In 2018, Brian Kovacs and I were discussing the idea that the religious and spiritual needs of members of the LGBTQIA community were often not being adequately served by traditional religious institutions. We eventually concluded that one thing which could be done to address this was to provide very occasional worship opportunities specifically for members of the community, led and organized by religious professionals from the community itself. Before 2020, we, along with others, organized three such services in various locations.
Like so many other aspects of life, these were indefinitely put on hold in the Spring of 2020. In late March of last year, I was thinking about what we had been able to do in those services and, at the same time, I was feeling a growing concern over how the life-altering effects of the pandemic could provide some specific challenges to the queer community – for example, isolating folks who already had far too much experience with social isolation. This is when I came up with the idea for Queer Vespers.
My idea was to provide a weekly service on Zoom aimed especially at members of the community, done from the point of view of someone who, themselves, is a member of the community. For those who are already members of worshipping congregations, it was not meant as a replacement, but rather, it could supplement their religious and spiritual life. (Of course, the same is not true for those who don’t have a current affiliation – for them, it could be an opportunity to connect to an ongoing ad hoc congregation.)
The service was originally intended to run for about thirty minutes, although lately, it has gotten a bit longer. I usually describe it as “ecumenical” because it is intended to be very broad in its scope of religious and theological perspectives, but it cannot be all-inclusive. (Time and resources make this impractical.) At the start of each service, those who are online are invited to light a candle or other source of illumination. The format generally includes a welcoming, and an invitation to share a greeting of peace – however one wishes and is comfortable in doing so – and to join in a litany or responsive reading. After these, there’s usually a reading or two. I will generally ask in advance if one of the participants would be willing to do the reading. These often include something from either the Christian scriptures or the Hebrew Bible and may additionally include a reading from a Buddhist sutra, or the Qur’an, or works by authors who have ranged from Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes to Quentin Crisp.
One part of the service which has increasingly taken more time as needs have grown, is a sharing of joys or concerns, or asking for prayers. No one is required to do this, but many who attend usually bring something with them they’d like to draw the group’s attention to.
There is normally an Offering during the service, however it is not to collect money for Queer Vespers, rather it is designed to highlight an issue or organization (whether in this country or internationally) that could use moral or financial support. On more than one occasion, people were encouraged to offer up some of their time and energy to further explore certain issues especially relevant to the LGBTQIA community.
The service almost always includes a homily which can be anywhere from five to eight minutes in length, as opposed to a more traditional sermon which is usually longer and has greater scope. Some of them have been pastoral, focusing on needs of the community; some have been educational. If there are any overarching themes, however, I would have to say that they are justice and compassion. And many of the topics, illustrations, and assumptions regarding the cultural awareness of those attending, are the sorts of things one would be much less likely to encounter in a service aimed primarily at a straight, cisgender congregation.
The service ends with everyone being invited to sing a song or hymn. I provide the words and music, but because it’s Zoom, no one can hear anyone else (due to Zoom’s latency problems). So, it is a great opportunity for someone to sing even if they’ve been uncomfortable singing with others, since no one else can hear you.
At the end of the service, everyone extinguishes their candles, and we then gather for an informal social time for about 20 minutes. It is much like a typical church coffee hour, except there’s no organizational business to have to accomplish and we’re all in different places. And people’s pets – mostly cats, as of right now – are welcome.
Queer Vespers services began on April 16, 2020 and have continued, uninterrupted, every Thursday evening since then. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, I can say that Queer Vespers has provided an opportunity to be religious and be my whole self at the same time. And that is what I’ve been trying to offer to those who attend. Queer Vespers will hold a special Pride service June 18 at 7pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for Zoom information.
Dr. Gwendolyn Howard, D.Min, LICSW is a pioneer in RI's trans rights movement. She is Minister Emerita of St. Paul's Universalist Church in Little Falls New York and resides in Providence with her wife and two cats.