By Michael Price Nelson
In this post, Michael Price Nelson reflects on his friend and colleague, Joel Workin, and on this year’s Workin Scholar Christephor Gilbert’s essay on grace.
Thirty years ago this week, I first met Joel Workin at a Lutherans Concerned meeting at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood. While many of the faces there were new to me, Joel stood out – not least of all because of his 6’4” frame. Joel was immersed in his internship at a church in LA, and like most seminarians I’ve known, he radiated with an eagerness and joy about being something greater than himself, about living into his “call” of Christ in his life.
Less than 18 months later, however, after being certified for call by Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, two church officials summoned him to Los Angeles, along with Jim Lancaster and Jeff Johnson. In that meeting, the three were presented with a document outlining how they were to behave as openly gay candidates. Jim had prepared a list of specific questions: “Are we allowed to touch? Can we hold hands? What about kissing?” At this point, he was stopped by his inquisitors and told, “Look, we don’t know how to define it. We just know we don’t want you to do it.”
“Don’t you call unclean what I call clean.”
This was a favorite passage of Joel’s from the story of Cornelius. I can remember him preaching on this as he struggled with his own sense of call in the face of the ELCA’s “no” to God’s “yes” in his life. In the end, Joel was never ordained. Instead, he made a loving home with his husband Paul Jenkins and channeled his own sense of ministry into service for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, helping to establish the country’s first free standing AIDS hospice. He also served as newsletter editor for the local Lutherans Concerned chapter and wrote many essays about LGBTQ people in the church, which are the basis for his posthumous book “Dear God, I’m Gay. Thank You!”
In the years since he passed away, I’ve often struggled with how to make sense of all that happened to Joel. With his friends, I helped establish the Workin Scholarship in the hopes that would make sense. But on a deeper personal level, I’ve still wondered how anyone could go on once a calling is stolen from you because of who God made you to be. How do you go on? How does anyone go on after being rejected by family and friends for being LGBT? How does anyone go on after losing a job because of sexual identity? And why, why would you even want to?
Then I read this line, written by this year’s Workin Scholar, Chistephor Gilbert, in his beautifully crafted essay on grace: “And in the dark falling, in the everlasting emptiness, the grace is there saying, Get up and follow me.”
Even though I’m an every-Sunday-Lutheran, I need to be reminded of this, to have grace presented to me in new images, to re-engage me with its true nature. Christephor Gilbert’s essay has done that for me. He challenges me – and I hope all of you – to look anew at what Joel called “grace unbounded.”
Michael Price Nelson serves as chair of the Joel R. Workin Scholarship Committee. He was a colleague and friend of Joel’s and was the editor of both editions of “Dear God I’m Gay. Thank you!” Michael and his husband, Dale von Seggern, are members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, CA.