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.