I have loved reading the 30 Extraordinary Years reflections of the last several months. I was a member of St. Paul- Oakland during most of those 30 years. You might remember us–our pastor, Ross Merkel, was “defrocked” in 1994 for being in a gay relationship. The defiant congregation said a collective “no thanks” to the ELCA, refusing to relieve Ross of his call. Thereafter we were officially listed as a congregation with a “vacant” pulpit–which was both distressing and hilarious.
Being queer myself, I was interested in righting this wrong and propeling our liberation movement forward. Yes, it was a liberation movement. We were liberating the hearts and minds of those in the ELCA who were closed off to God’s love for all of God’s people. So my feet hit the ground and I volunteered to serve on the West Coast Candidacy Panel. We were preparing ECP (Extraordinary Candidacy Project) candidates for extraordination and for the day the ELCA would finally be able to see their gifts and welcome them to their place within the greater church.
It put me in a position not only to hear the beautiful and uplifting stories of a candidate’s call to ministry from the Holy Spirit, but also the stories of psychological abuse rained down on them by the ELCA when they tried to answer that call. Because my partner was one of those extraordinarily ordained pastors, I was able to attend the annual ECP clergy retreats. I both loved and dreaded going to these retreats. One minute it was like a queer summer camp, with high-jinx and silliness, and the the next minute, it was a sobering grief support group. Overall, it was an oasis of solidarity and affirmation in our desert march to full inclusion in the church.
But as I read these recent uplifting reflections on our 30 years of answering the call, I am feeling deep sadness and heartache for a group that has yet to be acknowledged. This is the group I sorrowfully call “the lost ones”. There were many I met who had the touch of the Holy Spirit on their shoulders, and heard Her whisper a call to ministry. But when they tried to answer that call, they were so psychologically and spiritually battered by the status quo that they became the “lost ones”. Each year at the ECP retreats we’d learn of someone who just gave up waiting, or worse, disappeared altogether from our radar. Their empty chair was like an unmarked spiritual grave. Some just sank back into the pews in a depressed state. Others were so spiritually traumatized that they needed to leave the church in order to recover their dignity and worth.
So as we celebrate our successes over the last 30 years, let us not forget the spiritual casualties whose giftedness and potential died along that desert road leading to 2009. Let us give thanks that against all odds they boldly answered the call of the Holy Spirit to ordained ministry. Let us pray for their spiritual recovery and emotional well-being. And finally, the act which I have not been able to complete: let us forgive those who coldly extinguished the fire of Her Spirit in the hearts of the lost ones.
Larell Fineren (she, her, hers) retired from 50 years in nursing and now lives in Petaluma, CA. She keeps busy with the immigration fight and has applied to be a sponsor for a trans asylum seeker who’s currently detained. In her spare time she joyously welcomes new foster babies into her extended family, like little Annalee, our latest angel.