Dozens of members of the University Congregational Church stood in line in the church courtyard Sunday to take part in the open Eucharist.

Rev. Laura Folkwein, the church’s newest associate pastor, passed out bits of bread and a sip of grape juice for children, their parents, couples and those who came alone following her sermon for University Congregational Church’s annual “Pride Sunday.” Her message centered on the story of a Good Samaritan woman who came to help a man beaten and left in an alley.

“Always remember, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is always someone on the fringe of society. In Jesus’s time, the Samaritans were from the tribes of northern Israel. Their identity, as Jews or Gentiles, was often called into question. They were shunned and abused,” Folkwein said.

Folkwein said the woman, who was trans, brought a lesson from the LGBTQIA+ community to the faith community.

For over 15 years, University Congregational Church has hosted its “Pride Sunday” as both a recognition of Pride Month for June, and as an assertion of United Church of Christ’s “Coveneant of Openness and Affirmation.” Since 1972, the denomination has declared itself open to all who want to worship, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In 2005, it became the first major Christian denomination to support same-sex marriage.

“United Christ’s Church has always tended to be on the bleeding edge of reclaiming faith,” said Senior Pastor Rev. Jennifer Yocum.

Yocum invited the children in attendance to join her at the front of the congregation following the opening hymn. She held out a rainbow flag in front of the three kids and explained the meaning behind each color: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight and truth, green for nature, blue for harmony and purple for the spirit. For the service, Yocum wore a vest tie-dyed with every color.

“What attracted me to this church was its unique opportunity to combine prayer, advocacy and openness. There are no barriers here created by any doctrine, creed or identity. Our members are our ministers,” she said.

In 1993, University Congregational Church adopted the “Coveneant of Openness and Affirmation” after a congregational vote, citing Romans 12:4: “Although we are many members, we are one body in Christ.”

“Those words mean that our church is really open to anyone who chooses to show up, and that we affirm their identity as a child of God. It’s also a specific welcome for LGBTQ folks,” said Folkwein, who has been a part of University Congregational Church for five years.

The tension between doctrines of faith and individual identity continues throughout the country and around the world. In June, the Evangelical Covenant Church expelled a Minneapolis church for allowing same-sex marriage ceremonies. That same month, Knox County prosecutors opened an investigation into a Knoxville Baptist pastor and detective who called for the arrest and execution of LGBTQ community members during a sermon.

“Many faith communities are pretty explicit about not welcoming LGBTQ people, or they’re not explicit. They don’t know if they’re walking into a church and might step on a theological or spiritual land mine. We explicitly state from the start that this church welcomes you. We’re not going to put those land mines in front of you,” Folkwein said. 

Misty Gaubatz, who has lived in Missoula for the past 14 years, has come to University Congregational Church with her family for the past year.

“This isn’t the only ‘open and affirmed’ church in town, but we started coming here because we wanted to try something new. At this church, we’re not just ‘the gay family.’ There’s a genuine outpouring of support and love,” she said.

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