A straight ally, Lutheran Pastor James Siefkes, a “rather rotund church executive” in the home offices of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), a predecessor to the ELCA, was the principal inspiration for the founding of “Lutherans Concerned for Gay People” in 1974. That’s the short version; here are the details. Well, even what follows is a condensed version; read Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism for the full story, woven into an overarching narrative.
After a couple of stops as a parish pastor, Iowan James Siefkes landed in the western regional office of the ALC in Palo Alto, California. Rev. Siefkes was a third-generation Lutheran pastor after his father and grandfather. Serving in the San Francisco area during the tumultuous 1960s, Siefkes developed a program designed to introduce clergy and spouses to hot-button issues such as the Vietnam war, campus riots, runaway youth, drugs, and more. His Matrix program offered the streets of San Francisco as Petri dish for clergy to examine life on the edge.
I would set up a program, take maybe thirty, forty people and move them into the YMCA in the Tenderloin in San Francisco and, then, would try to introduce them to what was going on in the Bay Area at that time.
Matrix came to the attention of the ALC home office in Minneapolis, and Pastor Siefkes was offered a position to develop something similar; he was to establish and lead a new ALC department to be called, “Congregational Social Concerns.” So far, so good, but when he invited approximately sixty persons from the Twin Cities (Lutheran and Catholic Social Services, ALC executives, an ALC bishop, the YMCA, the University of Minnesota Medical School, and more) to a seminar to evaluate the potential for ministry in the area of human sexuality, “the milieu heated up,” according to Siefkes. In particular, the scandalized director of Catholic Social Services published an unfriendly report in Commonweal magazine entitled, “Sex, Sex, Sex!”
Undeterred, Siefkes successfully sought a small ALC appropriation of a few thousand dollars:
To enable at least one national meeting of up to twenty ALC homosexual persons plus 5 resource persons to discuss their sexual orientation and their relationship because of it, to society and their church; to the end that they may address the church and the church might respond to them and become less a source of oppression to ALC and other persons with homosexual orientation.
Earlier, Siefkes had been interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Howard Erickson, who was a closeted gay man who also published in the gay periodical, The Advocate, under the pseudonym, Bjorn Bjornson. Erickson’s Advocate article introduced Siefkes to the gay community as an ally, and Siefkes used contacts he attained following that article to invite around twenty gay and lesbian persons to an inaugural meeting in Minneapolis in June 1974. Five persons actually attended the weekend event, including reporter Erickson. Siefkes himself stepped back and let the five persons plus three facilitators conduct the meeting themselves.
On Sunday evening, June 16, 1974, Siefkes and his wife, Sally, joined the others for a social event and report at a professor’s home near the University of Minnesota campus. When he arrived, he learned that Lutherans Concerned had been born, the LGBT advocacy group that would grown in size and strength and become the lobbying force that encouraged the ELCA to revise its attitude and policies toward gays and lesbians. Five LGBT Lutherans and three facilitators would have “an impact way out of proportion to their numbers.” Sort of like five fishes and two loaves.
The conservative Lutheran press picked up on the story and lambasted the “Dollars for Disobedience” appropriation. By printing copies of the organizational newsletter, including the subscription form, the conservative publication unwittingly helped to spread the word. Four years later at the first national gathering of Lutherans Concerned, reporter Erickson would reminisce, “We five had our differences, all right, but it started to look like this nestling we’d hatched just might be around for awhile.”
In 1992, Lutherans Concerned established the Jim Siefkes Justice-Maker Award, to recognize superior and tireless efforts of straight allies on behalf of LGBT Lutherans. Siefkes himself was honored with the 2010 Peace and Justice Award from the Hawkinson Foundation. The award honors individuals or couples who have made significant and sustained contributions to peace and justice. Now retired, Siefkes remains in Minneapolis and helped me with background information to the founding of Lutherans Concerned (now ReconcilingWorks).
This is the fifth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1970-72 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1972-77 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)