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Living in Amazing Grace

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Brach Jennings and ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson

The ELCA recently named its 2011-2012 Fund for Leaders scholarship recipients, and the list included two members of Proclaim,the professional community for publicly identified LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders and seminarians.

The ELCA Fund for Leaders is an endowed scholarship fund that provides full tuition scholarships to outstanding ELCA seminarians each year. The full ELCA press release on the Fund is here.

Proclaim members Brach Jennings and Kyle Severson received awards. In this blog, we share Brach Jenning’s journey to ministry. Next week we’ll profile, Kyle Severson.

Brach is a student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

Q: How will this scholarship and award impact you?

A: The Fund for Leaders in Mission scholarship will enable me to preach the Gospel to the marginalized of society without a huge worry regarding financial debt.  It also helped affirm that God is truly calling me to the ministry.

Q: Share a reflection about your seminary experience so far?

A: Seminary is challenging and rewarding.  Biblical texts are opening up to me in entirely new ways and I am enjoying the experience.  However, I am also struggling with what all of this means for a twenty-first century world.  I love Berkeley and PLTS is a nice blend between seminary and life at UC Berkeley.

Q: Do you have any reflections about what it means to be a gay person in seminary at this time in the ELCA’s history?

A: I feel like I am at the forefront of important changes within the ELCA.  The ELCA has a profound opportunity to preach Christ’s radical inclusivity to all people and I think the ordination of LGBTQ people is a way of expressing this radical grace.

For more about Brach’s journey to seminary read this following reflection that he wrote earlier this year.

“Living in Amazing Grace” – My Journey to Seminary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

This note is meant to tell of my complicated and exciting journey to seminary, as well as encourage other gay people, who like me may have struggled with religion because they find it unwelcoming and exclusionary. I am not trying to convert anyone; religion is a personal decision. But, I will share my story with those who are interested and offer a viewpoint centered on radical hope and radical grace. Names have been excluded to protect the innocent.

On July 7, 2011, I arrived in Berkeley, CA to begin my seminary study toward a Master of Divinity degree. If all goes according to plan, I will be an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in four years time. This is a huge and terrifying commitment, as well as the most exciting adventure I have had in my relatively short life. I was pondering all of this tonight and decided to delay working on my Greek homework to reflect on how I received a mysterious call to seminary and then acted upon that call. This starts with explaining my struggle to find an authentic faith expression that fit my needs.

I have always been a deeply religious person, although in a different way from the Christianity that dominates much of contemporary American culture. This popular form is often quite conservative and judgmental, both theologically and politically, neither of which interests me much. It is particularly prevalent at college and university campuses in America and abroad, and if you don’t believe me, observe Chi Alpha Campus Ministries and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. To be blunt, these groups have openly stated their opposition to gay people and many members insist that practicing homosexuality warrants eternal punishment in Hell. (Interestingly, one can still eat shellfish, obtain a tattoo and wear one’s hair down if female without fear of damnation.)

Coming to terms with being openly gay and religious at the same time was quite a problem for me in the largely conservative environment my college town. I was and am not interested in shouting my sexuality off the rooftops, but I also refuse to be silent about it. It is a part of me as much as heterosexuality is a part of others. The challenge was learning to express my entire being in a religious context. Thus, college ministry Christianity, at least in its non-denominational, low church context, was definitely not for me.

I had many varied and interesting religious experiences throughout college that ranged from the above mentioned campus ministry groups to Unitarianism, Quakerism, and a conservative Baptist church that I was told was “in the middle” of the political spectrum, but turned out to be one of the coldest congregations I have observed in a long time. They went so far as to bash the ELCA in the worship service I attended. Un-Christian? Perhaps, but I believe everyone is guilty of judging others at some point. None of these aforementioned worship styles satisfied my spiritual hunger and longing for a genuine encounter with God. Quakerism came close because silent meditation allowed me to rest in the still, small voice of God. Despite being largely negatively affected by many churches I attended, I was given a taste of the incredibly wide range of Christianity that is present in American society today.

Amidst all of this I received the call to go to seminary. It came out of nowhere. It wasn’t quite like a voice telling me to go to seminary, but it was close. And it was so powerful I felt an “aha, I understand this” response from myself. This was roughly right after a friend of mine had decided to try and “cure” my homosexuality by laying hands on me. I was confused and distraught by the experience. He was unsuccessful and my thinking at the time was that if God didn’t love me I should off myself and get it over with to burn forever in eternal damnation. I did not go through with my foolish and selfish idea only because I didn’t believe I was truly alone in my dorm room amidst my anguish and total confusion. I’ve come a long way since then because I am happily “out” and have found a way to love God and serve neighbor as well. It took much prayer, deliberation and searching to get to where I am but the call to go to seminary never left and still burns strong within my innermost being even though I have now arrived at my seminary.

Returning to my story, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more complicated, my stepfather died of a massive heart attack on May 13, 2010. I was beyond shattered and still think of him more times than I can count per day. I had never experienced the pain and anguish of losing someone I loved before so I didn’t know what was happening for quite awhile. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was the biggest blessing I could have found. I met a pastor in my hometown who told me to always focus on God’s grace and my entire view of God changed with that simple sentence. I will never forget this individual and was thrilled to worship with her again during Summer 2011.

In early June 2010, I found a home congregation in my college town. I chose it solely because it was the only Lutheran church in my area with a male and a female pastor. After hearing many times that having women in leadership positions was wrong and contrary to God’s vision, I wanted to explore the other side which said women were welcome in office. I had no idea this pastor would become my spiritual mentor, one of my biggest allies to date, and someone I will undoubtedly call a friend for life. If that’s not God speaking, I don’t know what is and I would gladly march down any college campus for women’s equality in the ministry after my experiences during the last year. By mid-July 2010, I began to inquire what seminary study would entail and wrestle with the mysterious calling I had been experiencing since April. Both of my pastors helped me find the confidence to pursue an M. Div.

In August 2010, I began my final year of college with an entirely new viewpoint because I had direction in my life. I had no idea what I would do beyond college before bumping in to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Music? History? Musicology? High school choir director/history teacher? Even college dropout crossed my mind a time or two when I didn’t think I was good enough to complete school. Now I had a reason not just to study but to exist. My new-found Lutheranism began to fill everything I did and inform all of my viewpoints, be they spiritual, political or social. I began to explore what it meant to practice a politics of compassion instead of a politics based on greed, which I would argue is how a majority of the American political and economic system is run. What did it mean to serve the neighbor regardless of race, religion, national origin or sexual orientation? How could I “live Lutheran” in a twenty-first century world where the concept of Christ is often scoffed at by academics and commoners alike as being an anti-intellectual fairy tale told to those who cannot handle the reality of dying? I started by taking almost every friend I had to Salem. Indeed, I think a majority of my friends have attended at least one ELCA service with me, if not more than one. Call me “evangelical” in my zeal to show others this viewpoint based on grace if you want, but I viewed it as my small act of repayment for everything God was doing for me through the ELCA.

In the process of becoming more Lutheran by the day, I frequently debated the conservative evangelical groups on campus and was told numerous times that I was a false Christian, a heretic and bound for eternal punishment because I refused to subscribe to biblical inerrancy. Fortunately for me, Martin Luther was also considered an apostate and a heretic by many when he sought to reform the Church in the sixteenth century. I took him as my foremost example, centering in radical grace and trusting God to do the rest through the Risen Christ. Yes, I am a progressive Christian theologically and politically and am now unashamed about that fact. It took me awhile to get comfortable in my skin, but I’m there now and continue to grow daily in the Spirit.

I figured I would have one year between finishing college and entering seminary; so, my planned entrance date would be Fall 2012. However, I ended up introducing myself to my synod office so I wouldn’t be a total stranger the following year. God apparently was intent on knocking me on my head again because I left that meeting in December 2010 with a positive affirmation from the assistant to my bishop and my bishop to enter seminary in Fall 2011. I returned to my college town feeling excited and frightened but somehow knowing things would work out they way they were supposed to.

My next big decision involved choosing a seminary. For those who don’t know, there are eight ELCA seminaries. I quickly narrowed my decision to four of them: Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, CA. It was a hard decision to choose between these fine academic and spiritual institutions of the church that I now called my home. A pastor friend of mine suggested I look at PLTS as it is an RIC seminary (“Reconciling in Christ”), offering full inclusion of students regardless of sexual orientation, and he felt my political views seemed to fit this campus. I figured I would never go to Berkeley though; too far away and too many unknowns involved with moving there.

I had become interested in the University of California-Berkeley (called ‘Cal’ for short by those of us who live here) after taking a contemporary American social history class in 2010 with one of my mentors in the history department. A true campus radical in the best sense of the word, this professor flipped my political views upside down and was a big influence in my journey toward always practicing a politics of compassion instead of a politics of greed. However, I knew little of Berkeley other than the campus protests of the sixties and the lovely Joan Baez who often performed on the campus during that time period. Thus, I didn’t think I would go here. Luther or LSTC seemed the safest because they were relatively close to home and in a familiar geographical location.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I called out here to see what the administration had to say. As with my home congregation, I had no intention of pursuing PLTS beyond one phone call. The PLTS folks were genuinely interested in meeting me and said I should fly out to California for a few days to explore the campus. I visited PLTS in February and was sold on coming here after my visit, no questions asked. I respectfully declined the offers from the other seminaries I applied to and began to come to terms with the fact that I would fly halfway across the country in July leaving dear friends and family to follow my call to the ministry.

The puzzle had a few more pieces to complete before my journey to seminary was fulfilled though. The first was a positive entrance decision from my candidacy committee that was thankfully completed in mid-June per a special committee meeting. The second was that I became a recipient of the ELCA Fund for Leaders in Mission, meaning full tuition support from the Lutheran church while in seminary. Me…the small town kid who little over a year ago was convinced he was hated by God for being gay and doomed to spend eternity in hell. I can’t help but smile as I reflect on this and think that God has a radical sense of humor. I lost all composure when Churchwide in Chicago informed me I received the scholarship and remain daily grateful for this wonderful gift that deducts a considerable amount of money from my total bill.

Time flew by and I’m now sitting at my computer in Berkeley writing this note with an album by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers in the background. So many people helped me along the way and all of them know who they are. I am grateful for everyone who has offered guidance and support during this strange and rewarding journey that has lead me to a life full of growth and hope.

I conclude by saying if anyone out there is reading this who is struggling with the reality of being gay and feeling rejected by the church or as though they must somehow change their sexuality to be a believer, I know what that’s like. I also know what it’s like to say I will never return to the Christian church because of the often hurtful politics that are present within it instead of a loving and inclusive environment. Being excluded solely on the basis of sexuality may be one of the worst emotional roller coasters one could experience. We must remember that the church is a human institution, complete with all of the shortcomings of humanity. The good news is that there is a place for gay people in the Christian church. God loves you. God loves all of God’s creation, and seeks a relationship with humanity. We are radically freed in the Risen Christ to love and serve the neighbor and therefore to work for God’s kingdom on earth. It is God’s vision that a just society be formed for all God’s people. It truly does “get better.”

Soli Deo Gloria!

 

-Brach Jennings

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

Berkeley, CA

 

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