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'Walk the talk'

The pastor of Christ Unity Church of Medford knew his church was open to all people, including gays, but he felt it wasn’t enough to just have the policy.

Rob Wheeler believed the church needed to publicly assert a “reconciling, welcoming” invitation. After a year of talks, meetings and rewording of the policy, his congregation voted unanimously to post it on the church's website and get the word out to the community.

A public gathering to launch the effort is planned for 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, at the church, 540 N. Holly St., Medford. “Gen Silent,” which analyzes the challenge of gays as they grow old and become isolated in straight senior communities, will be shown. A social hour and discussion will be included.

“We always had it, our honoring of diversity, but didn’t publish it,” says Wheeler. “It was in the 1995 statement of Unity Worldwide, but it just said it was a goal. We changed the wording to say this is who we are, this is done, it’s the truth of what we’re doing, how we behave. Every one of us are God’s children and should be treated and honored as the child of God, period. Judgment is eliminated. Welcome means just that — whoever shows up in my life.”

The effort was prompted last year by parishioner Jim Willeford, a member of the church’s board of trustees and a pioneer in the gay rights movement over the last half-century.

The new, more defined statement, says Willeford, a downtown Medford resident, has “zero negativity” and opens a “welcoming space for all people, those who are not in Ashland, which already has this going. It’s about joy and that we’re all a piece of God. It’s time to actually walk our talk.”

Willeford says there are eight or 10 gay parishioners at Christ Unity, but they’re not necessarily identified, nor labeled or treated any differently than the rest.

The church makes no attempt to “fix” gays to make them straight and opposes any attempt to view homosexuality as sin, says Wheeler.

“That fundamentalist view is mistaken,” he says. “Sin literally means ‘error,’ or ‘missing the mark.’ Being gay is not an error any more than being a redhead is error. ... We get off track by labeling our beliefs. ... It’s about our connection with God, not anything on the exterior.”

Willeford, 75, a sometimes real estate broker and lifelong activist, came “out” while in high school in Texas — where he was the son of a minister — and keynoted the first known gay demonstration, he says, in 1967 in San Francisco, as part of one of the early anti-war marches.

As a gay in Medford, Willeford says he was harassed and vandalized when he put a pro-gay marriage sign in his window in the previous decade. But he has come to love the diversity of Medford, something he doesn’t find in Ashland, and he notes he is now well accepted here.

The new Honoring Diversity statement is at http://unitymedford.org/philosophy.htm. The film Saturday is sponsored by Rogue Valley LGBT Elders. Unity Church was founded in 1889 by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. Christ Unity Medford occupies a church built in 1901, which the congregation bought in 1960.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Christ Unity Church of Medford Pastor Rob Wheeler, right, and parishioner Jim Willeford will host a public gathering Saturday afternoon to actively welcome gays into their congregation. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore