And the Teens Shall Lead Them: Teens Lead Their Congregation to Install Rainbow Flags

story & photos courtesy of The Church of the River

(caption above photo: Four representatives of The Church of the River youth group pose with the pride flag they procured for the church. They are (l. to r.) Jillian Maxwell, 15; Riley Pearson, 15; Rylie Duke, 16; and Grace Ragsdale, 17.)

On September 29, the day after the Memphis Pride Fest, four teenagers in a downtown Memphis church held aloft a rainbow-colored flag at the front of the sanctuary. As the congregation blessed the banner and broke out in applause, the teens smiled broadly. “It was really awesome to see the whole congregation support the flag,” says 16-year-old Rylie Duke, “not just say they accept gay people, but to prove it. I got teary-eyed.”

The Church of the River’s decision to dedicate and hang the flag in the sanctuary for the first time stemmed from an eye-opening trip about a dozen of the church’s youth group took to Boston over the summer. As soon as they stepped off the plane, they noticed something: “Oh my gosh, pride flags! They’re everywhere,” says Grace Ragsdale, 17. “It was kind of like, the norm. And we immediately thought, ‘Why don’t we have that in Memphis?’ We want it to be the norm here.”

After returning home, the teens were determined to put their pride flag plan in action. First, they planned a presentation for the church’s Board of Trustees. They were unsure what reaction they would get from their elders. To their relief, says 15-year-old Jillian Maxwell, “We said, ‘We want to get a pride flag’, and the answer wasn’t just ‘OK’, it was ‘OK, how many?’ It felt amazing to get that kind of response.”

The Church of the River is part of the liberal Unitarian- Universalist denomination, and had already earned the denomination’s “Welcoming Congregation” designation a few years ago. But as Riley Pearson, 16, explains, “I think it’s important to make everyone feel welcomed. Not everybody’s going to come in knowing that we’re a ‘Welcoming Congregation’. But having the pride flag in our church will immediately let them know.”

The Church of the River was a sponsor of Memphis Pride Fest 2019, and members marched in the parade.

The youth group also took a leadership role in helping plan the church’s involvement in its third year at the Memphis Pride Fest, worked in the church’s sponsorship booth, and marched with the congregation in the parade. For the teens and their minister, hanging a pride flag in church was a logical next move. “Our congregation has a history of welcoming and supporting LGBTQ+ members, but this is definitely one of the biggest and most public steps we have taken to actively send a message of love and acceptance out to the LBTQ+ community,” says Rev. Sam Teitel. “I believe that every person and family deserve to belong to a religious community that doesn’t just tolerate them or ‘hate the sin and love the sinner,’ but that celebrates and embraces every aspect of who they are.”

The youth group says seeing the flag now hanging prominently in the sanctuary makes them feel even prouder to be part of The Church of the River. And the church’s Director of Religious Education, who called the dedication a “blessing and moment of immense gratitude,” says the church is proud of them. “It was like the culmination of everything I’ve hoped for our youth,’ says Cindy Sakaan. “When we tell them ‘everybody’s important’, that means everybody—no exceptions. To see them take that all the way to being able to advocate not only for themselves but also for other people made me so proud of all the work that they’ve done.” Rev. Teitel adds, “Blessing that flag was one of the proudest moments in my ministry. I am proud of our congregation, especially the young people, for taking this important step to send a message of love and inclusion to all of the different kinds of people and families in Memphis.”

the congregation of The Church of the River raise their hands to bless and dedicate a Pride flag for the sanctuary. Teens in the congregation initiated the effort to get a rainbow flag installed as a sign to visitors and congregants that all are welcome.