As we arrived, there were already people gathered to do yoga together in the park on a warm summer morning. Mats stretched out and people of all ages getting an early start on the day’s celebrations. There were even more people sitting on the same hillside when I left enjoying food together, playing bingo, and waiting for the musical selections to start playing into the evening.
This was the first Valley Wide Pride Fest in Hudson, Wisconsin. If you head East out of the Twin Cities Metro area, Hudson is the first exit you will come to across the St. Croix River entering into Wisconsin. It is in this town where I am on staff at First Presbyterian Church. Earlier this Spring, I heard that there was a small group of people in town working to organize the first-ever Pride event. On the one hand, it seems weird to experience a place where there has never been a Pride event. On the other hand, I imagine most people who have wanted to celebrate likely traveled into the Twin Cities for the full schedule of Pride events each June.
About as soon as I heard of the planning team I began hatching a plan for our church to go and have a presence there. I recognize, both as a queer person and as clergy, that generally speaking the church as a whole does not have a history of welcome and inclusion towards the LGBTQ+ community. What a great opportunity to stand for something different and blaze a new trail! Pastor Kendra Grams observed about our church’s Pride participation, “While the congregation has stated for numerous years that they are welcoming of all queer siblings, including committing to marriage equality, this was a good opportunity to embody that welcome in the community. Many attendees were surprised to learn of our commitment to welcome, which was a good reminder to the congregation of the importance of being clear and bold about commitments to justice and equity.”
So we got to planning! We were ready. The bakers among us got to making a variety of rainbow swirl chocolate-chip and other brightly colored cookies to give away to festival go-ers as a form of hospitality. We do not have an official count but we gave away many dozen cookies to people walking past our tent. We had temporary tattoos to give away that say, “Beloved,” in rainbow colors. We prepared a community art project involving flat glass gems in a variety of rainbow colors, glue, and an old window. We had our glitter-infused anointing oils ready for blessings and extra glitter on hand because, Pride.
We met many people. A few familiar or friends and many neighbors we have never met. There were young people dressed with Pride flag capes. There were families of all shapes and sizes decked out in their rainbow apparel. There were even a number of dogs out in rainbow gear! We heard and acknowledged a number of stories of hurt, estrangement, and previous trauma experienced in church settings. We know these stories are by no means a thing of the past. We thanked people who shared and said we appreciate them as neighbors and God’s children.
Every interaction we had with people inside the festival was positive as far as I observed. About lunchtime, a group of protesters arrived and stood just outside the festival fencing. The planning team had information that protesters were planning to show up to the event. They had signs reading, “No Pedos, Leave Kids Alone” and “White Lives Matter.” They yelled hate at us for about an hour and a half with their masked faces and bullhorns. I did not find a reason to go look at them–sometimes it is enough to hear hate echoing in the air. I did hear accounts of some attempted counter-protests including a man with a bagpipe pacing between the protesters and the festival fence as well as a woman with a portable speaker blasting peppy Pride tunes. After awhile, they moved on and Pride continued on.
Besides cookies and art collaborations throughout the day, we offered glitter blessings to anyone who wanted. We had frankincense-infused anointing oil with biodegradable glitter ready. Mid-afternoon we started making the rounds of the festival yelling, “Glitter blessings.” One vendor was so delighted she gifted us with minerals and marbles from her tent. Another highlight was giving one of the police officers a glitter blessing as he stood doing surveillance near the festival entrance.
If you need a mood boost, get yourself to a Pride event. I realize this is somewhat tricky as most Pride-events happen in the month of June. Generally speaking, everyone at Pride is happy and having a good time. They want to be there and connect with others. One of our church volunteers, Ruth Beachey, observed, “The main thing that struck me was the excitement and joy that was evident on the faces of festival goers – everyone seemed to be so happy to be there and so welcoming to one another. I sensed that for some (especially some of the younger participants) they were so happy to be in an environment where they were truly welcomed and celebrated.” For many, Pride events are one of the safe spaces they can count on each year to fully be themselves.
We heard from a few members of the Valley Wide Pride board that they put some thought into whether or not they wanted churches to be present at Pride. While I know our church members to be kind and very hospitable, this an understandable response. Board member Liz Malanaphy shared part of her decision process:
“As the mom of two gay young people, I have been sorely disappointed in my church and denomination and saddened, as I have watched my children walk away from what they believe[…]. And I cannot blame them for that; it has had the same effect on me. But your group is so very welcoming and affirming. You all really brought it, and it felt so wonderful and right and absolutely complete with you there. I know it would not have been the same without you, and you really brought the love.”
The world needs more Pride spaces. It is not hard to see the ways that the LGBTQ+ community are losing rights and freedoms and consistently experiencing more hate. I live and work in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I am aware of at least four Pride events that happened in different towns that happened for the first time. Many, many people worked hard to make these events happen. And based on what I have heard, all have been successes. People near and far are hungry for spaces where they can be their beloved and imago dei selves without fear or shame.
I know our church had some experiences with online trolls as we posted about various Pride events and promoting Pride worship. I am aware of at least three churches in three different states who have had their pride flags stolen. One of these also experienced some hate speech as people chose to rearrange sign letter tiles to write offensive and derogatory words. This Pride season has been a rollercoaster–there are deeply beautiful and holy moments. And there are moments when I feel anger and rage as people spread their hate and anger in mean and violent ways. Nevermind the on-going struggle to keep our equal rights and legal protections.
I was talking with my friend, Rev. Danny Morales, recently. He’s also queer clergy and keeps busy as both a pastor and hospice chaplain in Miami. He made this profound observation, “Maybe the sacrament of Pride is that it is one place, one time a year, where people live into their goodness and their beloved-ness.” I think he’s right. Sure, it will never be a sacrament in the church constitution sense. But maybe that’s the challenge for us in church and faith activism circles: What are we doing to make a bit more space for the sacrament of Pride? Have we made enough room for people to show up as they are, broken and beautiful, all the time, no exceptions? I suspect we all have a bit more work to do.
If you’re an ally, speak up, yell if you have to. Stand up and show your pride.
If you’re LGBTQ+, you are God’s beloved. Do not let them steal your joy or shame you into shrinking yourself to fit other molds.
If you’re a church, now’s the time. It only starts with hanging the flag. Show in your actions and events, who you are and how you welcome. Be loud. People are paying attention. Show up to love all and never stop.
The Rev. Lora Burge (she/her/hers) is a Washington state native. She grew up on Whidbey Island at the mouth of the Puget Sound. A lifelong Presbyterian, she was baptized and grew up in the only Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church on the island—Whidbey Presbyterian. She has studied and volunteered in Central America and Colombia, including a year as a Young Adult Volunteer. A graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, she served as a hospital chaplain in Chicago-area hospitals before coming to Minnesota to be a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, her most recent ministry position. When not at work, Lora is a creative soul and loves to tinker on glass mosaic and painting projects. She also enjoys the outdoors and likes to hike, bike, swim and ski in season. She and her partner, Mae, live in Rochester with their four cats.