My “coming out story” has the threads of our story as an LGBTQIA+ community yet it is my own story as well. It starts with my older sister coming out at age 19 in 1972. My parents sent her to a psychiatrist who concluded, they had a “nice daughter.” The timing was significant because 1972 was the first year that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by psychiatrists, no longer listed homosexuality as a mental illness. I have always assumed this empowered the psychiatrist to say she wasn’t mentally ill and was perfectly fine to be a lesbian. This was a blessing for our family.
About 4 years later, my younger brother came out as gay. At that time, I did not yet identify as bisexual, because I was really into guys. So, I donned the identity as the straight child in the family. This was an identity I had to overcome when I came out as bisexual.
During my marriage to my son’s father, I met a woman and was bowled over by feelings that were entirely unexpected. I wasn’t even sure what these feelings meant and did not pursue them. This experience was the first of several that led me to identify as bisexual. It was a surprise that moved me into uncertainty – similar to the surprise of being called to Word and Sacrament ministry when I was very settled in a nursing career.
My time in seminary was pivotal. I started as a sister advocating for her LGBTQIA+ siblings and finished by realizing I was advocating for myself. At the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC), I worked with others to bring conversations and presentations to the seminary community during the late 90’s. I take pride in being present when the name “Thesis 96” emerged at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade in 1999. Still today, Thesis 96 continues to be the name of the LGBTQIA+ advocacy group at LSTC.
For internship, I requested to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to be near my brother who was affected by AIDs. My request was granted, with the gift of an internship at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Oakland where Pastor Ross Merkel had been “defrocked” by the ELCA in 1994 after he publicly came out. St. Paul Lutheran kept him as their pastor despite church policy. It was an incredible experience to see faith in the midst of pain as people continued to remain in relationship with the ELCA and work for change. This was where I learned about the Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ECP) and Lutheran Lesbian Gay Ministries (LLGM) – the predecessor bodies to ELM.
My time at St. Paul Lutheran in Oakland was another step into understanding my sexual identity more fully. It wasn’t until several years after seminary, however, that I fully and publicly claimed my sexual orientation as bisexual, shifting into the ECP Process.
I was the 7th person to be ordained extra ordinem in 2002 by four congregations in Oakland and Alameda, California to a large nursing home ministry. I was the first extraordinarily ordained person to identify as bisexual. It is an honor to be part of this historic roster and be with all faithful Lutheran identified Christians who worked to change ELCA policy.
However far we have come, we still have a lot of work today. I recently received negative feedback from a congregation who was given my name to be their interim pastor. I was not treated with respect. Yet, I believe it was their loss.
They lost an experienced pastor with the wide berth of skills a congregational pastor needs today. They lost the energy, the knowledge, and strategy that I and many LGBTQIA+ pastors have to make space for the Spirit, transforming our old dying ways with new life-giving ways of collaboration, justice, and prophetic imagination.
We have so much to offer the church today. We know we can get through the trials and tribulations of today by remaining faithful in the tension of our own pain and the anxiety of our communities.
As Saint Paul writes in Romans, “But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5.3-5).
Sharon Stalkfleet (she/her/hers) served as a registered nurse for 16 years prior to receiving a Master’s of Divinity from Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, She was ordained extra ordenim by four congregations in Oakland and Alameda, CA in 2002. In 2010, she was received into the ELCA along with 7 other LGBTQ pastors in San Francisco Bay Area. She has served as pastor to Lutheran Ministry to Nursing Homes, as a hospice chaplain and most recently serves as an Intentional Interim Pastor. She is a member of the Candidacy Committee and Sanctuary Task Force. She lives with her dog Greta in Berkeley and is very partial to her two grandchildren.
My life has felt like a series of “coming outs.” I came out as queer in high school and to my disappointment, no one was surprised. It felt like the longest crescendo and I was finally going to share my truth! Come to find out, my gender expression and sexual orientation had about as much volume as Uncle Jesse’s hair on Full House. I attended Concordia College in Bronxville, NY, and it was there that I was given the space and freedom to figure out what my sexuality meant to me and how I was going to move through the world as a queer Iranian-American woman; very a-la Felicity.
For as long as I remember I could feel a call towards serving others but didn’t know how to reconcile that internal call with the rules of the church. It was like I was Moana on the Island of the LCMS.
In 2007 when I changed my major from Liberal Studies to Social Work, I flourished. I had found the answer in a world where I couldn’t be a pastor let alone be “out” and also serve the church. I received my Masters degree in Social Work, volunteered at a camp for children with congenital heart defects, and landed what I thought was my “dream job” working with chronically and terminally ill children. I was the Leslie Knope of pediatric palliative care!
Still, I continued to feel a nagging toward ministry – it felt like the sound of Janice’s voice when she sees Chandler Bing, except all of the time. I remember typing into my search engine, “LGBTQIA+ female pastors in the Lutheran church.” After a few clicks around I found Proclaim and a wave of relief came over me. There was a community that could support me and recognize the gifts I had to offer the church! I reached out and started on a path of discernment that has lead me to sharing this story with you.
I was raised Agnostic with Catholic and Muslim grandparents and while I found sanctuary in my observations of their faithfulness, this made my being called to Word and Sacrament in the Lutheran church delicate to navigate. This second coming out gave me the reaction I was looking for in my FIRST coming out! My family was initially, and continue to be, shocked and confused. I heard questions like, “I didn’t know you were religious.” “Why Lutheran?” “Can you be a gay woman and a pastor? How?” “Why do you use the word queer?”; I have answered more questions around my call to ministry than when I came out as queer.
Looking back, it was the the Holy Spirit that continued to pull me back to church and back to God’s word. She continues to give me strength to use my voice to proclaim the gospel. Her light shines on my gifts for the church and She’s showing me how to use them in service to others. She’s persistent, that Holy Spirit.
Margarette Ouji is a 1st year MDiv student at PLTS. She lives with her wife Abby and their adopted Shih Tzu, Luther (named for the BBC detective). When Margarette isn’t studying, you can either find her at home, crocheting and cheering on the Green Bay Packers or attempting to learn Farsi with her grandmother in Sacramento.
Each year, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries names a Joel Workin Scholar to honor the life and ministry of Joel R. Workin, one of the “Berkeley Three” (bio below). This scholarship is open to seminarians who are members of Proclaim, ELM’s professional community for Lutheran pastors, rostered lay leaders, and those preparing for rostered leadership who publicly identify as LGBTQIA+. The 2017 Scholar is Ben Hogue. A list of previous years’ scholars can be found on our website.
Each year, seminarians are asked to reflect on one of Joel’s essays or sermons – Joel was a gifted writer and theologian. The following is Joel’s essay “The Cost.” This is the essay the Workin Scholarship Committee has asked seminarians to reflect on in their applications and it speaks powerfully to the issue of “coming out” which has been the theme of our blog posts this past month.
As a note: ALL seminarians who are Proclaim members are qualified to apply for the Workin Scholarship. The deadline to receive applications has been extended to June 15th. If you or someone you know is an LGBTQIA+ seminarian, please encourage them to apply! You can find out more about the scholarship here.
ITEM: The certificate was given to three gay seminarians in appreciation of “the Gifts of Time and Talent in Outstanding Service to the Membership of Lutherans Concerned/North America as a Model of Faith, Courage, and Integrity.” And with the certificate came sustained applause, wave upon wave of admiration, gratitude and respect, as 130 gay Lutherans rose to their feet, giving their version of a group hug.
ITEM: The news was in The Advocate (issue 514, page 20): “A Presbyterian minister who had tested positive for the HIV antibody shot himself to death in Tuscaloosa June 14.” And even if all Christendom were to clap its hands, and even if the Almighty Herself were to get down on Her knees and scrub, still nothing would be able to completely clean the blood-soaked carpet of that closet, whatever the closet — gay, HIV-positive, etc. — where that child of God lay dead, cold and stiff, unhugged and unapplauded.
As one of the “Berkeley Three” it has been an honor and encouragement to receive the support and even the accolades of many persons, particularly my fellow Gay and Lesbian Lutherans. The past months have been a time of kairos, and it seems that a great part of what angers people is a recognition of the cost, the price of being “out” in the Lutheran church. The toll, both professionally and personally, is indeed very high.
Careers are ended, even before they are begun. Private life vanishes. Families are exposed to public attention. No one can pretend that being out is easy, that to follow the call to honesty and discipleship in this way is without a cross.
Yet, what is the cost of the closet? Over and over again, as people, many of them closeted, express their rage and sympathy over the price that three seminarians and many others have to pay for being out, I want to know — what about the cost of the closet?
How does one tally up the toll of living two lives, one of fear and the other of escape, one real the other false, one of tact the other of hiding, one of deceit the other of full-blooded reveling? How much does it cost? Twice as much?
How much energy does it take to every day, every minute, run from God and God’s grace and God’s gift of gayness, to run from families who wonder why the weather is the only topic of conversation, to run from oneself, which is the most basic thing God has given, and to hide out in well-constructed closets of success, excess, or numbness? How much energy does it take to keep the gospel, the Word, God’s own self, our true “created good” selves, at bay?
What pound of flesh is exacted from our very flesh by the closet? How many ulcers? How many headaches? How many heartaches? How many bodies dead in a pool of blood on the closet floor? How many persons sacrificed at the altar of political indifference or religious bigotry? How much flesh, how many corpses do blood-smeared hands need to stack against the closet door to make sure it will remain shut, even as we bury ourselves inside?
Or, literally, in real life, hard earned, greenback, dollars, bucks. What are the expenses involved in buying or renting two homes and setting up two different households, one for each of the lovers, mailing things in brown paper wrappers, driving far enough away to be somewhat safe, in always being denied the “couples rate”? What is the dollar cost of the closet?
Some people think that the three seminarians were very brave and courageous. (Some people think the three were foolish or demonic, and maybe we were a bit of each, perhaps.) But let no one think that we alone are paying the cost. Let no one think that those who “pass,” those who do not say anything are having an easy time of it. Let no one think that the choice is between paying the price or not paying the price. We do all have a choice, whether or not to come out, but we have no choice about the cross. We shall either take ours up on the way out of the closet or we shall be nailed, slowly and silently, to the one that hangs upon the closet wall. There is no way around it.
I do not know how we each decide which price it is we are willing to pay, which cross it is we are willing to take. In many ways, it seems that coming out is the easiest path.
The Berkeley Three were maybe not so brave after all. They were just too wimpy to face life in the closet. That cross, constructed by the church and the world, was too much for them to bear. And if that is the case, then let me encourage us all to take the easy way out and go to the One whose yoke is easy and burden light. Who knows, you may even get a certificate and a stirring round of applause to go with it.
And if you are still not convinced that the closet has a price, then I pray that God, as She kneels in your closet, trying to get the blood stains out of the carpet, may reach over and scratch your callused hide a time or two, just to make sure you are not dead.
“The Cost” is part of a larger collection – along with many other inspirational and challenging reflections and sermons from Joel – called Dear God, I’m gay…thank you! Which was edited by Joel’s dear friend, Michael Nelson, and may be requested along with a donation to ELM.
Joel Raydon Workin (1961-1995) was born in Fargo, ND, received his Master of Divinity from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, CA, and served as intern at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Inglewood, CA. In the fall of 1987, Joel came out publicly as a gay candidate for the ordained ministry and was certified for call by the American Lutheran Church (a predecessor body to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Following this courageous and faithful act, Joel’s certification was revoked by the ELCA and his name was never placed on the roster of approved candidates waiting for call. Joel’s ministry continued in Los Angeles, however, at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and as Director of Chris Brownlie Hospice. On December 30, 1988, Joel married Paul Jenkins, whom he loved. Joel was a member of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, North Hollywood. He and Paul were active in Lutherans Concerned/Los Angeles and Dignity/Los Angeles.
In the last weeks of his illness, Joel gave his friends and family permission to sponsor an endowed memorial fund in his name. The Joel R. Workin Memorial Scholarship Fund was thus established upon Joel’s death from AIDS on November 29, 1995. In keeping with Joel’s wishes, awards from the fund are used to provide scholarships to publicly-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer seminary students who proclaim God’s love and seek justice for all. The fund is managed by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, through the InFaith Community Foundation.
Ministry in My Veins
by Rev. Nathan Gruel
Proclaim member and Pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Ocala, FL
I’m told this should be a “coming out” story. I’m not a big fan of the closet analogy, so I’m not sure I want to talk about “coming out.” Perhaps “coming over” works better. Or “coming on?” Even better, how about “coming up?”
In any case it was 1979, and I was in a Missouri Synod parish in Logansport, Indiana, where I figured out who I was and told my Board of Elders (it was Missouri Synod, remember) that I was going to resign my role as their pastor. I wasn’t ready for complete honesty, so I kept the reason for the resignation to myself.
Soon thereafter I made the same announcement to my District President (it was Missouri Synod, remember), and I didn’t offer him any explanation either. Why bother? My removal from the LCMS roster was predictable and inevitable, since he already knew I was on the wrong (from his view) side of the controversy that was raging in Missouri (Synod) at that time.
So, now what? I knew I needed some time to collect my thoughts, but I also knew professional ministry was in my blood. Thus began an extraordinary – and seemingly endless – journey of discernment. In 1979, deep in the Midwest, there was no context for me to have the slightest hope that I would ever again be allowed to serve as pastor to a community of God’s people.
What an unexpected and grace-filled surprise it was when, some 20 years later I became aware of a small group of similarly disenfranchised siblings who also had professional ministry in their blood, and they weren’t giving up. I was approved to the Extraordinary Candidacy Project roster on November 11, 2002. These siblings inspired and encouraged me to “come up.” In other words, hope was born. Just as we do now, we gathered in retreat yearly back then, and connecting with these folks was professional dialysis.
The years that followed were a time of hope and waiting – sort of a multi-year advent season. Twenty-three years had passed since I walked away from my call to parish ministry. I was now 56 years young. While the word “never” no longer seemed applicable, I was convinced that a change of policy in the ELCA was still years away – certainly beyond my dream.
An especially fond and prominent memory for me during this time of waiting is participating in the protest stand-in that was led by the ECP roster at the 2005 Churchwide in Orlando. It was a proud personal moment in our collective history.
The churchwide actions of 2009 were a complete surprise. Things continued to move slowly, but hope was gradually being fulfilled as one by one the members of the ECP roster moved into the ELCA roster, always celebrating the church’s long-overdue affirmation of our call to ministry. With only a handful of persons left on the ECP roster, I was beginning to feel “left behind” until, on March 14, 2011, I was approved to the ELCA roster in the Florida-Bahamas Synod.
Four years later, I received a call from that synod to serve as interim for Our Saviour Lutheran Church, in Ocala, and 1½ years later I was installed as their pastor in a half-time call. I was now 71. 43 years had passed since I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It had been 36 years since I left my call in Indiana, and I had been living hopefully on the ECP roster for 13 years.
Comparatively speaking, my time back in professional ministry has been really short. It comes out to just over 2 years and 11 months. It sounds more impressive in days. That’s a total of 1074. Renewed ministry flowing in my veins every single one of them. Soli Deo gloria – with a little help from my friends.
Rev. Nate Gruel (he/him/his) moved to Ocala, FL, in early March to be near his beloved church community. He pastors at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Ocala, initially as interim, but then in a part-time call. Yes, interim-to-pastor is a no-no even in the deep south, but towing the line of church regulations has never been his strong suit. Singular commitment to grace-filled ministry is so much more fun!
Photo at top: A picture taken on the day of Nate’s ordination, June 19, 1972, at St. John Lutheran Church, Algonquin, Ilinois
Photo at bottom: The gathering of the members of the ECP roster at St. Dorothy’s Rest, CA
Bio Photo: Emily Ann Garcia
A year ago I came out to my congregation.
Not as the queer pastor they had always known I was,
but as the straight, white, geeky guy I have always been.
It was a long time coming.
Two years ago the Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer invited me to preach at the opening worship of the Queer Stories / Sacred Witness Proclaim Gathering in Northern California. In the invitation they asked me to share part of my story about the invisible queer witness of being trans and pregnant.
I shared that sermon with a preaching partner and trusted colleague at St. Matthew Trinity, the congregation I serve, along with the note that I wasn’t yet ready to share it publicly.
Nine months later, during St. Matthew Trinity’s Stories of Resurrection summer story telling series, I was again at the Proclaim Gathering, this time Healing the Violence in Chicago; full of anxiety at being in a familiar place, while using a new name and wearing a new wardrobe. It was then, while also in the midst of providing pastoral care and preparing for a series of funerals, I realized I had neglected to recruit a story teller for the Sunday after the Gathering.
It was in this way a parishioner, and one of the co-instigators of our summer story telling series, received her wish and got my story of resurrection for which she had been waiting.
Talking with new friends at the Proclaim Gathering it became clear the scripture from Matthew about the wheat and tares, the assigned lectionary reading for that Sunday, would provide the perfect frame for my story. A flurry of phone calls ensued, as I spoke with Council members and other congregational leaders to share with them that I wanted to live and minister from a place of greater integrity. Framing my story in the scriptures for Sunday, July 23, 2017 was the most natural way for me to share this part of my journey with others in the community.
Serving a congregation rooted in radical hospitality, the congregation was amazing. After months of praying and talking we chose to share our story publicly, to be a resource for others and proclaim God’s mercy. As part of publicly affirming and marking my journey, a team from the congregation worked with the Bishop of the New Jersey Synod to celebrate a renaming ceremony on Transfiguration Sunday.
Transitioning publicly, altering my body to live into this new reality, claiming being a white man who happens to be trans as a public identity, has provided space for honest conversation about how the church (both locally and nationally) must change or die. Embodying the liminal space within which the church finds itself reminds me of Isaiah who spent three years naked, wandering around the city, embodying God’s message about the vulnerability and destruction of slavery (Isaiah 20).
Public witness, living boldly, loving deeply, risking greatly, allows us as LGBTQIA+ rostered leaders and seminarians, to create space that fosters transparency.
There is power in owning and claiming one’s own story.
In claiming our wholeness, in living into and constantly becoming the people God has formed us to be, we have the power to hold space and proclaim God’s mercy for all those living at the margins, regardless of their identity.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Peter R. Beeson (he/him/his) is a pastor, prophet, and parent. In his free time you may find him geeking out over budgets in Excel spreadsheets, working for affordable housing, exploring parks with his toddler, cleaning house, and vacillating between disgust and delight at his emerging beer belly.
Photo at top: Jim Kowalski
Bio Photo: Provided by author