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Religious urged to tackle issues, ‘stop judging’

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    The Rev. Jonipher Kupono Kwong, left, will deliver his last sermon at the First Unitarian Church of Hono­­lulu on June 21. He and his husband, Chris Nelson, center, are moving to Cali­for­nia, where they plan to adopt a child. Rabbi Peter Schaktman officiated at their wedding in December 2013.

The Rev. Jonipher Ku­pono Kwong of the First Unitarian Church of Hono­­lulu and his husband were among the first same-sex couples to tie the knot minutes after marriage equality was legalized in Hawaii.

The right to marry Chris Nelson, his partner of 15 years, on Dec. 2, 2013, was a victory for Kwong after years of activism in Hawaii and, before that, Cali­for­nia. Gov. Neil Abercrombie attended the church ceremony, which was also watched by the rest of the country via national media as Hawaii became the 15th state to pass a Marriage Equality Act.

In collaboration with Hawaii United for Marriage — a statewide coalition of congregations, businesses, labor unions and community organizations that worked to pass civil marriage in Hawaii — Kwong encouraged clergy of diverse faiths to support a petition urging the Legislature to pass the law.

He added that having some 100 religious leaders sign on to a document is "no small potatoes."

Kwong is now facing another challenge: the prospect of raising children.

He’s preparing for a move to Long Beach, Calif., where he and Nelson plan to adopt a child next year. "It’s so exciting," he said.

Kwong’s last day at First Unitarian will be June 21.

While LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) people are gaining acceptance in Hawaii’s churches, "we still have a long ways to go," Kwong said.

"There’s still a lot of shame and stigma with being LGBT," particularly among families, he added.

"We all have something we struggle with, and we need help from other people. How to be more compassionate toward each other — that’s what I believe is at the core of every religious teaching."

Faith leaders, Kwong said, "need to come out of their closet more" to deal with the controversial problems and respond to community hardships, even when it causes stress in their own congregation and adversely affects a leader’s job security.

"The safe thing to do would be to talk about chicken dinners, to (tout) the mainstream views, and that would not rock the boat," Kwong said.

"But are we called to do the safe thing or the right thing? Are we called to be prophets or to be status quo keepers? I think that’s a challenge for ministers and religious leaders out there, to keep asking themselves what they’re being called to do and what would make the biggest impact in our world today."

Kwong’s sermon topic for Sunday is "Causing Trouble." He added, "My definition of ministry is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

While transgender equality could be the next high-profile hurdle for social justice advocates, it will not be the last, Kwong said. "There’s always going to be an underdog."

Instead of focusing on subgroups of people, he said, the bigger need is to accept everyone.

"We need to let go of our expectations and stop judging other people," he said.

"The church needs a theological shift. We need to go deep into our basic assumptions and our foundational core value of acceptance and compassion."

LGBT rights "is just one tiny piece of a larger picture about the injustices that are going on in the world today," Kwong said. "And if we could just get this piece right, then we could go very far."

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