Kari Aanestad, a student at Luther Seminary in St Paul, tells the story of Jodi and Rochelle in the ninth installment of LGBT faith stories. The Joint Synod Inclusivity Committee of the Minneapolis area and St Paul area synods of the ELCA offers these ten stories in a booklet as a download on their website.
In less than a week, on Monday, August 17th, the ELCA 2009 church wide assembly commences in Minneapolis. The convention will be closely watched for action on gay marriage and gay clergy. I will be in attendance and will offer live blog updates from the hallways.
Here are links to the earlier stories in this series:
”I’ve learned that marriage is a kind of vocation too — my ministry wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t married her,” Jodi said in her interview with Kari.
Listen to Kari tell the rest of the story.
Linus and Lucy, two beagles, greeted me at the front door. Jodi introduced her dogs and herself, and Rochelle joined us. An acorn-colored wall framed the red suede couch they sat on, and I noticed exotic percussion instruments from various countries resting on floor speakers. A muted French horn on public radio played in the background. One thing was almost immediately apparent: They are both musicians.
Jodi is a professional church musician and has been for most of her life. She was born and baptized in a Lutheran church in Rockford, Illinois.
“I was a good, church-music kid,” Jodi said. “I started leading church music at a very young age and never really stopped. I loved God, and I loved to sing, and something about those two things together exponentially increased meaningfulness for me. I think that the seeds of music and of
love, planted in me early, were both expected to bear fruit,” Jodi said. “Both are needed for
me to be the person God wants me to be, and to deny either of them is to live half a life and
to ill-serve my call.”
Jodi’s love of music was tempered by perfectionism. “I’m the elder of two daughters, and as such am the classic people-pleasing overachiever. I wanted to do everything just right as a kid.” she said.
She became conflicted when she started having crushes on girls at school because it didn’t necessarily match what she had been taught.
“I started to suspect there was something different about me, but back in the Jurassic period I didn’t have the language to talk about it.”
After working several years as a corporate trainer, Jodi eventually decided she needed to do something more meaningful.
“I was a good Lutheran young woman who wanted to leave the world better than I found it.” Her life changed when a friend brought her to hear the National Lutheran Choir in concert. “I
don’t think I breathed for the entire first half of the concert . . . later, through singing in that wonderful, professional choir, I came in touch again with the seeds of music God had planted in me. Inspired by the experience, I entered Luther Seminary’s Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program.”
Entering seminary posed a dilemma for Jodi. She knew her sexuality wasn’t exactly celebrated at her new school, but she couldn’t suppress her calling to the program. “I had decided that being single could be just fine — God had work for me, and what could possibly be as important? Like many well-intentioned people before and after me, I took refuge from myself in the idea of a life
of service. Celibacy didn’t seem like much of a price to pay for sanctity,” Jodi said, “except
for one thing — God had a different idea.”
“Despite my happiness in my seminary work, I still had such a longing for love. Whenever those feelings surfaced, I tried to change them, to channel them into my work or friendships or volunteer projects . . . entering seminary was, in a way, the ultimate expression of my desire to hide from myself. Except seminary has a way of making you extraordinarily honest with yourself — you can’t hide.”
Jodi continued to struggle with her calling to ministry and her sexuality. She eventually came out to John, a fellow MSM student. She told him one day at lunch that she was gay.
He said, “Oh honey, I knew.”
Jodi, a little surprised, asked, “How?”
John said, “Your shoes.”
Jodi remained single for a while, but by the end of her first year in the program, she found love.
“Love came to me in the form of a National Lutheran Choir friend, Rochelle. She had also been to grad school and took it upon herself to cheer me on and help me through the initial stresses of school,” Jodi said. “As much as we had in common, we were also very different in our worldviews.
I was a hopeful, liberal progressive, and she a pragmatic, conservative Biblical literalist. I was intrigued; before too much time passed, I was sure we were meant for each other.”
The giddiness of early love was quickly overshadowed with Jodi’s fears and frustrations.
“I felt as if I had lost God because I had received two callings, equal in strength, that were entirely incompatible. This seemed like a cruel curveball from the infinitely loving God I thought I knew. It was an untenable situation. Did I really have to choose between spending my life with this wonderful woman and doing the work I’d been given?”
In chapel one day she became very angry with God because of her vocational and relationship
issues. They seemed to have become mutually exclusive. The passage for the day was the story about a woman with a long term hemorrhage, which made her ritually unclean, an impoverished outcast from her community.
“Jesus called the woman ‘daughter’ . . . I realized right then that I was not simply a spectator of the Bible anymore — I am still God’s kid, and that maybe this sexuality stuff isn’t as important as that. It’s difficult enough to follow a vocation, but it’s especially hard to do so in a community
that doesn’t fully embrace you for who you are. It takes intestinal fortitude.”
Rochelle went through a similar crisis after realizing she was in love with Jodi. Rochelle’s
father was a Missouri Synod pastor, and his fundamentalist theology deeply influenced Rochelle’s sense of self.
“I grew up knowing it wasn’t OK to ask questions that were controversial,” Rochelle said. “From age three I knew the ‘right’ words to explain to anyone what it meant to be a Christian, even
if I didn’t know what some of those words really meant or that I always believed my own story. I just hoped everyone else would.”
She grew up in one parish for most of her life and was used to having a big reputation in a small town. She knew that anything she did could potentially reflect on her family and her father’s ministry.
“My brothers, sisters, and I did what we were supposed to do; we didn’t really have the bad reputation of pastors’ kids.”
After graduating from college, Rochelle got her master’s degree in statistics and then had a vocational crisis. She decided to do missionary work in Papua New Guinea, through a non-profit Lutheran organization. Midway through her service there, she discovered she was very uncomfortable sharing her faith.
“I kept on having to tell it to other people even if I didn’t believe it, and I began to really struggle.”
Her faith struggles in a foreign country led her to a dark place.
“I don’t know if my depression is a part of this story, but it’s a part of me,” Rochelle said. “I told my family I was struggling with depression and was seeing a counselor, and their first reaction was, ‘I hope you’re seeing a Christian counselor.’ It seemed to me that their concern was less
focused on my depression itself, than that I seek the ‘right’ kind of care.”
Rochelle eventually moved to the Twin Cities and became involved in music and the arts, including the National Lutheran Choir, where she met Jodi. The two were instantly good friends and spent a lot of time together. Rochelle didn’t quite understand what was happening at first.
“Being gay was something I never thought about,” Rochelle said. “Jodi and I joke that we dated for three months before I realized that we were dating.”
After realizing they were in love, they decided to let their relationship grow. Knowing that this information would be a substantial challenge for her very conservative family, Rochelle waited until she and Jodi had been together for six years to tell her first family member, a sister.
“That didn’t go well,” said Rochelle.
It was another two years before she told her parents.
“It was very painful,” Jodi said, “for both of us. Before Rochelle’s parents knew we were more than
roommates, I could sit and talk liturgy with her dad for hours. We all got along famously until we told them the full truth.”
Rochelle started crying and gently stroked Linus, who sat on the couch next to her. Jodi lightly laid her hand on top of Rochelle’s. Jodi paused for a brief moment then said,
“It seems that Rochelle’s parents think they have a choice between only two options: God or their daughter. As a result, Rochelle actually does have only two options: her family of origin or the family she has built. I just can’t imagine that God would want that. They have constructed a theology in which anything that doesn’t fit that picture isn’t acknowledged,” Jodi said. “If I were a
guy, I think I’d be their dream for marrying their daughter, but as I am a woman, I don’t fit in the picture of their theology. I recognize that it’s a lot to ask of them, that it challenges their theology in a deep way, but they’ve known the full truth for three years now and there’s been no movement at all. Rochelle is still in hopeful conversation with her family, but every overture I’ve made has been either ignored or rebuffed.
“It’s hard to figure out how to act in a loving way here,” Jodi continued, “how to support my wife, keep my integrity and still remain open to a relationship that thus far has offered no hope of growth or understanding or even acknowledgement. I want to believe that love can win over fear here.”
“A part of it is they’re concerned about their image,” Rochelle said. “They have big reputations in a small town. When my mother first found out about Jodi and me, she said to me, ‘Think of the congregation members who supported your ministry in Papua New Guinea. They’d be so hurt by
Again, Rochelle felt that her parents’ first concern was for something other than her well-being.
The rejection and judgment of Rochelle’s parents is difficult, but the knowledge that Rochelle and Jodi aren’t legally bound to one another is almost unbearable. They have tried to get as many legal protections as possible because Jodi fears that if anything were to happen to Rochelle, Rochelle’s family would shut out Jodi in an instant.
“That’s frightening and painful,” Jodi said.
Fortunately, Jodi’s parents and extended family have quite a different attitude than Rochelle’s.
“Honestly, it was more of a problem for my family that I didn’t drink coffee than that I was a lesbian,” Jodi said and grinned. “Coffee is a serious thing to Scandinavian Lutherans.”
Jodi recalled her mom defending those who were “outside of the circle” since Jodi could remember, and Jodi’s parents continue to fight for the rights of their daughter, as do her aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“Luckily my beautiful partner is a full member of my Lutheran family, and I am thankful.”
Jodi’s friends were not too fazed by her sexuality either.
“It was weirder for my friends that I was so involved in church than that I was gay. The secular world (particularly some of my LGBT friends who have been hurt by the church) finds me weird
because I’m in church, but the church finds me weird because I’m gay. I’m fine with being
in the church and being gay; but it’d just be nice to be recognized as more than those two things.”
A year ago last October, Jodi and Rochelle got married in the company of 175 loved ones. Only one immediate family member from Rochelle’s side came, and, according to Rochelle, “he seemed very
unhappy being there.”
Despite the absence of most of Rochelle’s family of origin, the pews of the Minneapolis church were brimming. Jodi currently directs a 30-member choir at a Minneapolis church, and every single member was present to sing at the wedding, along with many other members of that church community.
“They threw us a wild wedding shower that even had live chickens,” Jodi said, “but that’s a whole other story. It was an absolutely beautiful experience,” she said. “It shaped the way I see family. Before the wedding we were committed. We bought rings and made lifelong promises to one another, but there was something about that public promise — in front of loved ones and God — there’s something about that experience that changes you. The vow is sanctified in a richer way, and the community promises to help us carry it out.”
They received a standing ovation.
“Over the past 12 years I’ve been with Rochelle,” she continued, “I’ve learned that marriage
is a kind of vocation too — my ministry wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t married her. While being married I’ve learned that I can screw up and still be loved; that is the model of God’s grace. We learn how to be more fully God’s children by loving each other. I’m a child of God. Everything about my life is committed to loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to loving my
neighbor as myself. My relationship with my partner has taught me much about how to do that. She calls me to be my best and bravest self. By living with her and loving her, I’m blessed and
challenged, convicted and forgiven, but most of all, I’m loved. I’m happy and feel set down
in the center of God’s love and grace.”