Hearts Full After Workin Visit

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by Amalia Vagts
ELM Executive Director

Each year, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries selects one member of Proclaim who is studying to be a rostered leader in the church to be the Joel Workin Scholar. This award recognizes a person who embodies Joel’s passion for justice and faith in their lives and ministry. The award includes $2,500 to be used for academic or spiritual study. In addition, the scholar is invited throughout the year to be involved with various ELM activities.

The 2016 application process is now open, and as I do each year in connection with the Workin Scholarship, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on Joel and the way his voice continues to guide our work.

Workins and Jen Rude
Ray and Betty Workin with the first Workin Scholar, Rev. Jen Rude.

Last summer, Rev. Jen Rude (ELM Program Director), Jim Kowalski (former ELM Board Co-Chair), and I drove to Fargo, North Dakota*. We were there to visit Ray and Betty Workin. Ray and Betty are the parents of Joel Workin. By the end of a marvelous and heart-filling visit we had heard stories we never knew about Joel and looked through the many scrapbooks that Betty has kept over the years.


Workin article
Front page article from The Forum (regional daily newspaper) in 1988.

Joel was one of the first openly gay seminarians in the Lutheran Church. When he and his classmates came out to their candidacy committees, it pushed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America into a conversation about something that had been a long reality – people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions are called to serve as pastors and rostered lay leaders. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were already serving as pastors in the Lutheran church. It was just not widely being talked about. Many know the history (and if you don’t, here’s a nice overview).  Joel stepped into the story when he came out. While the American Lutheran Church initially approved Joel’s candidacy, it was later rejected by the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Workin cover 3Despite the church’s lack of recognition, Joel continued to follow a call to ministry and launched a hospice ministry to those dying from AIDS in Los Angeles. He passed away from AIDS himself in November of 1995. In the last weeks before his death, Joel gave his family and friends permission to create a scholarship in his name. Joel’s bright and prophetic voice lives on through the Joel Raydon Workin Memorial Scholarship and through a book, Dear God, I am Gay – Thank You! (the preserved essays and sermons that Joel wrote as a seminarian and candidate for ministry).

The 2015 Workin Scholar was Justin Ferko, who shared recently in a letter to the Workins that he plans to use the remainder of his award for a course series on public church, prophetic communications and organizing. Through this scholarship and with the encouragement many of us find in Joel’s writing, LGBTQ leaders like Justin are not only free to serve, but are doing so in extraordinary ways.

To learn more about the Joel R. Workin Memorial Scholar Fund or to submit an application, please visit the ELM website.

Pepe-JeffAmalia Vagts, ELM Executive Director, considers the evening she spent with the Workins to be one of the most memorable and life-giving experiences she’s had in this role. And she was quite happy the evening ended with a game of cards, which she’s since dubbed (with their blessing), “Workin Poker.” She’s become a bit of a fanatic, having taught it to most of her family and friends. This picture is of Pepe Sanchez and his husband, the Rev. Jeff R. Johnson (also one of the first openly gay Lutheran seminarians) after a rousing game of Workin Poker at the home of ELM Board member Margaret Moreland and Bennett Falk.

*Edited from a previous version to correct the author’s geographical error. 🙂

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