Pastor Mark Rideout calls the First Parish Church of Christ Congregational "An Open and Affirming Church," welcoming to all. He says the community goes beyond the four walls and is focusing on outreach to serve the needs of the people. [Deb Cram/]

Somersworth church flies rainbow flag

Congregation is 'welcoming and affirming,' with deep conversations about inclusion

The roots of this city, like most small New England communities, are deeply intertwined with religion.

The protestant congregations are the oldest. The Roman Catholic churches came later and were built by French Canadian and Irish immigrants who came to work in the mills in the 1800s.

These days, one church in Somersworth is visibly different from all the others. The First Parish Church of Christ Congregational at 176 West High St. is known as an open and affirming church community. As such, the church displays the rainbow flag on the building. The flag is a symbol the congregation is welcoming to the LGBTQA community. The acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and asexual/aromantic. It means everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is welcome at First Parish.

Mark Rideout, 62, who retired as pastor in July, has been leading the church since 1985 when he took the job right after his graduation from Newton Theological School. He was ordained as a minister at the Somersworth church where he served for 33 years. He and his wife, Kathy, raised their family here. His children went to Somersworth schools and his oldest daughter, Katelyn E. Carrington is dean of school operations and career technical center at the Somersworth Career Technical Center.

Being an open and affirming congregation is a continuing process, Rideout said, one that began back in 1987 or 88. There was a statewide conference of the United Church of Christ board of trustees with about 150 churches at the time. Some of the churches had been asking for a curriculum on how to more deeply understand homosexuality. "That was the word that was used at the time," Rideout said.

In response, conference trustees developed an eight- to 10-part learning process for New Hampshire churches titled "Is the Homosexual My Neighbor." Somersworth's First Parish church was one of six or seven in the state that actually said it would try it, Rideout said.

He used the curriculum about four or five times over the years and reported back to statewide church leaders, but it wasn't until 2008 when civil unions were being proposed in New Hampshire that the Somersworth congregation started getting serious about changing the local church's bylaws.

Rideout said that push came directly from his congregation and in the congregational church structure, the local church makes decisions for itself. "Nobody tells us what to do," Rideout said. He remembers thinking, "OK, it's the people. I couldn't make that change for folks. It had to come from within."

The request prompted a flurry of activity at the church including listening circles, educational components and outside speakers, including representatives from other churches that had been through similar processes. In 2010, the Somersworth congregation took a vote on becoming an open and affirming church. It did not pass. A majority voted in favor of the bylaws change, but it wasn't a significant majority and the percentage in favor failed to meet the threshold to make the change.

After the vote, the issue lay fallow for a couple of years, Rideout said. But conversations continued. A different mix of people emerged in the congregation. Some of those not supportive in 2010 changed their minds, perhaps based on family or other relationships they had experienced, Rideout said. When another vote was taken in 2015, it passed well above the majority the congregation had set.

Rideout said the decision to be an open and affirming church is so much broader than sexual orientation. He reads the actual statement: "We welcome all following Jesus's example including persons of every age, gender, race, national origin, faith background, marital status, family structure, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, economic and social status and educational background to share in the life, leadership, ministry, fellowship, worship, sacrament, baptism, communion, and rights of marriage and funerals."

Not everyone embraced the change or rainbow flag. "Some folks have kind of pulled back, and we did lose a few people. I wouldn't say it was significant, but we gained a few people, too. It wasn't droves either way," he said. There are about 145 congregants.

Though controversial, the flag has brought new congregants to the church because it clearly represents openness, Rideout said. "We've heard this because people have sought us out and said 'We saw the rainbow flag. We knew you'd have a conversation and it's safe for us to be there with who we are,'" he said. "That's a key piece in this."

There are ongoing conversations within the church about the flag. Some congregants want to change the colors in the rainbow flag to reflect the current conversation. Rideout sees those discussions as healthy as long as people are willing to "engage in it and not just get all worked up."

Some in the LGBTQA community are adamant that open and affirming is about one thing and one thing only, Rideout said. He doesn't believe that and neither does the church community who voted for it. "It's a part, but it's not the whole. So we are leaning into that and growing into that," Rideout said.

The prejudice and discrimination the LGBTQA community experiences are real, but not exclusively their pain, Rideout said. For example, he said people with serious mental health problems or those suffering from addictions are cut off from their community, too. "Personally, I've had some interactions with some serious mental health problems both in the church and in the community and I find people struggle more with building relationships with folks with mental health concerns because there's a lot of work and emotion that goes into that and it's real."

Conversations are continuing and during his time as pastor, Rideout encouraged dialogue and educational outreach programs on a wide variety of topics from an after-school program on being transgender geared to teens to school bullying, teen suicide and parenting. Rideout was also active on the Somersworth Prevention Coalition, which works with a federal grant to fight the opioid crisis in the community. He's been involved in a lot of different conversations.

To Rideout, being open, affirming and welcoming is "across the board." It's a constant challenge with good days and bad.

"But, I like to think that if your heart is moving in the right direction, hopefully you can make a difference in a small way at least, you know, as you reach out," Rideout said.

Next story: Somersworth is accepting, but not always.