John Rainey and Gene Finnegan didn’t worry about discrimination based on their sexual orientation when they moved to Parkvue Community in 1999.

“We didn’t specifically mention our sexual orientation when we joined, but it was clear that we were accepted by everyone,” says Finnegan, a resident at the United Church Homes retirement community and CHHSM member in Sandusky, Ohio. “We felt that we would be okay here.”

Although United Church Homes always had an inclusive culture, the Marion, Ohio-based organization became the first CHHSM ministry to formally welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people when it signed an Open and Affirming (ONA) covenant with the United Church of Christ in 2012.

Many LGBT people face discrimination in retirement communities, even if the organization has a nondiscrimination policy, says the Rev. Kenneth Daniel, president and CEO of United Church Homes.

“There’s a difference between policy and practice,” he says. “Our organization already had an open culture, but we felt like we needed to make it official.”

Only about 22 percent of UCC congregations are Open and Affirming, but that number is steadily rising, according to the UCC’s ONA Coalition. CHHSM ministry Bethany Children’s Home adopted a covenant in April, and CHHSM’s board of directors will vote to create a covenant in June.

Writing a covenant was easy, but the real changes began after the designation was official, Daniel says. First, United Church Homes partnered with Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE) to offer awareness and sensitivity training for team members and also shared articles about ONA in its newsletter. Later, the organization added a rainbow comma to its website and included links to other LGBT resources. It continues to feature ONA-related stories in its quarterly magazine, Spirit, which is sent to over 16,000 households.

The ONA designation was “consistent with our values as an organization and our admissions process,” says Daniel, who adds that residents and team members express appreciation for this sensitivity.

Bethany’s ONA designation affirms a culture of acceptance at the Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania-based residential placement campus for youth, says Rose Shepley, communications specialist.

“An ONA covenant is more than just words on paper – it’s a chance to personally connect with people and even transform the culture of an organization,” she says.

Daniel agrees. “The ONA designation was part of a larger transformation as we examined our core identity and purpose last year,” he says. “It made us think, and it took us in a creative direction.”

No one should live where they don’t feel comfortable, which is why ONA is so important, says Rainey, who has served on the board at United Church Homes for 24 years.

“Many LGBT people feel like they have to hide,” he says. “It’s important that you can be yourself.”