As an ordained minister for 20 years, the Reverend Dr. Wes Bixby has had a calling to create a diverse and inclusive church environment. He found a home at First Congregational Church of Christ in Sarasota, a church he has led for eight years. First Congregational is a denomination of the United Church of Christ, known for standing with social justice issues and for being supportive of LGBTQ members.
“I got into this work because church was always a place where I felt safe,” says Bixby. He wants to create this same feeling of safety and understanding for those of all races and sexual orientations in Sarasota. Bixby, 46, and his congregation go beyond rhetoric—the place where many religious organizations, if they even welcome groups from different communities, seem to stop.
“The church and Christianity haven’t been and still aren’t always a safe place for folks,” says Bixby. “We know it takes a tremendous amount of courage to cross the threshold and reenter a church setting.”
First Congregational Church holds a weekly small group, Collage, and invites LGBTQ and straight allies to gather and share stories. Bixby’s group Sacred Conversations on Race studies Black literature, race theory, current racial injustice issues and invites Black and minority speakers to come and share stories. As a result, his congregation is extending beyond the pews, with small groups meeting to discuss difficult topics. Church members are urged to get involved in community. They attend school board meetings, volunteer at LGBTQ organizations and become members of local anti-racist coalitions.
Bixby has partnered with local organizations such as ALSO Youth, Sarasota Pride, Equality Florida (all nonprofits to support the LGBTQ community) and the ASALH Sarasota-Manatee Chapter, an organization dedicated to appreciating African American history. First Congregational Church also invests in small Black and minority-owned businesses, purchasing food and supplies for the church or donating to them. “It’s one thing to say you’re welcoming of all in a mission statement or church homepage, but it’s another to show that you are,” says Bixby.
“My hope for the future of Christianity and this church is that the work we’re doing becomes more inclusive,” says Bixby. “This work is about all the pastors of First Congregational who came before me, and the people of our congregation who make this place so welcoming and safe.”