Seeking to be `more welcoming'

Congregation: One of Channing Memorial's goals is to reach out to those who, because of sexual orientation, are left out of many churches.


October 22, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the newly installed minister of Channing Memorial Church in Ellicott City, the Rev. Susan LaMar hopes to make it a "more welcoming" place for newcomers.

"It's easy to say we are welcoming. ... We want to be very explicitly and truly welcoming to all," she said.

The process, part of a formal "Welcoming Congregation" program organized by the Unitarian Universalist Association, will take about two years and involves reaching out to gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are often left out of many churches because of their sexual orientation.

To accomplish the goal, LaMar said, "We will be doing a lot of workshops so that people can take their prejudices and come to terms with what that means."

Channing Memorial was founded 12 years ago by about 30 people as a Unitarian Universalist church, which draws on the wisdom contained in the myths and traditions of other cultures and religions, including Judaism and Christianity.

It takes its name from William Ellery Channing, an ordained minister from New England, who delivered the famous sermon on Unitarian Christianity at the First Independent Church of Baltimore in 1819. Unitarian Christianity emphasizes reason, conscience and free will in religion.

"We are out of the free church tradition, so the congregation decides how to approach life's big questions," LaMar said.

Those questions involve the existence of God, the nature of humanity and the meaning of salvation.

Channing Memorial's Sunday worship service is held at 10 a.m. at Northfield Elementary School and includes a gathering for fellowship, prayer, music, silent meditation and a sermon.

Children are ministered from nursery through high school. Adult religious education classes also are offered and include "Sundays After," during which church members further study that day's sermon.

LaMar, who was installed as minister last month, attended Andover Newton Theological School from 1997-2001 in Newton Centre, Mass., where she received a master of divinity degree. She was ordained in 2002.

Before being called into ministry, she spent more than 20 years in the fields of human service and social justice, working at a job training center for a battered-women's program and at a women's health clinic.

"My work in the secular world of human service and social justice has given me a deep background in human struggles and what makes the world tick," LaMar said.

But, she added, "These agencies, while good, only dealt with one aspect of these people lives."

She said she asked herself where she could work to address the "whole" person.

God answered her with " `the church,' " she said. "I've been in ministry since then and never looked back."

Besides making Channing Memorial more welcoming, LaMar hopes to improve the church's organization.

"We are a relatively young church, and there's a lot of internal organizing that needs to take place," she said.

Another goal is maintaining a commitment to help the community.

Since its inception, the church has committed 3 percent of its budget to social justice, LaMar said, including supporting the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

Kris Tyssowski, chairwoman of the church's religious education committee, said church members are working hard to make Channing Memorial more friendly.

"One of the main things we've done is put a lot of thought into our foyer. We have a welcoming table and a table with religious education [material] and a snack table," she said. "We also have greeters, and people make an effort to speak to everyone."

Barbara Popka, president of the congregation's board of trustees, said the church gives out "red bags full of goodies and information about the church." Popka, a founding member of the church, said it has been a great place to worship because she and her husband come from Jewish and Protestant backgrounds.

"It's just a very comfortable place to be," she said.

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