Whether Elm City Congregations Organized intended it or not, the choice of Reverend Kathleen McTigue from the Unitarian Society of New Haven to lead the congregation in an opening prayer at ECCO’s 10th anniversary last Sunday raises an interesting question for the city’s largest faith-based community organization: what is ECCO’s position on equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people?
It’s not a query that may seem immediately relevant to most of ECCO’s work, though the organization was founded the same year that New Haven’s Domestic Partnership Amendment, a measure that would provide legal recognition to same-sex couples, failed in a bitterly divided Board of Aldermen. Over the past 10 years, the group has thrived as a broad coalition because of its commitment to immediate community needs and its distance from partisan politics.
The results are encouraging: ECCO has worked to move liquor stores away from schools, to stop K-Mart from selling guns, to push drug dealers out of residential neighborhoods, and to build winning youth sports teams. But ECCO organizers argue that their main work is not really about liquor stores, gun sales or drug dealers, but rather identifying and empowering people who are ready to change their communities. If the number of ECCO leaders present at the Cathedral of Higher Praise last Sunday was any evidence, the organizers have succeeded beyond measure.
In the context of these already impressive accomplishments, ECCO’s decision to raise the bar is admirable. At its anniversary celebration, ECCO announced that, with the help of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and City Hall, its Nehemiah Development Corporation is breaking ground on 66 units of affordable housing in Fair Haven. The project will build 33 two-family homes and, through the ECCO Nehemiah Trust, will help low-income families buy the houses and train them to be good landlords to the tenants in the other units.
This is a tremendous initiative, and it is only the beginning. ECCO has committed itself to building 200 units of affordable housing. But just as ECCO’s real business is not moving liquor stores or stopping gun sales but training leaders, this new venture is not about building houses, but creating homes and strengthening families. And this is where things get complicated; ECCO, as an organization, has still not indicated if the families it supports include those headed by same-sex couples.
Reverend McTigue took a courageous stand earlier this fall when she became one of the first ministers in the New Haven area to declare that until same-sex couples have equal civil marriage rights in Connecticut, she will not sign marriage licenses for any couples for whom she performs religious ceremonies. ECCO leaders, including Reverend McTigue, also supported the Domestic Partnership Amendment last May when, 10 years later, it again fell one vote short of passage.
Their voices are crucial; last spring, New Haven saw the debate over equal rights for its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens disintegrate into ugly calls for discrimination, many of which came from religious communities. ECCO leaders can, individually, be strong counterweights to voices of fear and bigotry — a call issued by ECCO as a whole to end discrimination based on sexual orientation would be an amazing display of leadership and courage, and a powerful challenge to those who would seek to marginalize their neighbors simply because of who they love.
There is no guarantee that it will be easy, but that is why ECCO trains people to lead. When the Domestic Partnership Amendment is reintroduced in the Board of Aldermen, ECCO leaders and members should support it in the name of stronger families and communities. And when the Nehemiah developments in Fair Haven are finished, ECCO should make sure the doors of those houses are open to all people, no matter their sexual orientation, who are willing turn them into homes.
Reverend David W. Lee told the congregation at the anniversary celebration that people have often said ECCO and its leaders were crazy to challenge liquor stores and drug dealers, City Hall and Yale. Those doubters have, time after time, been proven wrong about ECCO’s capabilities. It may seem even crazier to suggest that ECCO lead on an issue that divides churches and has already touched nerves in New Haven. But if ECCO has united people of good will across race, class and denomination over the past 10 years, now it can and must welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people into its large and diverse community as full and equal citizens.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.