Betty Workin: January 5, 1940 – November 22, 2016
by Amalia Vagts
Betty Workin, longtime supporter of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the Lutheran church passed away on November 22, 2016, following a two and ½ year battle with cancer. We extended our deep sympathy and prayer to Betty’s spouse, Ray, and to their two living sons, Leon and Lowell, and their families. We also extend sympathy and prayers to the many “adopted” sons that Betty and Ray brought into their lives when rejected by their own families for their sexual orientation and AIDS diagnoses.
Of the many incredible conversations I’ve had over the years with friends of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, one of the most wonderful evenings I’ve spent was with Betty and Ray when the Rev. Jen Rude, Jim Kowalski (former ELM Board Member) and I visited last summer. We spent the afternoon hearing stories about her son Joel (who passed away in 1995), and Betty showed us some of the many scrapbooks she’d made over the years with clippings from Joel’s life, including many front page stories when he came out during seminary.
In one of those articles in “The Forum,” on March 20, 1988, the reporter described one of Joel’s reasons for publicly identifying as gay: “‘If he couldn’t’ speak honestly with his parents,’ Joel said, ‘they might spend the rest of their lives in conversations no more meaningful than commenting on the weather.’”
Many of us in the Lutheran LGBTQ+ and allies community count Joel Workin among our saints, and it is a testament to Betty and Ray’s love for their family and commitment to the gospel that pushed them to seek understanding and a change of heart, leading to a lifetime of authentic relationship with their own family and many others. Uncompromising support from his mother and family was central to Joel’s ability to challenge the existing polity of the ECLA as one of the first openly gay Lutheran seminary students and candidates for ministry.
After his death from complications from AIDS, Joel’s family and friends opened a scholarship fund in his name and created a living memorial by gathering Joel’s many essays and sermons into the book, Dear God, I am Gay – Thank You! Many who have followed in Joel’s footsteps have found this book to be a profound text for study and personal prayer. Joel’s legacy lives on in people like Proclaim members, the Rev. Joe Larson, who presided at Betty’s funeral and the Rev. Terry Hagensen, who was part of the historic Extraordinary Roster and delivered the homily at her service.
One of Betty and Ray’s sons, Leon, wrote:
Thank you to all that have donated to the Joel R. Workin Scholarship Fund both in tribute of Betty and in ongoing support. It is a mission that was, and continues to be, important to Betty and all of us and we are grateful for the incredible support. All the prayers and warm wishes have been encouraging in this time of grieving and loss and remind us of the wonderful life that Betty led and her walk with our Lord, Jesus Christ.
In a sermon delivered in April of 1986, on Mark 9:10-17, titled, “Those People,” Joel preached powerfully about Jesus’ association with those people, focusing most specifically on people with AIDS. Joel proclaimed, “Others may say you are one of those people, but God says, ‘You are one of my people.’”
Betty Workin wasn’t afraid of those people. She will be remembered by the compassion, strength and love she showered on her son Joel and others who were cast aside for being gay and having AIDS. She claimed them when others would not – God’s all-encompassing love reflected through her actions.
Amalia Vagts is looking forward to many rounds of “Workin Poker” over Christmas with friends and family, having taught it to many after learning it from Betty and Ray during her visit to their home in 2015.
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