Open and affirming
Pastor Ray Bagnuolo
Church of Sayville
Three flags fly in front of the United Congregational Church of Sayville: a POW, rainbow and American flag.
“One day, we’ll only need one flag,” said Sayville UCC pastor Ray Bagnuolo.
Bagnuolo discussed the UCC’s premise since 1957. “No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”
The church has openly embraced social issues, including securing 693 crosses and seven Star of David markers on its front lawn, a sober honoring of those who have died from random shootings.
In light of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots prompted by an aggressive police raid on a gay club for which New York City police commissioner James O’Neill issued a public apology last Thursday, and Patchogue’s Alive After Five Pride theme on June 27, Bagnuolo said their church isn’t offering a special program for the LGBTQ community because it has been a welcoming sanctuary already.
“The gay community is integrated in all our society,” he explained. “They occupy friends, family members and we are marginalized. The idea is not to separate ourselves but to be inclusive in our faith community. We want to make sure our congregation is open and affirming.”
Flying the Prisoner of War flag is “another example of those who served and sacrificed who we don’t want to forget,” Bagnuolo said.
Bagnuolo, a gay pastor, has headed Sayville UCC since January 2017.
“It’s a church where people really love each other and are often stunned at wrong-minded incidents of any kind and particularly against LGBTQ people. We’re a faith-based community who believe God is love and love is God.”
There are approximately 100 congregants. Besides Sunday services with a coffee gathering afterwards and a Talk Back for those who want to discuss the sermon or any issue (“we have 20 people regularly for that,” he said), there are two classes of Bible Jam, where attendees discuss the origins of Christianity. Knitted prayer shawls, made by congregants in different hues who pray over them during their creation, are given out to those injured, or just going through a tough time.
“We make a food collection every week for the Sayville Food Pantry, we host fundraisers for Sharing A Meal and provide our hall for meals from Monday to Thursday,” Bagnuolo said.
“We have a connection with Cherry Grove and participate in Bless the Animals and share services there with the Episcopal and Catholic Church. I offer my services at weddings and we have a Congregational Day there. We invite members of the community to head over there for lunch and Sayville Ferry provides us with a ferry on Easter Sunday for a sunrise service and we host a Victorian tea. We also created 18Vote.org, a nonpartisan website, to get 18-year-olds registered.” Bagnuolo added that high school students who helped with the website received community service credit. “A faith community is not just one event,” he said.
Bagnuolo explained that the congregation’s inclusion began in the 1990s with pastor John A. Jeter, who was identified as a gay man. “It caused a grand discussion,” he said. “When you do this kind of activism you frequently are the curriculum. You receive the people who are supportive and those who are not so. There were third party folks who would do proof texting, taking a line of Scripture to fit their own purpose.” But his church weathered the storm, including working with Suffolk police who caught the perp who stole the rainbow flag seven times.
“We are committed to community building and activism. You don’t have to change everybody’s hearts and minds to be successful,” he said.
Pastor Dwight Wolter
Church of Patchogue
Pastor Dwight Wolter noted that besides ordaining its first openly gay pastor in 1972, the United Congregational Church of Christ has been ordaining women since the late 1800s. He said many UCC pastors are LGBTQ.
“We have performed many same-gender marriages and baptisms,” he said. “Our communion table leadership is open to people regardless.”
No formal program is planned at the church for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that activated gays to demand rights (New York City police commissioner James O’Neill issued a public apology last Thursday, saying, “the actions taken by the NYPD. were wrong”), Wolter said, but the Congregational Church is considering opening up the sanctuary on the night of Patchogue’s Alive After Five Pride night.
Jacqueline Routh, New York State Sen. Monica Martinez’s communications director, is chairing Patchogue’s Alive After Five event. “Coming into this role, I always wanted to be a part of this,” Routh said. “I struggled with my own sexuality in high school and I thought it was time to get involved. I want to help transform this event. Let’s have it come back to the community and social recognition.”
Wolter pointed out that even 47 years after ordaining an openly gay minister, there are people who have issues and questions. “There are churches that are splintered on this issue,” he said. “President Donald Trump has denied military status to transgenders, so we see it in our culture. Isn’t it amazing, but not surprising, that in 2019 we are still talking about whether an LGBTQ is a full human being entitled to equal rights and dignity in the U.S. and the Christian Church?”
Wolter has headed his church for 13 years, hosting many social programs as well as spirituality concerts, which raises funds for their food pantry and soup kitchen, and also as a way to get people into membership and/or attend a reflective place. The church is also known for Workers Without Wheels program, which has given away over 100 new or used bikes for those who need them as main sources of transportation.
“We’ve had a lesbian couple with twin daughters who went through confirmation class here,” he said. “They weren’t getting discrimination from their school but from other churches. When they came here, people didn’t ask. There was no issue.”
Wolter is a member of the Alive After Five Committee.
There can be personal consequences to taking stands, he emphasized.
“Pastors lose groups or wealthy members,” he said candidly. “You can be unemployed the next day with a vote. But it’s especially important for citizens and church leaders to pick up the cross for people not like you, because it’s the right thing to do. When you take up each others’ issues, that’s when you get change.”
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