AUBURN — Fred Sanborn felt his church's embrace before.
But High Street Congregational Church in Auburn never some felt as warm to him as it did Sunday morning, when 73 members raised their hands to make his church everyone's church.
Members agreed to designate the church as "open and affirming."
"I wasn't expecting it," Sanborn said of the overwhelming vote. "I thought some people would vote against it."
When that time came, only one did.
That means that the church will not only welcome people of many sexual preferences — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered — but it will embrace them in every ceremony. And it will perform marriages, even if the state may see them as nothing more than committal ceremonies.
More important, the designation makes a statement to Lewiston-Auburn, Sanborn said, the church's clerk and a gay man.
"The community will know that we are open and welcoming," said Sanborn, who met his partner, Peter Silver, at the church. "We aren't discriminating against anybody."
The Auburn church took its time before Sunday's vote.
For 15 months, there were meetings and workshops, materials to read and ideas to talk about.
The issue had split other churches, the congregation knew.
The Episcopal church has undergone pains over the sexuality issue. Members may be gay. Even its priests may be gay. But when a gay bishop was elected, it caused a national re-examination of the issue.
Catholics and many protestant denominations say they welcome gay and lesbian individuals into their churches but preach against homosexuality.
Other churches, such as the Unitarian Universalist Church, have been leaders in the effort to embrace people of every sexual preference.
And Congregational churches were the first to ordain both women and gays.
To the Rev. Stephen Carnahan, High Street Congregational's pastor since March 2010, such decisions as Sunday's are a simple matter.
The Baltimore native had a rough family life as kid. It made him feel life on the fringe.
"Having gone through life as one of the excluded, I don't want to be part of an exclusive community," Carnahan said. "I don't want to do that to anybody else. I wanted the church to say, 'You're welcome here.'"
He spoke about it in Sunday's sermon.
"Jesus was not afraid to go to those who were cast out," he said. "And I don't want to be afraid to do that either."
He also talked about the change with his son, who is gay. Excluding him is unthinkable.
The dad imagines one day presiding at his son's marriage.
"One day I might," Carnahan said.