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.
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.