As reported earlier, the two Minnesota metro synods of the ELCA have a joint inclusivity committee, and the committee’s website offers a booklet for download entitled Listen to Their Hope: Hear Their Faith. The author of the booklet, Kari Aanestad, is an Augsburg College graduate and currently preparing for the ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul. Kari has compiled ten stories that:
portray the joy, the pain, the struggle of loving, committed individuals who love their church, but do not always feel welcomed or affirmed in who they are. We believe that God loves every person and that each person bears the image of God. Their stories are signs that the Spirit has been working in our midst, often undetected.
One story a day will be published here as we march toward the historic church wide assembly of the ELCA to take place in Minneapolis beginning August 17th. Here is story number one about Glen, a Wounded Healer.
Standing at nearly 6’5”, Glen Wheeler is a gentle giant, but not simply because of his height. As an ordained Lutheran pastor for more than forty years, Glen continues to lead publicly even in retirement. As we walk toward an empty room on campus at Luther Seminary for our interview, he knows and greets nearly every person we pass. They respond to him with warmth and, having seen him, seem happier. We find our room and begin talking.
“I grew up in the oil fields of northwestern Montana,” Glen said. “My family had homesteaded in the Valier/Birch Creek area in 1912 after arriving from Canada in a covered wagon. The first nine years of my life I lived out in the oil field in very sub-standard housing.”
“When I was seven, the Presbyterians picked me up in a school bus and took a few of us to Vacation Bible School held on the dance floor of the Santa Rita Tavern. They also took me to Bible camp at Lake Five near Kalispell, Montana. Growing up, I didn’t have any consistent experience with church or Bible school. I liked a girl that I followed to Sunday school every now and then, but nothing consistent.
Glen’s family didn’t belong to a church. His grandfather felt the Bible advocated slavery. So Glen’s grandfather remained an agnostic throughout his life.
“My sister, who was ten years older than me, became a Christian during military service. She always wanted us to say grace before a meal or go to church on Sundays, but we always went trout fishing instead. Trout fishing was my first religion.”
When Glen reached high school, however, he became anxious about his own salvation. He started to become curious about religion and wanted to explore his own faith. At this same time he noticed his friends were involved with alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity. In response to his peers, he had to decide who he was and if he was going to join in destructive habits.
“I decided I wasn’t going to, but I needed some reasons not to.”
He began reading scripture to look for moral guidance, but instead he found much more: a calling to Christian faith and ordained ministry. “I read Romans 10, where it says, ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart Christ was raised from the dead, you shall be saved.’
That scripture captured me. So there I was: a believing Christian who had no faith community.”
He was not going to be without a community for very long.
“When I was a senior in high school, I took a speech class. I looked at all of my classmates and friends who were having moral struggles. I decided to give a speech on the value of reading the Bible and almost chickened out. After I gave the speech, two Lutheran boys, whom I had previously teased for wearing white dresses to light the candles at church, told their pastor about my speech, and they invited me to a Valentine’s party at the church. That was my first entry into Christian worship. I started going to worship that spring.”
Glen went to Concordia College in the fall and was baptized at Christmas time of that year.
“I had officially made it into the Lutheran church five days before I became 18 years old.”
Throughout college he continued to develop his faith and explore his call to ministry. As an outsider to the Lutheran faith, Glen entered seminary with an open mind. During his first two years he took a course on urban ministry, which inspired him to serve in an urban setting for his internship. The academic year of 1964–65, Glen interned at a church in Detroit, Michigan. At the height of the civil rights movement, Glen found himself in a church primarily composed of young, gang-affiliated black teenagers and their families. He had quite an internship experience.
“One Sunday the senior pastor left to take part in the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. He left for the march and told me I had to stay home and take care of the congregation.”
There was certainly a lot to take care of. To compound the intensity of the church’s urban setting during a social movement, Glen became aware that his prophetic senior pastor was a gay man. There were also young adults in the congregation who were beginning to understand themselves as gay.
“We had a bright teenager in our congregation who was very close to his mom, and the kids teased him about it. He was beginning to understand himself as a gay man. He eventually went to the Juilliard School of Music and is serving the church today as a wonderful church musician. But in watching this man and others struggling with similar issues I began to realize that ministry happens not when you think about what people ‘should be’ or ‘ought to be,’ but when people are ‘who they really are.’”
After internship and the completion of seminary, Glen was ordained and called to urban ministry in Milwaukee for 8 years. Then, following a year with the Ecumenical Institute in Newark, New Jersey, Glen was called to a congregation in Iowa, where he served for almost 20 years.
“Four years into that call, I became a divorced Lutheran pastor and a single parent of three little kids. When my wife left that marriage, I soon discovered that if I was going to continue in that ministry, the only thing I had going for me was the grace of God. I didn’t see any other reason to be there as their pastor or to continue in ministry. For four years, I had served the congregation as a teacher of theology through adult education, and my approach to theology was pretty cerebral. As soon as I became a divorced pastor, I began to see that the congregation wanted a wounded-healer ministry from me. They were also wounded. They saw me as someone more approachable now, someone different than the theologian, preacher, or teacher. That was one of the beginnings of change for me in the focus of my ministry. Three years after the divorce, I remarried, and my wife and I raised six teenagers together.”
Later in that same period, the Lutheran church was faced with a dilemma of how it should respond to people who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Glen received his answer.
“I can still remember where I was driving on a road in Iowa when I heard on the radio Mother Teresa’s response to the question, ‘How should the church respond to victims of HIV/AIDS? ’ She just said, ‘The people who are dying need to know the unconditional love of God and that we love them also.’ She was so clear about the church’s role — at a time when many of us were still trying to figure that out.”
Glen discovered that his ministry had taken the focus of helping others learn of God’s unconditional love and also encouraging others to love one another unconditionally. Soon after he’d heard Mother Teresa’s words, his Iowa congregation chose to celebrate the lives of two members who lost their lives to AIDS.
“It was a hard time for our church, but it was good to see us begin to make the transition to celebrating the lives of all of our members.”
Glen’s challenge to help others know the unconditional love of God continued. In 1994 Glen took a call to a Minneapolis church as a solo pastor. He quickly felt overwhelmed. The church decided to provide a part-time visitation pastor to help serve the seniors.
“After interviewing multiple candidates, we found someone whom we thought was the perfect candidate. At the end of this pastor’s interview, however, the candidate said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m gay. Is that a problem?’”
Glen said he didn’t believe it was a problem, but he needed to consult the Administrative Board. They were not ‘calling’ a pastor, but were offering a contract for a part-time position. All of the Administrative Board agreed that having a gay pastor was not a problem, but they couldn’t offer the contract yet because one member was absent. When Glen contacted that board member and told him about the situation, his response was, “It’s not a problem to me.” The pastor was offered a contract and was later extended a call as part of the ministry team, where he served for nine years until his retirement.
“We later learned that this final board member and his wife had a daughter who was in a same-gender committed relationship and was expecting twins. Fortunately, our congregation had completed the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation before the twins were born. The board member and his wife, who was the president of the congregation, were able to share with the other elected leaders the joy of becoming grandparents,” Glen said. “It was interesting that all of us took the risk of calling a pastor who is gay without knowing how others would react or who might be in each other’s families. It demonstrates that we don’t know who is sitting in our congregations — who has gay family members or not.”
Glen started as an outsider to the Christian faith and community and has become a powerful advocate for Lutheran congregations to become Reconciling in Christ congregations. His ministry, which first focused on racial social justice, has now led him to be an advocate for welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their families to our communion tables as members of the Body of Christ.
“Our identity in Christ comes to us through the gift of our baptism and not through our gender identity or sexual orientation. Young gay and lesbian Christians in my congregation in Iowa took the risk of trusting me as their pastor when they began to come out of the closet. The trust of those young Christians coming out to their families, to their church, and to me has motivated me to do all I can to make sure they will be welcomed as members of the Body of Christ. The promises we made to them in baptism require it.”
“I don’t think I chose this role — I think it came to me through ministry. Once you get past the moralism that leads to people feeling like ‘I should feel this way’ or ‘Other people shouldn’t do this’ — once you get past the ‘shouldas’ and ‘oughtas’ — then I think the grace of God has a chance to enter in and transform us and take over.
“Christ is present here in our lives and in our ministry, and the only thing any of us has is the unconditional grace of God. If we think we’ve got something different or that some are bigger sinners than others, then we’ve got theological baloney.”