A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 13: Hitting the ground running, an Oasis/CA story

Posted on May 9, 2017

On January 13, 1996, Oasis/CA had its inaugural service at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco with a congregation of 600 in attendance. The guest speaker was the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter, who was facing an upcoming heresy trial for ordaining an openly gay man to the diaconate. Representing Oasis/CA was the Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, the group’s executive director and first Christian bishop of any denomination to come out as gay, and the Rev. Amy Lawrence, president of the Oasis/CA board. The Rt. Rev. William Swing, Bishop of California, was also there in support of the emerging and revitalized ministry for gay and lesbian people.

At the time, it seemed that Oasis/CA was still determining exactly what its mission statement would be, but the highlighted and recurring statements in early documents and notes emphasized a perceived need to liberate gay and lesbian people in the church and the world, and to reconcile the “lesbian and gay community with the institutional church.” The second part of this statement, regarding reconciliation, is quite similar to The Parsonage’s mission statement. However, Oasis/CA would take a very different approach to living out its call to reconciliation. Oasis/CA quickly adopted and adapted the Oasis Congregations Program from Oasis, Newark to fit the needs of the Bay Area community.

The Oasis Congregations Program was designed to help parishes reflect on how welcoming they were to the gay and lesbian community and allow them to discern where they could be more supportive. The program was initially designed to last for six weeks; after that, congregations could officially become Oasis congregations listed on the national register. To get listed on this roster, congregations had to endorse the “Affirmation of Welcome” document, continue to “pray for lesbians and gay men and offer continuing education about the concerns of lesbians and gay men,” and have one member of the congregation represent them to the Oasis Congregations Network for continued communication purposes. Lastly, Oasis congregations were obligated to financially support the Oasis Congregations Program.

On October 22, 1996, the initial rollout of the Oasis Congregation Program was complete and had brought forth St. Aidan’s, San Francisco as the Diocese of California’s first congregation to join the network. In mid-November, 1996, Oasis/CA had written and adopted an official mission statement, which proclaimed its intent to “celebrate God’s presence in gay and lesbian life and advocate justice for lesbian and gay people.” Oasis/CA’s first annual report mentioned its hosting of two retreats (one for gay men, and one for lesbian women), its “large and colorful presence” at San Francisco’s gay pride parade, and its success in connecting gay and lesbian people with accepting churches. The main goals going forward were to continue building up the Oasis Congregation Program, to coordinate the Episcopal presence at the San Francisco gay pride parade, and to offer worship services and social gatherings to gay and lesbian Christians in the diocese, particularly outside of San Francisco.

1997 brought success with most of Oasis/CA’s goals! Advent, Trinity+St. Peter’s, and St. John the Evangelist, all of San Francisco, went through the Oasis Congregation Program and became part of the national network of Oasis congregations. Conversations with over a dozen other congregations throughout the diocese were beginning. Several became Oasis congregations, several considered doing so or began but did not complete the full process, and some decided not to engage it at all Some of the repeatedly expressed concerns brought up by declining congregations included the mandated adoption of the pre-composed “Affirmation of Welcome” statement and the requirement to financially support the ministry. Some congregations felt as if they were already welcoming and for various reasons, could not make an ongoing financial commitment to say so, and others wanted freedom to write their own versions of the “Affirmation of Welcome” statement. With this feedback, Oasis/CA adjusted its Oasis Congregation Program to better accommodate interested congregations, but noticed ultimately that after the first large wave of participating parishes, there was little to no future interest from other parishes in pursuing this formal network-identity.

In 1997, Oasis/CA succeeded in its new goal of holding worship services especially for gay men and lesbian women in all but one deanery outside of San Francisco, and they once again coordinated and sponsored the Episcopal cohort in the San Francisco pride parade. Since the parade was scheduled on a Sunday, ten congregations in the city all presented their services that morning through the lens of gay pride. In the fall of that year, Oasis/CA hosted another retreat for gay men; but, in 1998, organizers concluded that there was too little interest in retreats to continue them further. It was around this time that a shift began to occur within Oasis/CA: from a ministry focused on the Diocese of California to one that worked and advocated for justice on a national level at General Convention and through participation with the NEAC and other national conferences.

For more of the living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community series, click here.