“What a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” the pastor exclaimed. We are “a people of risky adventure.” These are the words of the pastor of a Boston congregation in a 1975 article in the UCC’s national magazine. The Rev. Oliver G. Powell lifted up images of sauerbraten and potatoes, long draughts of dark beer, romantic poetry and Bach chorales. He talked of New England boiled dinners and baked beans, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and skylight filtering through clear, freshly-washed, church-window panes.
Later, Rev. Powell and wife Eleonore would be “people of risky adventure” who would “exemplify courageous leadership in Open and Affirming Ministry” as supporters of their daughter Lois (Loey) Powell, a lesbian ordained in 1978. Parents and daughter would each serve as highly visible leaders along the UCC journey toward full inclusion.
Loey Powell graduated from Pacific School of Religion in 1977, the same “rash and courageous” institution that had witnessed Bill Johnson’s dining-hall speech seven years earlier. Echoing her father’s “heady, exasperating, and hopeful” sentiment, Powell remembers her seminary days as filled with the exhilaration of movement politics. She had come out early in her seminary life, and fondly remembers the bay area UCC gay caucus that gathered for monthly potlucks and nationally at UCC General Synods: “incredibly spirit-filled worship, doing the justice-making work of advocacy, being there for those who were wondering about their sexuality.” Like the sun piercing the fog over San Francisco Bay, feminism, liberation theology, and gay rights burned through the timbered halls of the seminary. And it wasn’t just the seminary. The Northern California Conference of the UCC was in the vanguard of hope, alive with possibilities.
Powell was ordained with two other lesbian classmates, but they were not officially out to the candidacy committee although they were out to friends and the seminary community. Thus, the status of first open lesbian to be ordained in the UCC falls to Rev. Ann Holmes in 1982. Nevertheless, as the daughter of an esteemed elder, Loey Powell immediately became the “poster lesbian” of the UCC. By the end of the decade, she served as co-coordinator with Rev. Bill Johnson as the UCC Coalition grew in size and status.
However, it took a number of years before a traditional congregation took a chance on calling her to pastoral ministry. Then a breakthrough in 1989. For the first time in any ecumenical denomination, an openly gay clergyperson was called as sole pastor to a traditional ministry through the normal call process. Pastor Powell would remain at United Church of Tallahassee for seven fruitful years of ministry before accepting a position in the UCC home office in Cleveland, where she has continued to serve, most recently on the Justice and Witness Ministry Team as Executive for Administration.
This is the tenth 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 my soon-to-be-released book, 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)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)