by Christephor Gilbert
Communications & Development Coordinator
What happens when a closeted LGBTQ seminarian is called to fill in at the pulpit for their sick father, and in the process learns the secret truth of the congregation’s desire to leave the ELCA over the 2009 statement on human sexuality?
This is the central theme of Tom Jacobson’s new play, Captain of the Bible Quiz Team. Not only is the subject matter of this script timely for a denomination still wrestling with LGBTQ visibility, it is also a story that was formed by Jacobson’s connection to openly LGBTQ Lutherans. In addition to being a prolific and noted playwright, Tom is a friend and faithful supporter of ELM. We hope this play takes off so ELM supporters can see it in their own community!
I caught up with Tom as the production was entering its preview weekend, to ask him more about the genesis of the play, the relationship between justice and art, and his hope for the future of the production.
Christephor Gilbert: Tell me about your background and how you found your way in to playwriting.
Tom Jacobson: I liked writing skits in junior high then started acting in high school. I also had a terrific high school English teacher. When I got to college at Northwestern, I wanted to be an actor but discovered I was much better at playwriting. So I got an MFA in Playwriting at UCLA and then slowly became a part of the wonderful theatre community of Los Angeles.
CG: Did you grow up in the Lutheran church?
TJ: My dad was raised Lutheran in Minnesota, so we were raised ELCA in Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma (where Lutheran was definitely a minority religion). I still go to church every Sunday and enjoy the Lutheran liturgy and traditions.
CG: From looking at your website, you have several plays that have religious themes or people at their center (Apocrypha, The Beloved Disciple, Diet of Worms). How did you, as a playwright, come to settle within this niche of subject material? How does it relate (if it does) to your own spirituality/religious experience?
TJ: During church services I tend to get ideas for plays (sometimes from the sermon, sometimes from inattention). I find the conflict between tradition and today an exciting way to approach drama, and religion is always struggling with relevance in the modern world. Reinterpretation of historic religious situations (the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple John, the reaction of German nuns to “heresy” of Martin Luther) gives me an opportunity to comment on modern social conflict.
CG: What has your knowledge of or involvement with Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries been? Do you know out LGBTQ Lutheran pastors or other clergy (deacons, diaconal ministers)?
TJ: I made some friends in Lutherans Concerned in Los Angeles about 30 years ago and have kept up with inclusivity efforts ever since. I attended the extra ordinem ordination of Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart in 1990 (along with a Mapplethorpe exhibition in Berkeley, back when he was also controversial), which I found very moving. I have a vivid memory of Joel Workin’s sermon at St. Francis Lutheran the next morning, when he referred to the bishop as “that fox,” very strong words for anyone with a Biblical background. My own church, Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles, has been Reconciling in Christ for more than a decade. I’ve met a number of LGBTQ clergy over the years (mostly Lutheran).
CG: What was the impetus for your telling this particular story?
TJ: Joel Bergeland’s internship at St. Paul’s in Santa Monica was partly sponsored by my church, so he came to preach one Sunday. His sermon was the inspiration for my play. Small, dying Lutheran churches like my family church in central Minnesota need the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence I’ve found in many LGBTQ clergy, including Joel, but small rural churches don’t want “extraordinary” ministers. The conflict between hidebound ideology and modern ideas is always interesting to me, and the idea of Joel being called to a conservative rural church sounded like the perfect set-up for a play fraught with tension.
CG: Captain of the Bible Quiz Team unfolds narratively as a series of sermons, and the performance is staged in an actual church. Can you tell me about how you came to see the story unfold in this way?
TJ: My church hosted a production of my Chekhov adaptation, The Orange Grove, in 2004 and in 2015 Diet of Worms was performed in the Episcopal cathedral in LA, so I have some experience with site-specific plays in churches. I love using the church–an inherently theatrical space designed for ritual performance–as a church. I like the audience becoming a congregation and taking the role of the antagonist in a play with one actor (the protagonist). Some interesting audience interaction is built into the play, which functions as a form of hyper-realism that has deeply engaged audiences in our workshop productions. I’ve noticed when the audience knows they have a role, they pay attention and stay on their toes (thanks to anxiety as well as excitement). I enjoy audience culpability, and that’s central to this play.
CG: I also see that the upcoming performance has four different actors sharing the role of Pastor Landry Sorenson. Is that something indicated in the script, or something that was realized by the director? Tell me more about how this casting devise relates to the theme/intention of the script.
TJ: From the very beginning I intended the role to be played by a variety of actors of different genders, ages, and backgrounds. By changing the physicality of the actor from male to female, for instance, the character is changed and so is the story–without changing a word of the dialogue. I’m intrigued by the inherent variability of live performance, and I tend to write in ways that emphasize how every performance (or production) is unique. That excitement of variability is one of the reasons theatre has survived the competition with TV and film–being in the room with a live actor is a thrill, especially if a different actor is playing the role each night. I hope people will see it with all four of our outstanding actors so they can experience the play differently.
CG: In conversation with Amalia, she told me that your research for this play involved conducting one-on-one interviews with LGBTQ pastors. What surprises did you discover? Realities you had confirmed? Did the interviews take the story in an unexpected direction from the initial idea for the show?
TJ: I expected to learn sad stories of oppression, of anger, of discouragement. The surprise for me was that every minister I interviewed persevered in the face of terrible rejection, loving the church that told them they were not worthy (until 2009). Their passion for God and the church was impressive. Equally impressive were some of the surprisingly happy endings to their stories (even before 2009). One of those amazing stories became the miracle at the end of the play.
CG: How do you see your art as an instrument for justice?
TJ: I like lying in service of the truth, telling fictional tales that reveal reality. I try to both point out problems and offer possible solutions, while reminding audiences of the humanity of the characters. I hope the audience will sometimes feel culpable and leave the theatre resolute about taking action or at least being a better person.
CG: How can theatre affect change that other media can’t?
TJ: Theatre is immediate, happening in the moment, not at a remove. It’s also much cheaper to mount a play than film a movie or TV show, so plays can respond more quickly to contemporary issues.
CG: What is your hope for this particular script? Do you have a vision for its performance in other sites/cities?
TJ: If the show is well received in its first three venues, our hope is that the producer, Rogue Machine Theatre, will find other churches in Southern California willing to host this production. Good reviews and audiences might lead to productions in other churches in other cities. With only one actor performing and the set provided by the church, it’s a pretty inexpensive show to mount. I hope that portability will lead to productions in churches (not just Lutheran) all over the country.
About the Play
Rogue Machine Theatre presents the world premiere of Captain of the Bible Quiz Team by Tom Jacobson, Saturday August 27th through Monday October 3rd. The production is directed by Michael Michetti and is produced by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and Anna Nicholas. The performance features Amielynn Abellera, Wayne Tyrone Carr, Mark Jacobson, and Deborah Puette in rotation as Pastor Landry Sorenson. Tickets are $34.99 and can be reserved by calling 855-585-5185. For more information, please visit the production website, captainofthebiblequizteam.com.
To learn more about Tom Jacobson visit www.tomjacobsonplaywright.com.
Christephor Gilbert just finished Clinical Pastoral Education and is about to enter his Middler year at Lutheran School of Theology, where he isn’t captain of the Bible quiz team, but does serve as co-leader of Thesis 96, LSTC’s LGBTQ affinity group. You can find Christephor any day of the week reading poetry (Federico Garcia Lorca, Mary Oliver, and Audre Lorde are favorites), thinking about finishing those socks he has been knitting for two years, or watching The Devil Wears Prada for the um-teenth time, with his partner Donald and their three unusual cats.
Rev. Asher O’Callaghan began as the Program Director for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries this past Monday. Welcome, Asher!
by the Rev. Asher O’Callaghan
Fearful and excited—this is how I remember feeling as I stepped into the opening worship at my first ever Proclaim Gathering. I was excited, living out the joy that comes when we’re following our sense of call. But I was also nervous, maybe even downright afraid of the future…
What if I after all the student loans, and years of seminary, and CPE, and all the candidacy essays and interviews, what if after all of that, there would never be a congregation on the other side that would be ready to call me? Was I stupid to be taking these risks? Was my hope just a pipe dream? Was God’s call going to be enough to get me through to the other side of candidacy and into a first call?
That Gathering was my first encounter with ELM and it was just the fresh breath of Spirit I needed for the road ahead. In the years since then, getting involved in the work of ELM has gotten me to where I am today. It was really as a member of Proclaim, a volunteer with Candidacy Accompaniment, and member of ELM’s Board of Directors that I began to develop a sense of my own voice and gifts for ministry.
I’ve come to experience how LGBTQ+ identities are not hurdles to ministry but a doorway: A doorway inviting us to connect with people who are on the margins, who are being oppressed, who have been hurt or disenfranchised by the church. A doorway to witnessing the power and freedom that comes from living as whole and integrated children of God. A doorway out of fearing our differences as a threat to unity. A doorway into embracing our differences as gifts for our work together as Christ’s Body.
I’m so grateful as I look back at the way ELM’s work has transformed me and continues to do so. It fires me up to imagine how our work together can continue to transform our church. I’m convinced that our church needs ELM’s message as much today as I needed it years ago as a seminarian wondering whether my sexuality and gender identity were going to be insurmountable hurdles to ministry.
And so it has been with that same sense of joyous excitement that I had years ago at my first Proclaim Gathering that I’ve begun my work here as ELM’s new Program Director this week. But this time, it’s with a bold sense of fabulousness rather than a timid sense the fearfulness.
This week I’ve been diving into the work and getting oriented with things: We’ve had our first full-staff meeting across 3 states and 2 time zones, I joined in on a Proclaim Team Meeting, and am contacting each of our 3 Program Conveners to touch-base and set up times to meet. Would love to hear from you too! To get in touch with me, feel free to friend me and message me on Facebook or email me at email@example.com.
Asher O’Callaghan is enjoying the ocean breeze through the window of his apartment in Long Beach, California. He looks forward to meeting those of you who he hasn’t yet. His favorite color is green because he likes things that grow. When he’s not working or writing about himself in the third person, he enjoys things like open-water swimming, hiking, eating good food, and struggling to learn how to surf. He hopes that you’re having a fabulous day.
by Amalia Vagts, Executive Director
with gratitude for input from others in the LGBTQ community
I’ve just returned from the 14th ELCA Churchwide Assembly and inaugural Grace Gathering in New Orleans, attending in my capacity as executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. For me, the week was a combination of joy, sadness, growth, challenge, gratitude, disappointment, and a deepened commitment to proclaim the good news. Hey, sounds like church!
I was reminded of what called me to engage in this ministry in the first place. My fire has been lit with resolve. We’ve got work to do.
Seven years and three assemblies after changing church policy to affirm the calls and relationships of LGBTQ people, our community was largely invisible in the programming throughout the week. I’m thankful for all the thought and hard work that went into an increasingly wonderfully diverse and multi-perspective assembly. I’m thankful for the provoking and energizing conversations about racism, racial equality, and white privilege. It was fantastic to see how much is changing! Our church could have also delighted this past week in celebrating LGBTQ folks as we rightfully celebrate the growing, gorgeous and long overdue overall diversity of our denomination. There are now 659 Reconciling in Christ ministry settings, with another 430 on the journey. There are 230 openly LGBTQ pastors, deacons, and candidates for ministry. There are congregations that have formed or grown because of the ELCA’s deepening welcome of LGBTQ people. All cause for great joy – yet, our church leaders missed many opportunities to celebrate this good news and the gifts of LGBTQ people.
Because there was no formal space for LGBTQ people at this assembly, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and ReconcilingWorks created it for LGBTQ people and allies at co-led events throughout the week. We met for daily prayer – five of these led by openly LGBTQ ministry leaders, and one by an ally bishop. The gathered group ranged from 30 – 75 each day. It was amazing to have that space with our people and our allies. I’m grateful especially to our allies for their commitment. Some people commented about how they had to “figure out where the LGBTQ people were.” At future assemblies, we hope to see more publicity about LGBTQ-led opportunities in order bring more awareness to those not yet familiar with the many ELCA people working in support of a church that celebrates diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions.
Midway through the week, we co-hosted a reception and working conversation at a hotel across the street from the Convention Center.
Nearly 100 people (including four ELCA bishops) gathered for community and socializing. After the reception, about half the group stayed for conversation in small groups. We invited conversation about what LGBTQ people and friends need as we look ahead to 2019. That year will be the 10th anniversary of the policy change that began to recognize same-sex relationships and welcome partnered LGBTQ people to serve as rostered leaders. We asked people to share a word to describe the current state of LGBTQ people in the ELCA, to consider what LGBTQ people in the ELCA still need and to reflect on why they stay in the struggle.
There were two consistent themes in these conversations – invisibility and possibility.
Many LGBTQ people and allies felt invisible this past week. As we see the beautiful changes coming from a deepened understanding of what the church receives when we welcome, affirm, and include diverse voices, faces, languages and cultures – we long for our LGBTQ identities to become part of that richness. Those who are LGBTQ and know others in the community felt comforted to see familiar LGBTQ faces in worship and to see LGBTQ people and allies as leaders and voting members throughout the week. Yet others newer to our church had no idea that they were among friends. You can’t see we’re LGBTQ by looking at us. LGBTQ people need to claim our own identities, and our allies must name us in order for our diversity to be known. We lament the invisibility of LGBTQ people among those explicitly celebrated in the hall and in worship. It is our sincere hope and prayer that future assemblies will visibly celebrate the gifts of LGBTQ people and worship leaders.
Many LGBTQ people and allies saw the possibility of how our church can move forward in great ways this past week. We have hope for the possibility of a richer kingdom when LGBTQ voices and faces are celebrated. We align with others who feel invisible and filled with possibility – and we are filled with resolve to help our church continue to move forward to that great day.
We have begun to experience how good the church can be when we break from a narrow understanding of church dominated by white Northern European culture. We are all connected in this journey – especially those of us seeking to lead from the margins. What joy awaits this church as we continue to break open the racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, classism and sexism which continue to confine us.
As we do the hard work, we more clearly see the possibility of becoming a church transformed by the named and celebrated gifts of all people.
Amalia Vagts (pictured here on the assembly floor with Proclaim member Rev. Emily E. Ewing) was on the floor “legally” for the first time this year (was also there as a peaceful protester in 2005). This year, she especially enjoyed seeing young people at the microphones, conversations about race from a fantastic variety of perspectives, would love to hear Leymah Gbowee speak every single day, and appreciated hallway conversations during this churchwide assembly – with those committed to our work, those who’ve never heard of us, and those who need our work but can’t yet be public about it.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly begins this coming Monday in New Orleans, Louisiana. ELM will be there!
We’re partnering with ReconcilingWorks during this year’s Assembly to raise visibility about the presence and involvement of LGBTQ people throughout the life and work of the church. Join in daily activities (even by phone if you aren’t attending in person!) to support the lives of LGBTQ people and our allies, friends, and families.
We decided on these plans in response to the tragedy in Orlando, as well as other backlashes against LGBTQ people and their families, and continued discrimination in our church and communities. While the pews and pulpits of the ELCA are open to LGBTQ people, many in our community do not feel a sense of belonging and safety in the Lutheran church.
What is next for the work for LGBTQ people in the Lutheran Church? We have come a long way, yet the journey continues. We’ve created a joint online website to invite your direct feedback about what you hope to see in the future of the church.Please go to lgbtqlutheran.org to share.
ELCA Churchwide Activities
Daily Morning Prayer: Join with others to create a space where LGBTQ people and allies will lead prayer in thanks and affirmation for the gifts marginalized communities bring to the ELCA. Join us in the hallway in front of Plenary Room (Hall C) on first floor. Monday: 12:30 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30 am. As part of this prayer time, we’ll also be creating a prayer banner using words shared through the online surveyand from those attending in person.
Daily Conference Calls: Join executive directors Amalia Vagts and Aubrey Thonvold (ReconcilingWorks) at 6:15pm CST daily for a 15 minute call, starting Tuesday, for daily updates about the Assembly. Phone number 641-715-3660, Participant Access Code 186983. (We got the idea of a conference call from the African Descent Lutheran Association – they’re doing daily prayer leading up to Churchwide – check out their Facebook page to learn more. We say thank you for a great idea about connecting those who can’t attend in person!).
Midweek Meetup: If you are looking for information about ReconcilingWorks, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, memorials, and elections please stop by the Foyer in the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center on Wednesday August 10th from 10am – 7pm.
Wednesday Reception & Working Gathering: Attend the reception from 7-8:30pm in the Ballroom of the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center for a time of networking and community. All are welcome!
Stay for the Working Gathering to discuss “What do LGBTQ people still need from their church?” as we look to the 10th anniversary of policy change at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. Be a part of the conversation that will help guide our plans for the work ahead.
And now a word about our sponsors…Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries was able to say YES to joining in this work in thanks to a special gift we received this year from Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, IL. The gift came as part of their Courage Campaign. We will say more about Grace and their Courage Campaign in a future post, but for now we say THANK YOU people of Grace for making it possible for us to do something extra this year when the need arose.
With great joy and gratitude, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries announces that the Rev. Asher O’Callaghan (he/him/his) is our new Program Director!
Additionally, Christephor Gilbert (he/him/his) has been promoted to Development & Communications Coordinator. We are thankful for these outstanding leaders!
As Program Director for ELM, Asher will build and support community through the Proclaim program, walk with and equip leaders through the Accompaniment program, and connect with and uplift congregations through the Ministry Engagement program. Asher will work alongside volunteer program conveners and in partnership with other ELM staff on strategic work and communication for these programs. Asher begins on August 15 and will work from his home in Long Beach, CA.
“Getting involved in the work of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries has gotten me to where I am today. I’ve come to find that my gender identity and sexuality are gifts for ministry rather than burdens because ELM helped me find my voice as an LGBTQ candidate. ELM gave me the boldness to be fabulous. The network of colleagues that Proclaim helped me develop has been a constant source of joy and inspiration. The Accompaniment Program was a steady support throughout the turbulence of candidacy. And the work of Ministry Engagement is preparing more congregations to call LGBTQ pastors like myself. As ELM’s Program Director, I’m excited to help others get involved and experience this same fabulousness.“
Before becoming a Lutheran pastor, Asher fancied himself spiritual but not religious. He thought he was done with organized religion after growing up transgender and bisexual in a fundamentalist church. But then he stumbled into a church called House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado where God messed up all his plans. There he heard an invitation he couldn’t help but share. From Christ’s open table he heard: “Behold who you are. Become what you receive.” Becoming what he’s received has led him to earn a Master of Divinity from Luther Seminary, to pastor a small mountain congregation called Zion Lutheran Church in Idaho Springs, Colorado, and now to serve as ELM’s Program Director. Asher is a member of Proclaim and served on the ELM Board of Directors until March of this year.
Development & Communications Coordinator: Christephor Gilbert
We also announce the promotion of Christephor Gilbert to the newly created position of Development & Communications Coordinator. Christephor has served as Operations Coordinator for ELM since February this year. The position contains Christephor’s current role and has been expanded to include communications and development responsibilities. Christephor will work two days a week at our Chicago home office at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
Christephor is a member of Proclaim, a student in the Master of Divinity program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and is in candidacy with the ELCA toward Word and Sacrament ministry.
We’re thankful to you, our wonderful supporters, who make it possible for ELM to invest in strong leaders who can guide and direct ELM’s ministry. ELM believes that the extraordinary gifts of LGBTQ ministry leaders enrich and transform our church. Your support allows us to live out that belief through Proclaim, Accompaniment and Ministry Engagement. Thank you!