Step Out of Line

On Saturday, January 20, 1990 at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco, unbeknownst to the ELCA (indeed, unbeknownst, at first, to most of the ordinands themselves), there was a mass extraordinary ordination of approximately 1000 people with hundreds more participating at satellite services in Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Holden Village, Washington D.C., Phoenix, and Milwaukee.


Only three of the ordinands present (Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart) had letters of call to local parishes. In electing to call Pastors Frost, Zillhart, and Johnson, St. Francis Lutheran and First United Lutheran had set the extraordinary event in motion. Technically, none of the three ordinands were “available for call”: the ELCA’s “interim guidelines” (a predecessor of “Vision and Expectations”) required celibacy of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. The ELCA chose to discipline and eventually expel both congregations. 


The vast majority of those ordained that day, however, were (again, “technically”) lay people without seminary degrees. Many of them were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or something else altogether, and none of them pledged to be celibate. Largely unnoticed by the ELCA, they left St. Paulus and the various satellite services to pursue their new-found ministries extra ordinem.


What had happened? In the sermon she preached that day, The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward explained:


…I am here today to speak of what it may mean to be blessed by God, because, my brothers and sisters, we have been blessed abundantly by the sacred spirit. 


Our presence here today bears this witness: the Holy One who breathes our only hope into the world; She whose tenderness and tenacity topples principalities and powers; He whose compassion and humor fortifies our lives one day at a time; this God has gathered us today to celebrate a blessing we have already been given, each of us in his or her own way — and yet, a common blessing it is: ours, not simply mine or yours, not simply Ruth’s, or Phyllis’, or Jeff’s, not simply theirs, but a blessing we share, all of us who have been drawn here today. And therein is its sacred power.


Ordination, ultimately, is not about clergy rosters. Ordination is sacred empowerment. It is rooted in the blessing from God that we hold in common: the people blessed by God are empowered to be agents of God’s blessing for others. On January 20, 1990, the scope of that empowerment expanded far beyond the three newly ordained pastors.


More than a few of those present for ordination in January, 1990 encouraged their home congregations to consider a more inclusive process for calling pastors. Some put their efforts into the newly-formed Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries (LLGM), supporting ministries and congregations at risk by virtue of the ELCA policy of exclusion. Others established the Extraordinary Candidacy Project to certify qualified candidates for ministry excluded by ELCA’s requirement of celibacy for sexual minority pastors.  Even others connected with Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA, now Reconciling Works) or Wingspan or Soulforce or Goodsoil to work for policy change. 


Fifteen more extraordinary ordinations (and more disciplinary actions) followed. Nineteen years later, ELCA  policy changed, though that was no more than the tip of an enormous iceberg, and the truth of the Gospel message, the truth of the blessing we have all received, has yet to be fully embraced. 


The 1990 ordinations stand in a line of irregular, extraordinary, improbable events that reaches back even further than the first Pentecost. These are the sacred events by which the community of those blessed and empowered by God moves forward. 


We pray the future will be no less extraordinary.

Bennett Falk lives in Berkeley, California. He is happy to be married to Margaret Moreland. He and Margaret were present at the 1990 ordinations and at the fifteen extraordinary ordinations that followed. He was webmaster for (now defunct) and proprietor of (inactive, but still online). He has a bass guitar and a recumbent tricycle, and he’s not afraid to use them.

An Extraordinary Time to Be the Church

Almost 50 years ago in 1971, University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, where I serve as pastor, declared itself to be a “sanctuary” during the Vietnam War for conscientious objector sailors on board the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier anchored in the San Francisco Bay. The following month, the City Council of Berkeley took action and declared Berkeley to be a “sanctuary” for these sailors, becoming the first municipality in the country to identify itself in this way.


There was no law or official statue in 1971 that authorized either the city of Berkeley or the congregation of the Chapel to act in solidarity with conscientious objectors or to create zones of “sanctuary.” There was only a bit of courage and determination to act for an alternative vision of living together in the world that valued conscience, respected individual agency, and prioritized human dignity.


There is a decades-long link that connects these original actions at the Chapel and the city of Berkeley in 1971 to contemporary declarations of “sanctuary” across the country and within our church. The response of this summer’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee to the current hostility against asylum-seeking refugees was to declare the whole church to be in solidarity as a “sanctuary denomination.” Once again, there are no rules permitting such solidarity; indeed, there are federal laws against aiding and assisting undocumented migrants. But our church found the courage it needed to stand in solidary from a deeply held, faith-rooted vision for an alternative way of living together in the world that values conscience, dignity, and basic human rights; a way we see reflected in Gospel.


As well, at this same Churchwide Assembly, we celebrated the 10thyear anniversary of the dismantling of the church’s policies of discrimination against lgbtqia+ people. Again, there is a decades-long link connecting this dismantling and our illegal, illicit, and extraordinary ordinations 30 years ago at St. Paulus church in San Francisco, when I was ordained with Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart in spite of ELCA policy. A time when ELCA rostered and lay leaders and congregations summoned faith-rooted courage and promoted an alternative vision for the being church together — risking their own careers and reputations to stand alongside us. Pastors like the Revs. Charles Lewis, Lucy Kolin, Jack Schiemann, Ross Merkel, John Frykmann, James Delange, and hundreds of others, who pledged solidarity and subjected themselves to denominational hostility and compliance-based-pressure because of their resistance to the ELCA’s hastily created policies of discrimination that destroyed faith, disrespected our relationships, and fueled church-sponsored hostility toward lgbtqia+ people.


ELM and PROCLAIM are heirs and beneficiaries to the provocative resistance and courageous solidarity of those who refused to follow unjust rules, to submit to anxious church authorities, and to implement faith destroying policies. Together with this cloud of witnesses — allies, accomplices, advocates, and activists — we provoked into being an alternative way of being church in the world centered in sanctuary, resistance, non-compliance with injustice, and solidarity with the oppressed.


Sanctuary was a way to stand in solidarity with war resisters in the early 1970’s. It is a powerful and provocative frame for accompaniment with refugees and migrants terrorized in today’s context by our government’s brutal and inhumane immigration, asylum, and detention policies. And it was and continues to be a life-saving form of resistance and liberation with lgbtqia+ people during the era of ELCA sponsored hostility and oppression, and especially as we provoke the church again to respect us more deeply and the gifts we offer for ministry, and to honor the diversity and multiplicity of relationship models and covenants that are intrinsic to and held in high esteem within our community.

Pastor Jeff was ordained in 1990 and is the fourth pastor to serve University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at CAL. He is a member of the Boards for SHARE El Salvador, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, and the LuMin Network for ELCA Campus Ministries; on the Steering Committee for the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy; a member of the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition, and serves on the Spiritual Care Team at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  Prior to his ministry at the Chapel, Pr. Jeff was the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He was married in 2014 and lives in Oakland’s Piedmont District in a 1920’s stucco bungalow with his husband, J Guadalupe (Pepe) Sánchez Aldaco. He enjoys working around the house, mystery novels, watching movies, genealogy, cooking and dinner parties, visiting family, studying Spanish, playing piano, and salsa dancing.

The Extraordinary Ruth Frost

Pictured above: Jeff Johnson, Greg Egertson, Phyllis Zillhart, and Ruth Frost at the 2016 Proclaim Gathering

I cannot reflect on my call of almost thirty years ago without seeing it as deeply embedded in the calls of my beloved spouse Phyllis Zillhart and our gifted partner in ministry, Jeff Johnson. We three built upon the courage of such pioneers as Anita C. Hill, Joel Workin and Carter Heyward who laid the groundwork for us and shed light on our path. It can truly be said that “my” call was so much more than “me.” I have always said that the best part of our work was the company we kept. And this includes alliances with many other gifted leaders across the nation, way too numerous to count. But they all do count. And together, we were all a force for change within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Every change agent works for a world they may not live to see. In our case, we have lived long enough to see the changes we worked for because our work was taken up by so many others who made it their work and advanced it further. For that, I am deeply grateful. Justice-love is unstoppable. And God’s grace knows no bounds.


We anchored our ministries in the San Francisco Bay Area during the height of the twin epidemics of AIDS and homelessness. This meant we were steeped in grief and sustained by love: the love of God, and two small church communities that never left our sides. In such a time life is lived close to the bone and closer to the heart. Those fifteen years have shaped the arc of our life together.


Returning to Minnesota in 2005, we chose not to seek parish calls because we knew we had already experienced the best and because it was time for a quieter form of soul-care that was less public. Hospice chaplaincy became our next chapter in ministry. As a chaplain and trained legacy guide, it is very rewarding to help people identify their legacy of love and realize that both love and forgiveness have traveling power across space and time. This quiet, bedside ministry was very different from, but no less rich than, our very public ministry of advocacy. And it certainly was shaped by our ministry at St. Francis as well as by our work with LLGM/ELM.


When I first retired in 2013, I wondered what my next act would be. God soon showed me my new calling, which has been to provide childcare for my wonderful grandson Ciel who lives with us, together with his parents. Blessedly, my grandson naps for two hours daily and I have used this time wisely. I have just completed a book entitled “Homes with Heart: Reflections on Turning Living Spaces into Loving Places.”  I have come to believe that ultimately, finding home means taking a spiritual journey in good company. We are all one. Together, the way home is love.

In the words of Ram Dass, “All we are doing is walking each other home.” What if that is the most important thing we do in this life?

My thanks to all who have taken this walk with us.

On January 20, 1990 Ruth Frost was 1 of 3 individuals Extraordinarily Ordained – as in outside the parameters of the policies of the ELCA – because of her publicly known sexual identity. Ruth was called by St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. After the 2009 ELCA policy change allowing partnered LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders to serve, Ruth and her partner, Phyllis Zillhart, were then finally welcomed as ELCA rostered ministers.

The Extraordinary Phyllis Zillhart

As part of our recent exhibit at the Badé Museum at Pacific School of Religion entitled “Extraordinary Callings: Holy & Queer Resistance in the Lutheran Church,” we shared this story from Phyllis Zillhart, one of the individuals extraordinarily ordained 30 years ago.

Ordained to Word and Sacrament Ministry in the Lutheran Church nearly 30 years ago, I currently work as a hospice chaplain. As death approaches, I affirm the gracious power of radical love. The settings are intimate – a family, a bedside, a handhold, whispered prayer; trust arises. 
Few flinch when they learn that I am an ordained Lutheran minister married to a woman. It is legal. It is policy. It is old news. It is not their concern now. That was not always the case. At the outset, we were disqualified, censured, expelled, silenced. 

We tell and listen to the stories of the past so that we can remember why it is important to stand up for justice in every time and place. The demonization of “the other” continues. The names change  – a little. But the fear of difference and the protectionism of privilege march on. So it is important that we call out stories of hope and solidarity and creativity and courage. It is important that we speak our names and tell our truths, challenge complacency and embody gracious love!

Gracious and healing God, we give you thanks for the ministry of Phyllis. For her bold “yes” to your call to serve, for the peace-filled presence she provides at the bedside of the sick and dying, and for her ability to channel your grace in her ministry and life, we thank you! May she continue to be blessed in her ministry. Amen.

On January 20, 1990, Phyllis Zillhart was 1 of 3 Extraordinarily Ordained outside the parameters of the ELCA because of her publicly known sexual identity. Phyllis was called by St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. After the 2009 ELCA policy change allowing partnered LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders to serve, Phyllis and her partner Ruth Frost were then finally welcomed as ELCA rostered ministers.