. "But you are. You are perfect."

By now I am lighter and happier than I have been all week. I am feeling at home. That's what this inner-city church is about. Radical acceptance, welcome, the deepest kind of hospitality, the openness that makes room for everyone.

It's because it has been evangelized from the outside, according to DiNovo. In her recent book, Qu(e)erying Evangelism: Growing a Community from the Outside In, she explains how people at the edge of what many congregations can tolerate transformed this one (see sidebar). Because its inclusive stance was well-known and genuine, "queers (meaning lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons) were attending and joining." And they taught everyone how to be different from the world around them. How to be queer, as the Gospel is queer (different, marginalized, other). The marvellous community they have made together welcomes even me -- straight, white, middle-class and, like everyone, yearning for acceptance.

*

Cindy Bourgeois and Joanne Nevermann sit with me at coffee after the morning service. I refer to them casually as "guys," and Nevermann corrects me gently. Not guys. Women. In fact both are members of Riot Grrlz, one of two women's groups (the other is the UCW).

Bourgeois, the church treasurer, has been coming here for about three years, during which she changed from being male to female. Although she carries herself elegantly and with pride, and was "already pretty together" when she found this church, she admits in retrospect that it was "a vulnerable time." She came on a friend's recommendation and continued because she loves the community. As others greet and consult her, it is clear this affection is mutual. "You wonder if the timing wasn't inter-related," she says. "I had to help the community with it. But I was able to be accepted all the time."

Nevermann agrees, describing one of the annual women's retreats where "we talked about" her own transition from male to female, and "it didn't change anything." Hers was simply one of the many human stories the women told each other during the weekend. Everyone is going through something, they agree. "All the people in the congregation are like other people anywhere," Nevermann says. The only thing is they are "less dogmatic."

It requires "a certain type" of minister, though, to foster "the atmosphere Cheri creates. She has been outspoken about gay rights, and performed a gay marriage before it was legal."

A minister with courage, perhaps. As DiNovo explains to me later, "We've had death threats, we've been picketed." People from outside the congregation have handed out flyers and disrupted worship. Once, some time after she had attended a pro-choice demonstration ("wearing my collar") they had their Sunday school picnic in the park, and "when we got there we were surrounded by placards of aborted fetuses. There I was talking about freedom of choice for women at the Sunday school picnic."

When she gets a threatening phone call, she hangs up, and "if it's an e-mail, I delete it."

*

More people are at the morning service than the evening one, although it's far from full. It takes 1,000 people to fill this big, lovely old building. That happened last Christmas Eve. But even the average Sunday morning sees over 200 people.

It's not hard to see why. As I shrug off my coat, a woman about my own age comes over to say hello, while others nod happily across the aisle. There are "Good mornings" all over the place. (Was I here before, I wonder, in another life?)

When DiNovo first arrived, this congregation was shrinking fast. Now it is growing. Ahead of me a Sikh family settles into a pew. At the front, a seeing-eye dog guides a man to his seat. And to my right, sunlight streams through a new stained-glass window in memory of a beloved member, a transgendered, bipolar musician named Del. She is depicted at a piano, lilies in the foreground.

This congregation was willingly changed, according to DiNovo, by the folk at the edges. What makes it possible to be Christian, but "humility, humour, openness, seeing the message of God through the other?" she asks. "These are the hallmarks of our faith."

It all makes sense to her. Raised in a "completely secular" household, she was "a street kid for most of my teen years, and knew what it was to be poor, to be despised." Her impression of churches (she explains in Qu(e)erying Evangelism) was that they were clubs of like minds, and "no such club would want me as a member," even though, in adulthood, she became a successful executive.

But she was drawn to a United Church. They were welcoming to queers, she says, and she thought "they just might welcome me." She assumed she would have to "be silent about large parts of my life." But that was not the case. They were receptive and open, and -- as one of a generation of questing people -- "we were what they needed."

Now she looks around the crowded church hall and says: "We have a Saviour whose mind was changed by a no-name woman, and we can't have our minds changed by someone who walks in the door?"

*

After evening worship, as the rich smell of lasagna -- Sunday dinner for people in need -- fills the air, I wonder about this place. Do they know what they have here? Certainly Bourgeois and Nevermann are eloquent spokespeople for the power of this community. So, in their separate ways, are the schizophrenic man who danced happily and liturgically through the junior choir's anthem in the morning, and the busker who spends his earnings on crack -- except for the one day a week he gives them to this church; the silver-haired woman who sold her inn, moved to Toronto and found this congregation; the First Nations woman who sat with me in the evening; the man behind us who asked quietly, "What is truth?"

If you came in from an entirely secular world -- and many do -- you might take such tenderness for granted. DiNovo remembers Cindy Bourgeois, at a Riot Grrlz meeting, saying that she came for the community and stayed for Christ. "This is what Cindy thinks all churches are like," DiNovo says.

Perhaps they could be. "Who is `queer' is whoever is different, in every community," DiNovo says. In an earlier pastoral charge, the "different" ones were stay-at-home moms. So the UCW created a playground there. "They sent me a photo. Now there are 50 moms and 80 children and the congregation has grown."

DiNovo suggests congregations look around. "Who are the hated, the isolated, the oppressed? Let's be welcoming to them. We want to learn from them. It's not a church unless these voices are part of the mix." *


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