My little place of worship, St. Francis Lutheran Church, which is affectionately known as Out Lady of Safeway due to our stone's throw distance from the supermarket in the Castro district, created some big changes, and it only took two decades to do it.
Back in the spring of 1989, the minister at St. Francis, the heterosexual but gay-accepting Rev. Jim DeLange, was central to a plan to ordain open gays and lesbians. You can read the very short version of what led to those ordinations that led to the congregation's expulsion from the national Lutheran church here. One of the reasons I joined this church was because of its abundant pride at being such trouble-making Lutherans and for being expelled. My kind of activist people. ;-)
As the many news stories from last week have reported, what was so radical for one church in San Francisco, ordaining LGBT ministers, is now this Lutheran denomination's national policy.
At yesterday's service, with people packing the pews, Rev. DeLange offered a few words about the two-decade struggle. Just his approaching the lectern brought a hearty round of applause, while his talk was punctuated with occasional clapping and murmurs of "yes, yes."
With all the love from him flowing out to the congregation, and the love returned many times over, I got directly in front of him, snapped a picture of him, then returned to my seat. If you look very closely at the photo, you can see Rev. DeLange's mouth and face are bursting with happiness.
But I digress. Let me finish my introduction with a warm "thank you" to him and all the trailblazers who labored to make the change happen in the Lutheran church. Here's what Rev. DeLange had to say:
This isn’t a sermon, but I can’t help but begin my response to the decisions of the ELCA churchwide assembly with a Biblical text.
To a devout Jew and even to a non-practicing Jew, even touching these animals, let alone eating them was an abomination. The same held true for having anything to do with Gentiles. But Peter did it and endeavored to move the whole church of his time in the direction of including Gentiles in the fellowship of believers. A sea change in the consciousness for the Jewish people of that time.
This past week the Spirit of God told the 1,045 voting members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the vast majority of whom were heterosexual, “to go with LGBT people and not make a distinction between them and us.”
The following resolution was adopted by a vote of 559-451 and now becomes church policy: “Resolved, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”
It was a day this congregation and tens of thousands of Lutherans all over our nation have been waiting for for 30 years, in some cases longer than that. It changes everything for St. Francis and our relationship with the ELCA. I anticipate that the local ELCA bishop, Mark Holmerud, will want to enter into discussions with us and with First United Lutheran church to explore the possibility of our rejoining the ELCA. Given the new ELCA policy that reverses the reason for our expulsion from the ELCA, the burden of that decision will now be on the people of St. Francis and First United. So be prepared for some serious dialogue and important decision-making.
Not many members of this congregation today were here in 1989 when we took the vote to call Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart as our associate pastors and join with 1,000 others in their ordination. We knew the risk we were taking in defying church policy, but we did it anyway. Much discussion preceded that decision, just as much discussion today precedes important decisions made by the people of St. Francis. And we knew we weren’t just doing this for ourselves. We were doing it as a witness to the whole church.
As we said at the time, “if any congregation in the Lutheran church is going to challenge this policy, it is going to have to be a church in San Francisco and it should probably be a church in the Castro.” But even if you weren’t here in 1989, you have been here to celebrate the Feast of the Expulsion every year on the last Sunday in December, when we revisit the events leading up to the ordinations on January 20, 1990, and the trial and expulsion that followed. Yes, next January 20 will be the 20th anniversary.
At the same time we are congratulating ourselves on our prophetic witness, steadfastness, and patience, we also need to recognize that the sea change in the attitudes in the Lutheran Church toward LGBT people is owed to more people than the advocates within the church – although there is a long list of individuals, lay and clergy, and organizations like Lutherans Concerned, the Network for Inclusive Vision, and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and Good Soil – who gave their money and time to the cause. And here we have to recognize the outstanding work of Emily Eastwood, the Executive Director of Lutherans Concerned. Emily’s fund raising and organizing skills across every synod and churchwide assembly and relentless advocacy is what finally got this done for the Lutheran Church.
We also have to thank the larger culture for changing attitudes. People like Harvey Milk, Ellen DeGeneres, the writers and producers of television shows like Will and Grace and the soap operas and Gus VanZant who gave us the award winning film, “Milk.” We have to thank Oprah. We have to thank the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post for changing their editorial policies and making LGBT causes issues of justice. And how can we not mention the Supreme Court of Iowa, in the heartland of Lutheranism, for their approval of same gender marriage. The votes in Mpls. this past week are owed to all of these people as well.
Finally, I would like to add a personal note.
I didn’t think it would happen. Not this year. Lutherans are notorious for sitting on their hands and waiting for someone else to lead the cause to justice. A group of us gathered at Jeff Johnson’s house on Monday night to watch the live proceedings of the opening day of the CWA. There was a procedural vote on the Standing Rules that would give a good indication of how the vote on our issues was going to go. The vote came out overwhelmingly in our favor and I began to hope – just maybe this time – maybe this time – it was going to happen.
On Wednesday the vote on the social statement on human sexuality that was supportive of LGBT relationships came to the floor. It required a two-thirds vote as do all social statements in the ELCA. That’s tough to do. I didn’t think it would reach the two-thirds threshold and therefore doom the resolutions on rostering openly LGBT pastors which only required a majority. But the social statement passed. By one vote out of over 1,000 cast. Don’t ever think your vote doesn’t count.
So now I am hopeful. I am hopeful that our young seminarians will feel free to come out in seminary and other LGBT pastors will feel free to come out to their congregations. It will not happen over night. But it will happen. And St. Francis and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries must stand ready, as we have these past 20 years, to support them.
Rev. James DeLange in an address to the congregation of
St. Francis Lutheran Church, San Francisco
August 23, 2009