Today’s story features Tina, an activist for LGBT inclusion in honor of her brother Jon who died of HIV/AIDS nearly two decades ago.  ”We bless boats, we bless yards, we bless animals,  but why don’t we bless people?”  Tina asks.

The ELCA church wide assembly begins a week from today.  As we walk toward the convention and the momentous votes regarding gay clergy and gay marriage, we continue our series of ten LGBT faith stories.  Tina’s story is installment seven.  The Joint Synod Inclusivity Committee of the two Minnesota metro synods of the ELCA offers these ten stories in a booklet as a download on their website.  Kari Aanestad, a seminary student from Luther seminary, authored the stories.

Booklet coverHere are links to the earlier stories:

Introduction: Listen to the stories of gay Christians

Wounded Healer

Some kids have two moms

Couple meets in Gay Men’s Chorus

Mom and Dad, I’m gay

Lesbian feels unsafe and unvalued in church

Rejected by the People

Tina Fahnestock is a slender woman with a runner’s body. Her sandy gray hair is cut in a short, pixie style. The bright pink walls and tablecloth in her living room match her pink turtleneck, Norwegian sweater, and rimmed glasses. She brings me into the kitchen to show me her backyard.  A tall, pruned tree stands in the back corner and a large ornament reading “GIGGLE” in vertical, metal letters hangs from one of its branches.

“We keep that tree lit up with lights all year round,” Tina says, “and my husband keeps it really pruned in honor of Jon because he was so tall and slim. That’s the tree Jon gave our son Erik when he was baptized.”

In 1992 Tina lost her 39-year-old brother, Jon, to HIV. Ever since that loss Tina and her entire family have continued to live out their faith by walking alongside those who have experienced pain, loss, rejection, and hardship.

“Jon has been our family’s legacy,” Tina said. “He was an early martyr for the cause.”

Jon contracted HIV around 1983. Even though he didn’t show physical symptoms until 1990, his health quickly degraded and he died within 18 months. Jon’s death was hard on the family, but not necessarily for obvious reasons.

“My other brother was a pastor in Montana, and on Palm Sunday in 1992 he stood in front of his congregation and said, ‘I have to go — my brother is dying, and he is dying of AIDS,’” Tina said.

Tina remarked that Montana had a sort of “macho cowboy” culture. Her brother was worried that by acknowledging he had a gay brother, he could face negative repercussions from his church community.

“Yet he had so many families come out and support him, and their support was a huge turning point in his ministry. He had so many cowboys come to him and say, ‘I have a brother’ or ‘I had a friend who is gay.’ After that he knew the only way to be was open.”

After making the announcement to his church about Jon, Tina’s brother and family drove home to Minnesota for Easter.

“On Easter evening my brother Jon started having a seizure and he never came back. Three days
later he died, and we buried him in Winona, his home town. We had a funeral at his church that he helped to organize for LGBT folks here in Minneapolis.”

Painfully aware of the anti-gay demonstrations that had been plaguing funerals of HIV/AIDS victims in the early 1990s, Tina’s entire family worried that Jon’s funeral could be targeted.

“When my brother died, I was so afraid for my mom that the funeral would be protested,” Tina said. “We sat my mom down and said, ‘We hope there won’t be any hateful demonstrators, but if there are, we’ll be here to hold your hand.’”

Fortunately, Jon’s funeral was not protested. In fact, Tina’s family experienced quite the opposite of hate:

“The outpouring of love and support from Jon’s community and all of our family’s communities was unbelievable . . . so I can say there was grace there.  He was a proud gay man, and he loved his church, and he was a faithful follower of Jesus. He was a giant in that. His faith was so incredible,” Tina said. “As a result I’ve done a lot in standing for the LGBT population as a straight parent, as a sister, and as a daughter. I believe that the LGBT population continues to struggle because we reject them. We reject them at schools, at church fellowships, at workout clubs, at work and family functions. How can we turn away people who are followers of Jesus? I continue to struggle with that. So in honor of Jon’s legacy my family really, really, really fights for including all of God’s children.”

Jon had definitely experienced rejection. When he began showing early symptoms of HIV, he was fired from his job as an art teacher in a public high school. While Jon lost the battles against the
school authorities and HIV, his sister continues to fight in honor of his legacy every day. One way in which Tina honors Jon is in her work. Fittingly, Tina serves as a speech therapist for three schools in the Twin Cities area. Both literally and figuratively, she helps give a voice to the voiceless in her work.

“I’m in communities where kids are so incredibly vulnerable — not only to the gang issues but also to drugs and hardness because they’re at poverty levels and their families have all experienced hardships. So that’s where I see my faith. I see how I can help make others’ lives a little more comfortable. I think it’s important to feel good about yourself.”

Tina’s advocacy for struggling and rejected people extends beyond her work and into her fulfillment of lay leadership roles in her church. When her church first considered becoming a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) church, a program that publicly recognizes churches who openly welcome gay and
lesbian believers, Tina said, “My family was at every function for two solid years. Whenever
there was a gathering of people we went to stand in support and to say, ‘We won’t lose
members — we’ll gain because we’re reaching out.’” The vote passed unanimously, and
the church became RIC.

“The following year we started asking, ‘Why aren’t we allowing blessings? We bless boats, we bless yards, we bless animals, but why don’t we bless people?’”

The church voted on whether to allow the ministry staff to perform same-sex blessings, and only ten people either abstained from voting or voted “No.” So the church began allowing the staff to perform same-sex blessings.

Some people left the church, but, according to Tina, “All the people who left the church have since come back.  I can’t tell you how many people drive by our church and see our sign that says we’re an RIC congregation, and say they want to worship at our church. I just got a call from a school group yesterday who wants to host a large spaghetti dinner there. They said the school has a number of gay families that don’t go to church, but they find our church welcoming.”

“Our church is really prospering and serving with the purpose of loving, caring, and healing. And that’s my job right there. We must constantly be asking ourselves, ‘Who should I serve? What can I offer? How do I open up?‘”

Tina does not judge whether others are answering those questions correctly. Instead, she wants to provide “a welcoming, loving community for kids, for people who are of color, for people who are sick, for people who are homosexual, for people who need a refuge. That’s what I think our church is about. That’s where Jesus walked.”

Tina’s efforts to welcome those who have experienced pain and hardship have been an inspiring success. Within both her church and her family, she has brought healing to places where traditionally there was pain, unity where there was division, and love where there was hate. As a good leader, she herself not only does good work, but she also encourages others to do the same.

In respect to the debate about homosexuality in the church, Tina said, “There are times in life when we all have to forgive and, oh boy, I have had to work through a lot of that. I’m trying to hear the different sides of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender issue, but it’s all based in fear. The only way to move beyond that fear is to reach your hand out. If you put your hand out, the fear won’t
necessarily subside, but you’ll be able to share the journey with someone who needs you. So
that’s my family’s story in loving legacy of my brother Jon, whom I deeply miss.”