Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 4, 2018
“Gay and Ordained Twenty-Five Years Ago”
1st Samuel 3: 1-10 Common English Bible
Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room.3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where the ark was.
4 God called to Samuel, who replied, “I’m here.”
5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
6 Again God called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(7 Samuel didn’t understand because Samuel didn’t yet know God, and God’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
8 A third time God called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Eli finally realized that it was God calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If you hear the call again, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
10 Then God came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
Almost every ordained minister has something they can describe as their “call story.” And often, it is a variation of this very passage; the description of the process or a particular moment when we first heard our call to ministry.
I was 16 years old, and a remarkably similar thing happened to me. I kept having a series of dreams. Night after night, I saw myself in the role of a pastor – preaching, visiting the sick, and so forth. I had already told God I wasn’t interested. But, because I was so involved in my church, I was an organist, active in the youth group, locally and even on the state level, and because my family was basically at church every time the door was open, people assumed I would go into the ministry. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was sure it wasn’t that. Nevertheless, God, She persisted.
The dreams became more and more annoying. While at a statewide meeting, I told some ministers I knew about my dreams. Every one of them said, “It sounds like Samuel. When you wake up, say yes to God.” But I wasn’t having that. That is, until I’d finally been sufficiently worn down to finally wake up and say, “All right, enough already.” And I instantly knew it was right. I had what I can only describe as a feeling of being washed in peace. And so, the course of my vocation was set. College, seminary, church.
Except. Nothing can be that easy. Enter all those years of feeling different, of not wanting to be different in “that” way, and the word which I dared not name. Until I could no longer not use the word gay. And so, well, there go those plans. But did it mean that? I knew the call from God was real. The only problem was the church. Thanks to another very convincing dream, I realized it wouldn’t be easy, but I had to proceed anyway.
The next verse in the Samuel story is, “God told Samuel, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle!” Eli asked Samuel to tell him everything God told him, “don’t hold anything back,” even though the news would be disturbing and devastating for Eli. Yet Eli concluded, “God is God. And God will do as God pleases.”
I believed that. So, I did what I could to figure out my part. I kept going, opening different doors, climbing through different windows, and persisting through the obstacles that were thrown in my way. But I want to be clear. My persistence was not of my own doing. God is the One who made a way out of no way. Born of God’s strength, not my courage, it was 25 years ago this weekend, the first Sunday of February 25 years ago, that I was ordained in Cleveland with the laying on of hands and a prayer for the Spirit’s blessing.
I don’t want to make this all about me, but I would like to share a few stories of what it was like to be ordained as an openly gay man 25 years ago and marvel at, and give thanks to God, how different things are today, at least in most of the UCC.
So, I finished seminary. In the UCC, no one can be ordained without a call to a recognized ministry of some sort. Most commonly, that is as the pastor of a church or a chaplain. But something must say, “We want you.” That was the hard part. At the time there were about 100 Open and Affirming congregations, but many said, “Sure, we welcome gay people, but we don’t want one of them as our pastor.”
And so, while the first openly gay man, Bill Johnson, had been ordained in 1972, it wasn’t to ministry in a church. It wasn’t until 1984 that Diane Darling went from being an intern to associate pastor to co-pastor, but everyone knew her. Everyone else was left wondering, should you be out on your profile or wait until a search committee gets to know you before telling them? That didn’t always go over so well. It wasn’t until 1989 that Loey Powell successfully went all the way through the process, out on her profile, honest in her interview, known to the whole congregation who voted to call her. Of course, it only took her 7 years of trying first. And then, while the church welcomed her, many others didn’t.
When the church in Cleveland voted to call me four years later, we may have crossed over to fingers on a second hand to count the number of such pastors out of more than 5,000 churches.
Still, I was the beneficiary of an incrementally slowly changing world; but slow and incremental it definitely was. I was also the beneficiary of those who had spent a lifetime working to change the church – with much personal sacrifice and heartbreak.
So, it was 1992. We had a really good first search committee meeting. I was Archwood UCC’s third candidate in three years, but the first gay one. Since it was near death, they were desperate enough to consider calling a gay or lesbian pastor. Perhaps I should have known that after a used car salesman turned them down (I’m not kidding), my chances were either pretty good or I was pretty dumb to consider it. Archwood’s 1,000 members had plummeted to 30 on a good day. Why go to a church you might have to close?
Working with that search committee was another story for another day, but ultimately, we arrived on the December day of the vote, the day when the congregation would first listen to me preach and then hold a meeting to ask questions, and then I would leave the room while they talked. The search committee assumed, correctly, that some of the questions might be inappropriate, questions about such things as my sex life, so they appointed an 85-year-old Republican to field the questions and then he would ask me. Surely no one would ask him anything too graphic. That tactic lasted 15 minutes, after which he was too red faced to continue and just stepped aside. But showing no shame, the undignified questions continued, occasionally relevant to church, ministry, and vision.
Finally, I was invited to leave the room while they deliberated. It took forever. I even toyed with the idea of leaving. But then I heard a loud ruckus in the sanctuary. The vote had been 27 to 13 in favor. Someone got a calculator to check that it was the necessary 2/3rds margin. And what was the ruckus? Upon the announcement, someone took the microphone and spoke into it too loudly – Congratulations. Then yelling from the other side began, including the church secretary who declared everyone was going to hell. The search committee chair explained this to me, and then said, now come, let’s go downstairs for tea and coffee.
Mary Mae Meister, that secretary, was a whole story in itself. The most outwardly racist and homophobic church employee you’d could ever want. I was still shaken from hearing all the yelling, but I nervously went downstairs. As I was adding Sweet and Low to my coffee, Mary Mae raced toward me from the other side of the room and began screaming – we’ve got to keep the children away from you. You can just go home now and have sex with anything you want. I was a wreck inside, but I calmly listened and thanked her for her honesty and stepped away, while she chose another target to berate because they hadn’t made their pledge yet. I walked to the middle of the room where a lovely group of elderly women held out their hands and formed a half-circle around me, and said, “We’re glad you’re here.” I can still see their faces.
My first Sunday was a month later, but only after insisting they “retire” Mary Mae, which was further fuel on the fire of my detractors. And even supporters. People had become so used to her they actually wanted me to try working together for six months.
Eleven of the 13 no votes never set foot in the church again. And a few of those who did vote for me didn’t stay long. One man said, “I just don’t see a pastor. I see a homosexual in the pulpit” – and I had never once pulled out my feather boa. I grew close to the people, and they to me, so it was devastating that when some of them died, family members wouldn’t allow me to conduct their funeral.
So, the ordination, 25 years ago. The Cleveland Plain Dealer did a very large story the week before, which unleashed the madness. Piles of hate mail arrived – and continued for months. A death threat was left on the answering machine to burn down the church with me in it. I took the little tape to the police who, as I figured they would, said they could only do something if indeed the church had burned down with me in it. I lived in the parsonage right next to the church, so I felt more than a little vulnerable.
A very prominent and rich man in Cleveland demanded that the UCC president intervene and stop the ordination or he would no longer give money to his own UCC. Paul Sherry sent him a very nice letter and then sent a letter of greetings to be read at my ordination, expressing regrets he could not personally be present.
The day before my ordination one of the pastors in our ecumenical cluster, a United Methodist church, asked to visit. He handed me a letter that said he and his church would not attend any future event or joint service where I would be involved. He wanted to give me the letter in person as a “friendly gesture” and said, “I hope we can still be friends.”
Earlier in the week the pastor of a large suburban UCC invited me to coffee. They had promised to do some work around Archwood as a mission project, but over a piece of pie he said they were pulling their support. I would have rather received a letter.
Another church in our Association left the UCC, citing me in their history book as the reason. Even the pastor of the nearest UCC said he wouldn’t attend my ordination because he didn’t approve, although, a few years later I officiated at his wedding.
Despite these, I felt very much loved and supported. Including by the church right across the street, also United Methodist, a stark contrast to the “friendly fellow.” They were wonderful. And the pastor organized a group to be on the watch for the promised protestors. In the end, only one protester showed up, who put little handwritten cards on all the car windshields that read “God does not create people gay,” in response to my statement in the newspaper.
We knew the newspaper article was risky and the response it would likely generate. But we also knew it was the best way to get word out. And on the day of the ordination, the 20 or so members of Archwood were dwarfed by a church packed with supporters, many of them complete strangers hungry for a church that would welcome them. Some of them came back and helped lay the foundation for the congregation that was to come.
Nearly every one of those initial twenty-something people who voted to call me died within a few years, Penny, Alice, Clara, Betty, Lillian… and without their radical hospitality, so would have the church. It’s still there, small, but every single other church in the neighborhood has since closed – UCC, Lutheran, Episcopal, both United Methodist churches and even the Catholic church, all replaced by Pentecostal and fundamentalist churches.
Ten years after I started at Archwood I began a doctoral program. My final project was a study of others who had followed the same path. To be included in the study, they had to be out on their profiles, honest in their interviews, and the predominantly straight congregations which called them had to be aware that the candidate was openly gay or lesbian. Conference Ministers around the country helped me identify study participants. Instead of just one in 1989 and a handful in 1993, by 2005, there were well over 100. I can only imagine how many more there are today, more than 10 years later.
And what I found in my study was that despite the consistency of a great many fears expressed about losing members and money and families with children, churches with LGBTQ pastors outperformed the rest, particularly with families looking to raise their children in an environment of openness and acceptance. Not as though it’s a contest, but it was quite revealing.
But the other side of the study also identified the great personal and emotional toll it took on such pastors. I can now laugh about hate mail and death threats and such indignities as being refused the honor of officiating at a funeral, but I did get worn down and I struggled with some severe depression for a while. Pressure by some to fail; pressure by some that I had to succeed or I would set the movement back. But my challenges were nothing like the pastor who was at home when a gun was intentionally shot at the parsonage. And those who have endured numerous acts of vandalism, to mention only a few incidents. Or when Gene Robinson was consecrated a bishop wearing a bullet proof vest.
I feel so blessed and grateful for having been here for ten of those 25 years. Please believe that it was quite surreal to go from the congregational meeting filled with insults and inquiries about my sex life to the one here involving questions of theology and preaching and church growth.
I am grateful for my 25 years – and many more to come. Yet, the struggle for the rest of the church is far from over. More churches would condemn you than congratulate you for being Open and Affirming. To us, here, now, the danger is in thinking it’s not a big deal anymore. But church deacons still pour acid on LGBT members in Jamaica. Churches in Uganda demand the death penalty for the crime of homosexuality. In fact, it’s still a crime in 76 countries. And in the US, transgender people of color have some of the highest murder rates, while Christians are up in arms about which bathroom they use.
God has been and is making a way out of no way – making the ears of many tingle. I have seen it. But it pains me for those for whom change is still terribly slow and only incremental. Or non-existent. Battles fought over the fundamental dignity of human persons. Or that God shouldn’t do what God wants to do.
God has been and is persistently at work on earth, but it is with human hands. And so we must remember: We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly, we are called to serve one another, and walk humbly with God.