Rainbow flag at a pride march.

Photo by Raphael Renter on Unsplash

AWAB, a story of commitment

June 14, 2023

Over fifty years ago, Baptist friends from the queer community gathered to advocate for their inclusion into the church communities with which they were associated. Many of those souls could not be their true selves among those with whom they worshipped. Others, who were fully true to their identity, were excluded from several or all church activities. This early band of advocates was then known as “American Baptists Concerned.” This group grew over the next twenty years and came to recognize that their advocacy was not just for their LGBTQ+ comrades, but for the churches who welcomed them as well. Welcoming churches were being “dis-fellowshipped” by those ABC-USA regions that could not, perhaps would not, reconcile homosexuality with their biblical beliefs. Members of American Baptists Concerned knew and affirmed that God’s love and inclusion for all people was not a radical idea, but rather the basis for the way of Jesus Christ. They believed the biblical case for unconditional love and inclusiveness far outweighed any references to the contrary.

The divisions over the issue of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the churches, regions, and headquarters of ABC-USA became increasingly apparent during the 1990s as more and more churches were being dis-fellowshipped by their regions for the welcoming stance their congregations adopted. This dynamic awakened members of American Baptists Concerned to the realization that the group’s advocacy must expand to provide care and assistance to those welcoming churches who were being rejected. Thus, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) was formed in 1993 to not only advocate for the individuals of the LGBTQ+ community, but also for the churches who welcomed them. We wanted to make sure there was a welcoming place for dis-fellowshipped churches and individuals to land as they dealt with the disorientation caused by fellow Christians. The identity of being an “Association” was incorporated because that relationship is comfortable and important for those who practice the Baptist Liberties. While AWAB was not a region of ABC-USA, we assisted dis-fellowshipped churches in affiliating with regions which were pleased to have them join.

Over the past several years AWAB has grown, primarily through our response to those churches which have come to realize that we are all made in the image of God and full inclusion of all members in every aspect of Baptist life is consistent with following the way of Jesus Christ. An important distinction of these years following the turn of the century is that our support and attention was directed, for the most part, to churches that came to us desiring guidance in dealing with this controversial issue. AWAB learned a great deal about the breadth of challenges congregations faced while dealing with the recognition and acceptance of homosexual and transgender persons among them. The experience of working with questioning churches over the past decade has helped each of us at AWAB to clarify our mission, including which Baptist churches we would serve.

Born out of 20 years of advocacy by American Baptists Concerned for full LGBTQ+ inclusion in Baptist church life, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) was formed in 1993 to not only advocate for the individuals of the LGBTQ+ community, but also for the churches who welcomed them.

The founding individuals of American Baptists Concerned and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists were primarily connected with churches that were affiliated with ABC-USA. We have found that churches belonging to the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship experience the same challenges fully incorporating the LGBTQ+ community into Baptist life as exist in ABC-USA. In the past decade many churches from those affiliations have joined with AWAB in our quest for equity.

In September of 2022, at our annual board retreat, the AWAB board members envisioned a five-year plan for the growth of the organization. The results of that exercise, along with the guidance of consulting firm, Third Plateau, produced a plan for AWAB staffing and operations that will serve as our guideline for the next several years. This plan recognizes that the dynamic between the LGBTQ+ community and churches, regions, and denominations has changed significantly since 1973. There are LGBTQ+ persons successfully filling nearly every possible leadership position in Baptist churches across our nation and building stronger communities by setting examples of love and competency. Through slow increases in acceptance, more closeted LGBTQ+ persons are presenting their true selves in congregations throughout our Baptist community. Many Baptist churches are performing legal same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries. Baptist churches in America can no longer ignore the presence of members of the LGBTQ+ community and the gifts they bring to their congregations.

AWAB’s structure in the coming years will be expanded to serve not only individuals of the LGBTQ+ community and welcoming and affirming churches as we do now, but all Baptist churches and regions that must deal with the realities of the division of opinions regarding LGBTQ+ life and the church. While we wish that every Baptist church would proclaim their welcoming and affirming stance, we know that goal is not today’s reality. We know all churches are affected by these issues and we stand ready to aid any congregation challenged by them.

The Baptist Liberties provide the framework around which the AWAB mission has been created and sustained. Soul Liberty, Scriptural Liberty, and Church Liberty, the foundations of Baptist belief, grant churches and individuals the freedom to love and be loved as God has loved each of us. To this we are committed.

Bob Sittig is a member of Seattle Baptist Church, Seattle, WA, and the Chair of AWAB Board of Directors.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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