In August 1990 I left Scotland to spend a year in Buffalo, New York, (yes, I really shuffled off to Buffalo!) as an interim minister for a tiny congregation right on the America/Canada border.
Buffalo was still struggling with the decline of its car-making and steel industries, so it was a time of great change and challenge for many of its citizens. The congregation reflected their city’s story of struggle. At one time a thriving community, when I arrived they were small in number with few resources. Despite the challenging context I had a great time amongst some wonderful and generous people. It was a much less glamorous face of America to the one we often see portrayed in the media, but one I am glad to have known.
I have always believed experiencing difference is a place of learning, not a thing to fear, and my time in Buffalo was no exception. I was introduced to a community who taught me a great deal about life in ways I hadn’t expected. The community was the Pink Triangle congregation who my wee Presbyterian Congregation hosted. Pink Triangle was a congregation of LGBT Christians; people of faith who needed a safe space to worship and work though the connection between their faith and their sexuality because sadly, so much of the mainstream church had rejected them.
When I asked my wee congregation why they had agreed to host the Pink Triangle Congregation they said simply: “It makes a change to be able to help others instead of having to ask for help, which is what we usually have to do.” Their reply almost made me weep. No caveat, no conditions, just acceptance.
I spent a lot of time with Pink Triangle members. I listened to their stories of tears and of laughter, love and rejection. We reflected on their faith and on their hopes. I even took part in conducting two “Holy Unions” – marriages in all but name as same-sex marriage was not legal in those days in New York State, though thankfully it is now. Together we sought to create a partnership between the two congregations of mutuality, reciprocity and love. At the heart of the partnership lay the power of unconditional acceptance. I owe both congregations a great debt for that experience.
Those experiences returned to me in my current role, working in the secular organisation Cyrenians. I heard a group of young people from LGBT Youth Scotland talk about the need for organisations like ours to make sure LGBTQ+ young people who might need our services would know they would be welcome. A disproportionate number of young people who present as homeless are LGBTQ+, often because of rejection from family or community. They said if asking for help would again involve rejection they would rather avoid asking.
Cyrenians were encouraged to sign up to the LGBT Charter when they learned that young LGBTQ+ people who had experience of homelessness would risk asking for help if an organisation identified with their community through the Charter.
This is no tick-box exercise. It is as much about the conversations it inspires and the questions it poses to us all, not just as employees but as people, neighbours and citizens. It meant training, events, reviewing how we work and perhaps most importantly, saying publicly we are on this journey. It’s the sense of being an ally, a place of solidarity and safety, which is the real driving force behind the charter.
We are almost there with our first submission for the award. It’s not always been easy. There have sometimes been some uncomfortable conversations. But there’s also been some celebrations and a real sense of us trying to live the words of Cyrenians vision of an inclusive society in which we all have the opportunities to live valued and fulfilled lives. I’ll let you know if we are awarded our charter . . .
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland