Each year, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries names a Joel R. Workin Memorial Scholar to honor the life and ministry of Joel Workin. Joel was one of the three gay seminarians who were refused ordination in 1989 after “coming out” to their candidacy committees. Our world can sometimes feel like an unwelcoming place, where hope and inspiration seem on short supply. But prophetic voices like Joel’s, and all those who applied for this scholarship, continue to highlight that publicly identified LGBTQ+ ministers and seminarians can be beacons of courage and powerful models of justice in action.Thanks to a generous endowment started by Joel’s friends and family, and other ongoing contributions, this award comes with a $6,000 scholarship for academic or spiritual study and is available for members of ELM’s Proclaim group who are studying to be rostered leaders in the Lutheran church.
We are thrilled to announce that this year’s Workin Scholar is S. Leon LaCross, seminarian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. Read on for Leon’s announcement letter and bio.
Congratulations Leon, and thank you for your prophetic voice!
To read Leon’s powerful scholarship essays, click HERE.
I am writing to inform you of your selection as this year’s Workin Scholar. It was the scholarship committee’s conclusion that your outstanding essay (reflecting on “The Cost” by the late Joel Workin), not only embodied the cost of coming out, but also paralleled a moral courage that Joel exhibited throughout his life. It was clear to us that you understood the cost of the closet as you explained your own coming out story, especially as you moved toward candidacy and reached a deeper understanding of yourself, as this paragraph demonstrates:
“I came out to the psychiatrist as queer during my psychological evaluation as part of the entrance process to candidacy. I received a blank stare for a moment before he asked me what that meant. I suppose I had a choice to take the easy way out and use the tangible category of “gay”, but it wouldn’t have been authentic to myself. Perhaps I was courageous, or foolish, or demonic in doing so, but I had to tactfully explain that I do in fact desire men sexually and romantically, but that also doesn’t exclude other genders from the equation. Additionally, I had to explain to him that in terms of my gender, I’m comfortable with my body parts and presenting as a man, but that does not tell my whole story as a non-binary person.”
Borne from your own self-insight, this was just one of the moving “coming out” reflections you shared which, to be honest, was matched by many of this year’s applicants. But your essay radically departed from others with your own “coming out” as a survivor of sexual abuse. Your eloquent description of the pain in recapturing that childhood memory, the consequences it had on your development and your theological reflection on it was nothing short of breath-taking:
“Recovering that excruciating memory was a baptism of sorts: a baptism of blood and tears. It was a closet baptism into a community of victims and survivors that no one wants to be a part of. A communion of saints and martyrs that instead of rejoicing when another member is added weeps, gnashes teeth and rends clothing. Jesus wept when I was baptized in my own blood and tears. God cradles me in the expanse of Their hand – perhaps too large for me to recognize that God is in this pain with me. This shadow communion, this bloody baptism: this is why I have stayed in the sexual assault closet for so long.”
On behalf of the committee, I congratulate you on becoming this year’s Workin Scholar. May God bless you and continue to heal you, Leon, throughout the coming years and into all the years of your ministry. On behalf of the committee, I congratulate you.
Michael Price Nelson, Chair
Workin committee members: Greg Egertson, Rev. Matt James, Rev. Jeff Johnson, Michael Price Nelson, Rev. Becca Seely, Rev. Amanda Nelson
S. Leon LaCross (he/him/his/any)
Leon is a seminarian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary pursuing a masters in Divinity with hopes to be ordained. His specific academic interests revolve around sex, sexuality, and gender in the context of the church. He is originally from Gaithersburg, Maryland, but has been in Berkeley, California, since commencing his MDiv. He grew up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod until receiving his call to ministry in 2012 when he transferred into the ELCA. When not doing church work (if there is such a thing…) he enjoys baking, crafting and spending time with friends and family. Additionally he is a connoisseur of tea with an ever-expanding tea library and tea pot collection.
My first “official” call was to the bishop’s office. I had arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, in the evening, August 30, 2000. The next morning, I arrived at my first church office (yay!) and called Charles Maahs, bishop of the Central States Synod. When I told the administrative assistant who I was, there was a pause. Then she connected me with Bishop Maahs, and I apologized.
My apology was clear: I wasn’t apologizing for being a lesbian, or for accepting the call Abiding Peace Lutheran Church extended me in his synod. I apologized for the extra work my acceptance would create for him and his staff. Even after spending over half of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was still Midwestern enough to apologize for something that wasn’t exactly my fault. As I told the bishop that day, there was no other way to answer God’s call to ministry and maintain my own integrity than to do so via the extraordinary candidacy process.
A team from Abiding Peace met with the bishop and members of his staff regularly for months. In the end, Bishop Maahs censured us, but didn’t recommend the removal of the congregation from the ELCA, as had been the case with the last congregations to call openly gay or lesbian pastors. We were barred from serving on synod committees (a sort of Br’er Rabbit briar patch of a punishment). And for ten years, I attended the synod assembly as the “Visitor” serving as pastor of Abiding Peace.
During that ten years, things changed. Other people—really good people and really great pastors—were ordained by the Extraordinary Candidacy Project. In 2009, the rules changed, and eventually most of those folks were received to the ELCA roster.
I knew that change was afoot earlier, though. In 2004, I was leaving morning prayer at the fall Bishop’s Convocation to grab a cup of tea and go to the plenary room, when a colleague from rural Kansas approached me, looking very serious.
“I want to talk to you,” he said.
“Oh good,” I thought.
He pulled me into the now empty worship space and said these immortal words: “I’m on the other side of ‘the issue’ from you. But you’ve been coming around here for a few years now, and we’ve gotten used to you. You’re kind of like an old shoe. So I guess what I’m saying is you should keep coming around.”
All these years later, and I remember his words precisely. Don’t have a clue what I said, though. Probably something brilliant like, “Um, okay.” When I tell that story to other people, they are generally appalled. But for me it was a signal that seeing us in ministry changes things. The change is slow. It’s one person at a time. But it happens…and the next thing you know, you’re working in that synod office you called with an apology all those years ago.
Rev. Donna Simon serves as pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church and as one of two Directors for Evangelical Mission of the Central States Synod of the ELCA. In both capacities, she focuses on mission, service, and justice for all persons. She was ordained extraordinem in Kansas City on October 28, 2000. Donna lives in the parish she serves with her wife, Colleen, and several cats and dogs.