Category Archives: Minnesota

Email sent to my followers

The following is the text of an email sent today to a couple thousand friends and followers.


It’s time to catch my breath. Since the release of Queer Clergy in February, I’ve been on the road … Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and California. I have been the guest of book clubs, adult forums, LGBT reconciling groups, the Pacific School of Religion, and I’ve been a guest preacher (always a treat for an old lawyer). I’ve made the rounds of Lutheran, Methodist, and UCC church conventions and a book fair.

To be sure, there have been disappointments, starting with the three month delay in the book release that caused the book to miss Christmas sales. I had to cancel a speaking engagement in Chicago because of Minnesota weather. As my plane approached San Francisco, we turned back to LA because of malfunctioning de-icing equipment on the wings! Thanks to my Bay Area host, Pam Byers, who did yeoman’s duty by whisking me from the airport to a scheduled speaking engagement when the replacement plane finally landed.

Through it all, we’ve managed to sell a few books, and Pilgrim Press tells me that the book is in its second printing (probably due to a small first print run). But, the biggest treat is the chance to visit old friends and make new ones. The conversations are always the best.

Thank you for supporting my ministry of writing and speaking. Thanks for purchasing one of my books–or maybe two or three! Please share your feedback–directly by email to me or by posting a review on Amazon.

Remember, I love to talk! Please consider an invitation to speak to your group–book club, adult forum, or even to your whole congregation during worship. Contact me by phone or email, and we’ll arrange something that will work for you.

The Naming Project: Ten years of summer camps for queer kids and allies


Brad, Jay, and Ross at camp in their younger years

More than ten years ago, three gay Lutheran men with seminary backgrounds saw a need for “a space for youth to find community and know that they were safe and accepted for who they were.” Based upon their collaborative efforts, The Naming Project came into being and now celebrates its tenth anniversary. I blogged about The Naming Project four years ago, and more information is available on their website.

Rev. Brad Froslee is now the pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis, Jay Wiesner-Smith has returned to the secular world as a human resources person for Comcast in Philadelphia, and Ross Murray is now the Director of News for GLAAD and lives and works in NYC.

Today The Naming Project continues to provide safe, welcoming, and nurturing environments for g/l/b/t and allied youth. The dreams and work of Jay Wiesner, Ross Murray, and Brad Froslee alongside the work of a tremendous Advisory Board, congregations, and community leaders continues to unfold. There is a dream that every youth (whether g/l/b/t or allied) should know a place of acceptance and the abundant love of God. And throughout our lives we are reminded that it is an ongoing project to remember that we have been created and named as “a beloved child of God.”

On this tenth anniversary, the Naming Project is undertaking a major fundraising effort. Please help as you can, share with your friends, and point any potential camp attendees in their direction.

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

Cast of Characters: Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson portraitIf readers of this blog series of biographical snippets of the iconic pilgrims who led the journey toward full inclusion know only one name, it would undoubtedly be Bishop Gene Robinson, consecrated as the bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese in 2003. For this brief taste of the Gene Robinson story, we will sample the spicy few days in Minneapolis when bishop-elect Robinson’s fate was on the plate-then off-then on again.

As with several other significant waypoints along the journey, the 2003 General Convention that approved his election occurred on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. It was in Minnesota that the Episcopalians convened in 1976 and revised canon law to allow women to be ordained to all levels of ministry; it was here that Christian feminists gathered for a Re-Imaging Conference in 1993 that rattled the mainline denominations; it was here that the Lutherans convened for their 2009 Church Wide Assembly and revised ministry policies to allow partnered gays and lesbians to be ordained; and it was here that the Presbyterians voted in General Assembly 2010 to do the same. There were numerous lesser signposts staked in Minnesota as well, and this was the homeland of more than a few pilgrims encountered in the book. There must be something in the Minnesota water.

Episcopalians elect their own bishops in diocesan conventions. However, the elections must be ratified by the national church, which is usually nothing more than a rubber-stamp approval. Because the New Hampshire Diocese elected Gene Robinson just a short time before the scheduled triennial General Convention, it would be the bishops and deputies who would gather in Minneapolis in the summer of 2003 who would have the last word. July in Minnesota is splendid, and the freezing blizzards of January are merely a test of character for the thousands of Minnesotans whose reward is to wet a fish line or take a dip in the sky-blue waters of midsummer. Yah, sure, you betcha.

Gene Robinson was a candidate running for office with a well-oiled campaign. His supporters roamed the hallways sporting buttons that said “Ask Me About Gene.” Robinson himself wore one that said, “I AM Gene” as he chatted and greeted all comers with a friendly grin and firm handshake. Partner Mark followed closely, appearing a bit self-conscious, and a burly security man with a crew cut kept a close watch.

A standing-room only audience followed Robinson’s speech before a committee considering the consecration of bishops. Many more clustered around the closed-circuit TV monitors in adjacent rooms. Part of Robinson’s task, now and continuing throughout the convention, would be a rebuttal of lies put out by his adversaries. He had not abandoned his wife and children, and they said so in highly supportive terms (his relationship with Mark Andrews began a couple of years after the divorce). Robinson’s twenty-one year old daughter appeared in person and read aloud a statement prepared by her mother, which demonstrated her continuing high regard for the man who had once been her husband.

Our lives together both married and divorced have been examples of how to deal with difficult decisions with grace, love, integrity, and honour. He is worthy of your affirmation. His charisma will draw in many more people to the church than will leave due to his sexuality. He will be a truly great bishop.

The House of Deputies voted first, and Robinson was easily approved by roughly a two to one majority.

Before the House of Bishops’ vote the following day, which was likely to be dicey anyway, the scent of scandal wafted out of the opponent’s headquarters with an allegation that placed Robinson’s ordination in serious jeopardy. A different allegation that arrived by email had to be dealt with first.

The first allegation developed from an email sent by a TV viewer back in New England who had been watching a news report of the proceedings. A man claimed he had been touched inappropriately by Bishop-elect Robinson at a regional church gathering years earlier. Even the normally reliable Episcopal News Service was swept up in the emotion of the moment, falsely reporting that “a Vermont man sent an e-mail to bishops accusing Robinson of fondling him” (emphasis added). The unfortunate word choice was a sensationalist misstatement–the email made no such claim, and the man quickly backed off when he was contacted by the bishop assigned to investigate. The alleged “touching” of years earlier turned out to be entirely innocuous. In a crowded conference room, Robinson had passed the man and stopped briefly to exchange a greeting. In doing so, Robinson had grasped the man’s upper arm and patted him on the back.

Shocking. Objection overruled.

The second allegation was even more titillating. Robinson was connected to pornographic websites, according to a “portly, red-faced pseudo journalist addicted to conspiracy theories and running his own raucously partisan conservative website.” During his fifteen minutes of fame, the man strutted around the convention media center, gleefully sputtering, “I have found the smoking gun. We got him!” The accuser’s last name was Virtue. You can’t make this stuff up.

Mr. David Virtue was part of the gatekeeping organization, the American Anglican Council (AAC). It had been the AAC chairman who first alerted church authorities to the allegations of Mr. Virtue. ”I think the bishops in considering his worthiness would want to weigh that,” the chairman said as he bounced around the convention press center, hoping that substance would back up the flimsy allegation, even while sanctimoniously claiming otherwise.

Supporters were stunned. Bishop Samuel G. Candler of the Diocese of Atlanta had spoken passionately on behalf of Rev. Robinson, but he admitted that he was shaken by the allegation.

Detractors smugly asserted, “we told you so.” Rev. Donald Armstrong of Colorado Springs, an opponent of Robinson, claimed that the allegation about pornography was entirely predictable because of Robinson’s disordered sexuality, and he suggested that Robinson ought to withdraw his candidacy.

The investigation into the pornographic website complaint revealed no connection to Robinson whatsoever. It was a “six degrees of separation” claim run amok. The questionable link had been placed on an organization’s website long after Robinson was no longer involved with the organization. The guilt-by-association smear tactic of unvirtuous Mr. Virtue failed. The investigator reported to his fellow bishops that there was ”no necessity to pursue” either complaint further. Objection overruled.

Gene Robinson consecrationWhen the Bishops finally conducted their own vote a day late, Robinson’s ordination to the episcopate was approved by nearly sixty per cent. Perhaps a vote or two swung in favor of Bishop-elect Robinson due to the underhanded tactics of the gatekeepers. Robinson was consecrated as New Hampshire bishop later that fall, but that festive event is another story.

The book is now available!

Print copies are available from Amazonthe publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

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)

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)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

Cast of Characters: Anita Hill

Pastor Anita HillWith a childhood background in Louisiana Roman Catholicism and then Mississippi Methodism, Anita Hill’s faith matured in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While attending a Lutheran Campus Ministry Bible study on homosexuality, she became a Lutheran who sensed a call to ministry and advocacy. She became active in the fledgling LGBT group, Lutherans Concerned, and she was elected co-chair in 1980. By 1983, she had been called to serve with Wingspan Ministry, an LGBT outreach of St. Paul Reformation in St. Paul, Minnesota. That same year, St. Paul-Ref became one of the first two Lutheran congregations to join the welcoming church movement as Reconciling in Christ congregations (Ross Merkel’s Oakland congregation was the other).

In the 1990s, she enrolled at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical seminary affiliated with the UCC, even as she continued as Pastoral Minister at St. Paul-Ref. During her time at United, she received awards for her scholarship and her service. During this period she also met her life partner, Janelle Bussert, and they were blessed in a service at St. Paul-Ref in 1996, followed by a dance in the freshly-painted church basement that lasted for hours, “there were a few elders who sat up past their bedtime watching people of the same gender dance.”

Hill graduated from United Seminary in 2000 and pursued ELCA ordination through regular synod channels. The St. Paul Area Synod bishop at the time was Mark Hanson, soon to be elected to be the ELCA presiding bishop. St. Paul-Ref asked the synod, which in turn asked the ELCA Church Council, for an exception to the current guidelines. Their request was rejected. Following a unanimous vote by the St. Paul-Ref congregation (176-0), Hill and the congregation decided to pursue ordination outside the normal procedures, following the example of the two San Francisco congregations in 1990. Those two congregations had been expelled by the ELCA. In fact, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart had been members of St. Paul-Ref at that time, and it was Anita Hill who suggested they pursue the San Francisco call.

Through the auspices of the predecessor organizations of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), Hill was ordained extra ordinem in 2001. The ordination was moved to the nearby facilities of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer that would be better able to handle the anticipated throng. A thousand or more swelled the old sanctuary on Saturday, April 27th, including more than two hundred clergy–Lutherans, of course, but also Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk–and three Lutheran bishops: Swedish bishop and Harvard professor Krister Stendahl, sitting bishop Paul Egertson, and retired bishop Lowell Erdahl. Bishop Egertson was forced to resign because of his involvement in Hill’s ordination. On the other hand, contrasted with the expulsions of the San Francisco congregations following ecclesiastical trials 10 years earlier, St. Paul-Ref received a tepid tap on the wrist.

Pastor Hill became the poster Lutheran lesbian. In the Lutheran legislative wrangling in the biennial assemblies leading up to the momentous policy changes in 2009, Pastor Hill was a highly-visible face of the Lutheran LGBT community. At the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, a resolution to allow Hill to speak to the plenary failed. Hill and a hundred others risked the wrath of their church by marching to the front of the dais and refusing to leave. If the plenary was to talk about them, even as they refused to talk with them, at least they would see the faces of the objects of their discussions.

After the church made a 180 degree policy shift in 2009, Hill was welcomed onto the roster of ELCA clergy in a festive Rite of Reception on September 10, 2010. The Rite also included Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart who had returned to the Twin Cities by then and served as hospice chaplains. The entire procession of bishops, active and retired, and countless clergy filed in through four stanzas of the hymn and more before all had reached their place, and then the first presiding bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, led the congregation in halting voice and failing eyesight in a litany of confession, which included a confession of the sins of the church toward gays and lesbians.

As preaching minister Barbara Lundblad moved to the center of the congregation to read the gospel message, the congregation joined the choir in the refrain of the gospel anthem:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.

Hill Bussert weddingSince then, Pastor Hill has left pastoral ministry and accepted a position as regional director of ReconcilingWorks. At the 2013 Twin Cities Pride parade, I stood next to her and asked whether she and Janelle would be married now that Minnesota had passed marriage equality. “Yes, but probably very low key,” she said, but it would turn out to be more than that. On November 10, 2013, they were married in a joint wedding with their friends Jodi Barry and Jenny Mason.


The book is now available!

Print copies are available from Amazonthe publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

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)

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)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

Blessed grief

My eighty-nine year old father will soon pass. His health has deteriorated significantly in the last year as he as moved from ambulatory to bed-ridden, assisted living facility to nursing home, and now to hospice care. In the last week and half, he has been in and out of the hospital, and over the weekend we had serious conversations with him that the end is near unless he would choose to override his living will which rules out extreme measures to prolong life. He understood and didn’t change his mind. Today, he will be returned to his nursing home and will spend the last days in hospice care.

We called his sister and a sister-in-law from his hospital room, and he heard their voices on speaker phone. With exertion, he was able to whisper “Hi”. They were able to express their love and say their goodbyes. When the word spread, others called. Family gathered in his room, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dad smiled at our jokes and with each new arrival. Pastor Trish from our home church in Upsala, Minnesota came, and we shared bread and wine and many tears.

Even though I tend to be an emotional person, easy to come to tears, I am surprised at just how teary I have been. My cheeks are wet as I write this. But it’s good. It’s so very sweet. This is a holy time, and each memory, each phone call, each labored breath is sacred. My yoga-instructor daughter would say we shouldn’t avoid the pain but embrace it as part of the fullness of life. We can learn from Eastern religion. God is in our tears.

Long remembered stories are told again. Pictures are popping up on Facebook. I add my personal favorite. The scene is from a Minnesota winter in which we sat in a steamy sauna and then ran outside and rolled in the snow. The picture shows Dad returning inside, and you can see the snow in his sideburns; the exuberance demonstrates his essential nature.Dad and sauna

More than any person I know, Dad has loved life.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  Isaiah 25:6

Yes, my dad ate the marrow—literally. And stinky cheese, pickled herring, venison steaks barbecued in the fireplace during the winter months, and he drank his homemade wine made from Basswood blossoms picked at Cedar Lake. The way he  relished rich foods serves as metaphor for his life. With a flourish. As he savored a tasty morsel, he had a characteristic flick of the wrist which said, “Yes, life is good!” Amen.

Though I cry, I am not sad but joyful. Along with so many others, I have been blessed to have him in my life. Thanks be to God!

When Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber talks, Lutherans listen

Nadia Bolz-Weber

I was one of 500 or so who packed the sanctuary of Central Lutheran in downtown Minneapolis last night to listen to ELCA rock star, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, as part of her whirlwind tour to promote her spiritual memoir, Pastrix.

Rev. Bolz-Weber, a tall, slender, dark-haired, heavily tattooed, “cyber-punk” pastor and a self-described “cranky, post-modern gal of the emerging church a la Luther,” rocked this audience, much as she did the 35,000 screaming teens and chaperones at the most recent ELCA youth convention in New Orleans. The irony is that her counter-culture appearance and hip language born of a prior career as a standup comedian (I’m sure last night was the first occasion that “F-bombs” were dropped inside this hallowed sanctuary) is used to convey a decidedly mainstream Christian, especially Lutheran, message (grace and redemption, saint and sinner, death and resurrection).

I first encountered Rev. Bolz-Weber, long before she became famous, about the time I started this blog back in ‘09, and she had started her own called Sarcastic Lutheran. At that time, I read a story in which her mission church startup to “my people,” the House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, had provided sanctuary to a lesbian teen who had been booted from her own home. Though Bolz-Weber is straight (she talks about her really cool and good-looking husband), she has been an outspoken LGBT ally. In 2011, Pastor Nadia offered the sermon at the California Rite of Reception for seven gay, lesbian, and transgender Lutheran Pastors. One of them, Pastor Ross Merkel, had been defrocked by the ELCA in the early nineties after he came out to his Bay Area congregation, but the congregation kept him in place and a newly-elected synod bishop did not object. Pastor Nadia calls Pastor Merkel her spiritual mentor, and she embraced Lutheranism in his adult-confirmation class after a childhood of spiritual abuse in a fundamentalist, patriarchal, congregation.

Again, an irony. This outsider and pastor to the outsider has been embraced by the ELCA establishment. Though there were youngsters in the audience last night–including a carload of teens from Iowa who tweeted while traveling north on I-35, “We’re coming! Don’t start on time!”—the audience was mostly middle-aged Lutherans, even elderly, including several hundred clergy from the Twin Cities area.

Before encountering Pastor Merkel and Lutheranism, Pastor Nadia had experienced spiritual healing in AA, where she became sober “by the grace of God and in the fellowship of other recovering alcoholics.” I share this journey with Pastor Nadia, and I have given talks entitled, “I learned all I needed to know about grace in AA.” She also credits a couple of years of Wiccan involvement for healing the patriarchy-inflicted, gender scars of the church of her youth.

Queer Clergy cover jpgJust released this week, Pastrix is already appearing on best-seller lists. As an author whose own book will be released later this year (Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism), I must confess to more than a little envy. Maybe I should hire her publicist.

Herbert W Chilstrom Autobiography

Eighteen years after his retirement as the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herb Chilstrom is still a commanding presence, standing straight and tall with his characteristic white hair. At the recent Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, Herb and wife Corinne always had a cluster of well-wishers hovering around them in hotel lobbies, in the exhibit/lunch hall, or signing books in the registration area. When I had a chance to visit with them, I thanked Herb again for the kind words he offered in support of my forthcoming book, Queer Clergy (see below), and he inscribed a copy of his autobiography for me (A Journey of Grace). We joked that he expected that I should finish the 600 page hardcover book that first day. Well, it took me a week, and I  thoroughly enjoyed reading about the back stories to the early days of the ELCA of which I was only vaguely aware.

Chilstrom was raised in a poor Swedish family on the outskirts of Litchfield, Minnesota, but he became the face of the newly-formed Lutheran denomination called the ELCA. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) came into existence on January 1, 1988 as the result of the merger of the two largest Lutheran denominations in the U.S. (LCA & ALC) together with a moderate splinter from the Missouri Synod (AELC). Chilstrom had been the bishop of the Minnesota Conference of the old LCA before his election to be the first presiding bishop of the ELCA.

He steered the fledgling church through rocky shoals during two four-year terms. Immediately, the church was buffeted by conservative theologians who decried the drift toward other mainline denominations such as the UCC, Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Methodists, preferring instead a rightward tilt toward Catholicism, the Missouri Synod, or the burgeoning evangelical community. Among other things, critics decried the democratic, egalitarian structure of the new church and the loss of influence for white, male, pastors.

This was hardly a new battle. The fault line could be traced from the reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, through 19th century Scandinavian lay-revivalism and Darwinian debates, into the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century, and on to the post-WWII culture wars of the religious right.

Within the first years of the new church’s existence, the conservatives seized upon the LGBT quest for full participation as the bogeyman to frighten parishioners in the pews. When the gay community persisted in seeking the church’s blessing, like the Gentile woman in Luke’s gospel, Bishop Chilstrom was conflicted in a classic confrontation of unity versus justice. The frail new church had no deposit of accrued legitimacy, no ballast to keep the ship upright, and the gales whipped her sails. It was all Chilstrom could do to keep the helm from spinning out of control, but he did so, and the church survived her tempestuous early years. His autobiography poignantly revisits his internal wrestling by quoting his own journal entry from the early years:

I continue to wonder how I got into all of this and how I can carry such a load … I feel so divided. I wish so very much that this church was ready to accept [gays and lesbians]. But it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. So I must do my duty. I must support denial of ordination for them. I feel very torn apart by it. At times, I even wonder if I should resign because of the conflict between my conscience and the stance I must take as bishop.

It took over two decades for the church to finally break down the barriers to full LGBT participation. At the recent 25th anniversary Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, there was a sense that the church had reached calmer waters. With a new captain at the helm, and a woman at that, the church boldly surged forward, sails unfurled with a fair wind and following seas.

Presiding bishop-elect Liz Eaton appears to be a suitable heir to the progressive and pastoral leadership that has passed from Bishop Herb to Bishop H. George Anderson and, most recently, to Bishop Mark Hanson. Strong leadership has been a hallmark of this church, and the church is excited that Bishop Liz Eaton will continue that legacy.

Awhile ago, I provided Bishop Chilstrom with a copy of the book manuscript for Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, and this is what he wrote about it:

“I can’t imagine a more comprehensive review of the journey of various churches in dealing with the issue of inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the church than Holmen has encompassed in the pages of this book. Though deeply involved in these issues before, during and after my time as presiding bishop of the ELCA, I learned much from this book that had not come to my attention. I commend Queer Clergy to any serious student of the subject. This remarkable book will serve as the definitive text on the subject for a long time to come.”

Click here to Like the my Facebook page and to read the eBook (PDF) Preface to “Queer Clergy.”

The Courts and Conversion Therapy

Once upon a time, I tried lawsuits for a living.  “Plaintiffs,” “defendants,” “negligence,” “foreseeability,” “standard of care,” and “reasonable man” were the jargon of the litigation attorney.  Many of my cases fit the category of “professional liability,” aka malpractice.  I served as attorney, on both sides, in professional liability cases against engineers, insurance agents, attorneys, chiropractors, and, especially, medical doctors.  Here’s the medical negligence rule in Minnesota.

The prevailing professional standard of care for a given health care provider shall be that level of care, skill and treatment which, in light of all relevant surrounding circumstances, is recognized as acceptable and appropriate by reasonably prudent similar health care providers.

Since the recognized medical, psychiatric, psychological, and counseling organizations have issued statements debunking conversion therapy (aka reparative therapy) as ineffectual and harmful, would it not be possible to sue practitioners for failing to provide “that level of care, skill and treatment … recognized as acceptable and appropriate?”

A different legal theory, consumer fraud, is behind a lawsuit recently filed against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) in New Jersey.

Four former JONAH clients, who were teens when they signed up for help, filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against JONAH and two of its counselors Tuesday, saying they were defrauded by JONAH’s claim that “being gay is a mental disorder” that could be reversed by conversion therapy — “a position rejected by the American Psychiatric Association four decades ago,” the lawsuit said.

According to CNN:

“This is the first time that plaintiffs have sought to hold conversion therapists liable in a court of law,” said Samuel Wolfe, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Meanwhile, a California law recently went into effect that bans conversion therapy for persons under 18 years of age.

California’s conversion-therapy ban … was one of the signature bills passed by the Legislature this year. The law prohibits minors from being subject to therapies aimed at changing their sexual orientation from gay to straight. Under the law, therapists who practice conversion therapy on minors risk loss of their licenses or other discipline by the state.

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, he stated, “these practices have no basis in science or medicine and they will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”

Not so fast.  Conversion therapists have immediately gone to court seeking to overturn the law.  One judge has allowed the law to stand, but in a real head-scratcher, a second judge has issued a temporary injunction against the law on the basis that the free speech rights of the conversion therapists outweigh the potential of harm to minors subjected to the therapy.  Really?  You can’t make this stuff up.

Wayne Beson, in a blog on Huffington Post calls out the up-is-down, Alice in Wonderland, lunacy of the decision:

It seems that Judge Shubb is a bit confused about the First Amendment. He appears to believe that it gives mental health providers license to say whatever they want, even if it is not in the best interest of clients. Such thinking makes a mockery of medicine … the judge seems blissfully unaware that the toxic words of a biased shrink can sometimes be as harmful as a scalpel in the wrong hands. The wounds of “ex-gay” survivors are real, devastating and can sometimes last a lifetime.

Shubb should fully understand that when he protects reparative therapists, he is wholeheartedly promoting and endorsing such outlandish quackery. It becomes particularly damaging when such demented “therapeutic” techniques are practiced on LGBT youth.

In another example of false equivalency in which all views are considered equal, even when repugnant, dangerous, and demonstrably false, the Anoka School District in Minnesota is back in the news.  This is the largest school district in the state that garnered unfavorable national attention in the last couple of years due to a number of teen suicides following bullying.  At issue was the district’s neutrality policy in which teachers and administrators were required to remain neutral when issues of human sexuality were discussed; critics claimed that this elevated the views of homophobic bullies to equal footing with tolerance and respect.  Following a lawsuit, the district eliminated the policy and also set up an Anti-Bullying Task Force.  A Minneapolis Star Tribune report today suggests there is further controversy on the Task Force.

Apparently, in another misguided notion of fairness, the school board believed the point of view of the bullies ought to be represented on the Task Force, and a known gay-basher was appointed.  The School Board chair said the man was appointed because the Task Force should be “a diverse community.” Upside down diversity.

Now, a petition is circulating in the district seeking that person’s removal, claiming he “uses his personal faith as a weapon and represents the anti-LGBTQ bigotry that is STILL hurting kids in our district.”

“To imply that [he] lends balance is so disingenuous,” [a parent] said. “His position is very clear, and the effects of that rhetoric are painfully clear in this district. … This has nothing to do with balance. It has nothing to do with opposing views. It’s one thing to have opposing beliefs, but this is about opposing the existence of students.”

A family story

Before my wife and I head out to spend Thanksgiving with our three adult children (and son-in-law and granddaughter), I’ll note the passing of a family anniversary.

RMS BalticIn April, 1912, the RMS Titanic of the White Star Line struck an iceberg and sank.  Seven months later, the RMS Baltic, a sister ship in the White Star Line, departed Liverpool bound for New York City.  Like her younger sister, the Baltic had once been the largest ship in the world.  Among many other Scandinavians on board, a pair of Swedish brothers, eighteen-year-old Olaf and his older brother Jens, had worked their way to Liverpool to seek their fortune in the New World.  They left their parents and other siblings behind in southern Sweden.

After passing through Ellis Island on November 12, 1912—a century ago–the brothers sought an uncle in the Hartford, Ct., area who had come to America earlier.  Olaf took the name Lofquist.  Soon, Jens would return to the homeland, but Olaf stubbornly remained.  When WWI intervened, Olaf served in the American army before settling in Minnesota where many Swedish communities thrived.  In 1925, he married Hilma of Upsala, Minnesota, the daughter of Wilhelm and Adelina, Swedish immigrants a generation earlier.

For awhile, Olaf and Hilma lived in Southwestern Minnesota near Redwood Falls, where Olaf and a partner operated a face-brick factory.  In 1929, Marilyn was born, the third daughter of Olaf and Hilma.  Marilyn was my mother.  Around 1930, Olaf received a letter from his sister in Sweden.  Their mother had died.  In response, Olaf wrote a poignant letter that is now a family treasure.

Olaf and Hilma would birth three more daughters before tragedy struck.  With the depression, the brick factory closed, and Olaf became a game warden, and the family moved to the woodlands of northern Minnesota.  In January, 1936, Olaf was a passenger in a car driven by another game warden as they headed to court in Aitkin, Minnesota, to testify in a trial of poachers they had arrested.  The car skidded on ice into the path of a train, and Olaf was killed.

Great-Grandpa Wilhelm with Obie & MikeHilma’s brother picked up Hilma and her daughters, and they returned to the family farm near Upsala, but soon the farm would be lost to depression-era foreclosure.  Using insurance proceeds from Olaf’s death, Hilma bought a house in town, and that was where she raised her daughters, along with her father Wilhelm who had lost the farm and who became a surrogate father for my mother and her sisters.  Years later, I lived in that house for awhile.  This is a picture of great-grandfather Wilhelm with my brother and me standing outside the Upsala café called “Hilma’s Eat Shop.”

In 1976, my mom and my dad spent six weeks in Sweden, visiting Holmen and Lofquist relatives.  Mom discovered Olaf’s living siblings and their children—her aunts and uncles and first cousins.  The circle was closed.  Since then, many of our Swedish kin have visited us in the U.S.–some three or four times.  Our two daughters, Karin and Greta, bear the names of two of mom’s cousins that she met in Sweden.  Our son, Haldan Robert Lofquist Holmen, keeps Olaf’s adopted last name alive.

Last Sunday, my sister Sue arranged for Skype sessions with many of the Swedes to remember the 100th anniversary of Olaf’s journey.  Though he never returned and never again saw his parents and siblings, he would be pleased to know that the circle is unbroken.