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 in short supply. But prophetic voices like Joel’s, and all those who applied for this scholarship, continue to highlight that publicly identified LGBTQIA+ 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 $6,500 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.
Below is a letter from our Workin Scholarship Committee to congratulate Cassie on her achievement.
Congratulations Cassie, and thank you for your prophetic voice!
I am now writing to officially inform you of your selection as this year’s Workin Scholar. It was the Workin Scholarship Committee’s conclusion that your application, reflecting on Joel Workin’s essay “The Light of Lent,” stood apart from all the rest, not only for its outstanding writing, but for its sound theological reflection.
While referencing Joel’s thoughts on the comfort we take from darkness in our own lives, you revealed something of yourself, as a queer woman, who has struggled with her own “darkness” of anxiety and depression. The committee was particularly captivated by your imagery of this, and there was a lot of discussion about it and its relation to God’s grace. To quote your eloquent essay:
“…the depression-sweatshirt is so comfortable and familiar that something in us begs us to put it on, pull the thick hood over our head, and block out the world, surrounded instead in something that doesn’t make us happy and doesn’t allow us to connect with others, but nonetheless feels like the miserable, moth-eaten home we deserve… The good news of grace and truth and light and Christ is new and raw and scary and we don’t want to peel off our sweatshirts of sin and pretension and selfishness in order to stand shivering before the cross and the empty tomb.”
During this year that celebrates Stonewall 50, we were also impressed by your reference to the times in which Joel lived and wrote. It was certainly note-worthy that you, as a young seminarian, strove to identify with him and related his life experience to the present day. Joel wrote that “the light unfailingly shows us where we must die” and your response to that was most moving:
“Joel Workin would have known something about death, even when he spoke these word in his mid-20s. The AIDS epidemic had begun, and suddenly young, previously healthy gay men were watching their friends sicken and die instead of fall in love and make mistakes and raise families and learn new things and create beautiful art. For him to say that God’s light shows us where we must die was not a throwaway line…For gay men like Joel, and for queer people even now who watch as trans women of color are killed in the streets, as young gay men and their friends are shot during a night out dancing, or as queer youth are bullied into self-harm when school is supposed to be safe, death does not feel so far away.”
This was an insightful connection to his life and times.
On behalf of the committee, I congratulate you on a splendid essay and becoming this year’s Workin Scholar. As you continue to pursue the ministry of Word and Sacrament, may you continue to strip away your own sweatshirt of darkness and despair and, to paraphrase Joel, embrace the light which was does not require perfection, only your presence.
Cassie Hartnett (she/her) grew up on the Connecticut shoreline and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in May 2019, where she studied psychology and religion, and wrote a new play for her thesis project. Previously, she studied at Barnard College and spent two years in the Twin Cities serving with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, including work with ReconcilingWorks. Cassie will begin her internship year at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Parkville, MD this August. In her spare time, she practices ballet and yoga, bakes excellent cookies, and can recommend a great queer young adult novel.
By Chelsea Achterberg
In February I spent a month learning how to jump out of airplanes, build relationships, and even do marital and personal counseling! Most people want to hear about jumping out of planes, and why not, it’s sexy, adventurous, dangerous. What people need to hear about is caring for people, asking about their careers, families, faith, and the heartbreaking reality that other chaplains might refuse to care for them.
We live in a culture that says, “if you don’t agree, walk away.” A divestment culture — not only monetarily but also relationally. The church is no exception, as members of Proclaim or an advocate for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries we have lived this. Our wrestling as a Church, with divestment in instances of injustice, military chaplaincy can get caught up in debates around the military as a whole. As a result we discourage military chaplaincy and have allowed for exclusionary voices to take the lead in chaplaincy.
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves
When I counseled a newly married military lesbian couple, hearing their stories of the struggles of distance, marriage to another soldier, and adjusting to married life, I couldn’t help but be reminded, these women will face many chaplains who will not care for them. When many chaplains hear “my wife” they are going to politely but firmly say unless they want to “repent” of their sin of homosexuality they will have little to offer. Many denominations are known to tell chaplains who they are allowed to counsel and who are allowed to lead services. This is the price of divestment from chaplaincy. The face of siblings who will navigate spirituality, sexuality, and marriage without a spiritual caregiver.
There is a great need for more welcoming and affirming chaplains, and we as LGBTQIA+ pastors and seminarians bring a special witness, in addition to all of the gifts we bring as Lutherans. We have felt this pain in our own Church and many of our congregations and seminaries and we are blessed to bring that experience, along with our own identities and affirmation to those we care for. We have the opportunity to live into a vision and hope of the Gospel that many can scarcely imagine yet alone have seen.
The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
What can you do about all of this?
Resist the call to divest relationally from military chaplaincy. It is an imperfect institution but God’s children who serve deserve spiritual support from chaplains who will support them, not turn them away and cause spiritual harm.
Consider if God might be calling you (or someone you know) to military chaplaincy. If you desire adventure, are active, have a heart for people on the margins, and an eagerness to learn a new way of life, then chaplaincy might be for you!
Join the conversation. Be engaged in the work and needs of ELCA chaplains across the federal government in their care for service members, veterans, and those in prison. Meet with those local to you.
Pray for service members and their chaplains, especially our ELCA chaplains who have answered the call to care for God’s people.
If you are attending the 2019 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, look for military chaplains in uniform on Tuesday (Aug. 6) and have a conversation about their work!
Bio: Chelsea Achterberg (she/her/hers) is a Chaplain Candidate, allowing her to serve in the Army Reserves while continuing to work towards ordination. She is married to Proclaim Chaplain Mandy, together they have a house rabbit Mosby. Chelsea is enjoying a return to parish ministry as a Pastoral Intern at Holy Trinity in Charlotte, NC after two years serving in hospital chaplaincy.
Special thanks to Currents in Theology and Mission (www.currentsjournal.org) for allowing Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries to share this excellent resource with our wider ELM community! Click their link to read other great articles from this quarterly publication.
Proclaimer Lectionary Series– PDF File