With 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.
Since 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 Amazon, the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, 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 Clergy. As 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)