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  • Ellen Godbey Carson

Testimony: "How ONA Has Changed My Life"

I grew up in “God’s Country” in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. At least that’s what folks there called it, and it was indeed beautiful and filled with many churches that often had signs saying “All are Welcome.” But as I grew in my spiritual faith, I realized our songs and liturgy about loving all of God’s children did not ring true to the way people of color were treated and the racial segregation I saw all around in our community and churches.

These issues of fairness and equality led me to law school to seek to protect the civil rights of vulnerable minorities. The greatest honor of my legal career was representing Japanese Americans in a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court, seeking redress for the injustices committed against them during the war.

When I moved to Hawai‘i 35 years ago, one of the things that I loved most about these islands was our multi-cultural mix of people, like colors of the rainbow, that truly reflect God’s beautiful creation. To my relief, most churches here embrace a wide mix of ethnicities. For a time, I thought the “All are Welcome” signs on our churches here were truly welcoming to all.

I’m embarrassed to say that even as a civil rights attorney, LGBTQ still wasn’t an issue anywhere on my radar for many years. I was straight and had little knowledge of what life was like for persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. As I began to meet LGBTQ friends in Hawai‘i, I learned that many churches here have negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Some Christians who are LGBTQ have experienced so much rejection that they’ve given up on the church and their faith.

Once I started feeling the pain experienced by many LGBTQ Christians, I encountered a personal crisis of faith when I could no longer reconcile my understanding of God with a literal interpretation of the passages in our Bible that are sometimes interpreted to say that homosexuality is sinful. Those passages sounded so contrary to my understanding of God that I considered abandoning the Bible, the church and my Christian faith.

Thankfully, instead of abandoning my faith, I joined the Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu. It’s an Open and Affirming (ONA) church that welcomes LGBTQ persons, as equal children of God. Crossroads encouraged me to attend educational workshops to help me understand positive messages of hospitality from the biblical passages often used to condemn LGBTQ individuals. I learned that the historical purpose and meaning of these passages is very different from how those passages were being interpreted and used now. It was the most exciting spiritual journey of my life, and has helped me reconcile my faith with these scriptures. My spiritual journey at an ONA church has been joyously life-affirming, and has enriched and renewed my faith. If it were not for ONA, I don’t think I would even be a Christian or a church member anymore.

I’ve come to learn that my crisis of faith over this issue is an issue being grappled with by many other Christians. We are not alone. Indeed, Pew Research studies nationwide show that among all Americans who left their childhood religion and are now religiously unaffiliated, 24% say negative teachings about or negative treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to leave the organized church. Even more sadly for our future, 70% percent of Millennials say religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.”

As for me, I fear for the future of our faith and our churches if we fail to hear this anguish and alienation, and if we fail to open our hearts and minds to the beauty of ALL of God’s creation.

Since ONA has enhanced my life and faith so much, I have joined the All are Welcome at the Table working group (a subcommittee of our Hawaii Conference UCC Justice and Witness Missional Team). Our mission is to inspire our UCC churches in Hawai‘i to extend Christ-like love and welcome to all, including persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities, as equal children of God. We are here as a resource to any minister, any congregation or ministry team that is interested in exploring this mission of inclusive Christianity. We are available to talk story, help share Information, provide workshops or to have discussions about how to engage in dialogue about these issues and to become ONA. We can be reached at

I celebrate our churches that extend Aloha to all, and hope other churches will consider discussions about taking the ONA journey. It’s a journey of love that can revive our souls and our faith.


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