When the Church’s LGBTIQ Loss is the World’s Gain

Image courtesy of Out & Equal.

The panoply of pioneers gathered at the Rolling the Stone Away conference included two white Presbyterian women Selisse Berry and Jane Adams Spahr, whose unique contributions demonstrate what happens to some people when their churches reject them for ministry. The world wins.

Selisse Berry founded Out & Equal Workplace Advocates in 1996, now “the world’s premier nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workplace equality.”  If their membership reads like a list of Fortune 500 companies, it’s because they are Fortune 500 companies: Dell, Disney, Toyota, Marriott, and scores more. More than 4,000 people from 40 countries attended their 2017 Workplace Summit, their eighteenth annual opportunity to educate and network their members. O&E opened a Washington, DC office recently to get federal agencies on board.

Businesses and governments have figured out that LGBTIQ people make valuable employees, and keeping them is contingent on acting justly. Through “executive leadership development, comprehensive training and consultation, and professional networking opportunities that build inclusive and welcoming work environments” Out & Equal provides resources to assure workplace equality.

Companies and agencies want to be seen as good places to work, offering programs and leadership opportunities for all of their employees, and encouraging employee groups to spread LGBTIQA-affirming education. Recent rollbacks, like the current administration’s erasure of “LGBT” from the Equal Employment Opportunity nondiscrimination policy of the General Services Agency, show that there is still plenty of work for O&E to do.

Who knew that Selisse Berry, the vibrant Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Out and Equal, got her start in religion? She grew up in the red hills of Oklahoma, went on to college and graduate school with the intention of becoming a minister. Enter: Presbyterian heterosexism. As a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the 1980s, Selisse chose honesty over ordination, integrity over church employment.

She tells the wonderful story of her first organizing effort (the prelude to Out & Equal). Along with a “fun group of women, smart, and creative, with whom I felt totally free to be myself,” Selisse started Seminary Lesbians Under Theological Stress—or SLUTS as the group called itself. In the interest of full disclosure, having preceded Selisse’s group in theological studies at the Graduate Theological Union of which SFTS is a part, I am a proud member of SLUTS. I still cherish my pristine black-with-pink-day-glo-letters t-shirt.

Selisse and friends marched in their SLUTS t-shirts in a San Francisco Pride Parade to the delight of many onlookers who shared their own religious backgrounds. There is something about what Berry calls the “kind of meaning and connectedness one can only find in a loving, supportive community” that religions profess that seems to attract people whom society marginalizes. So many LGBTIQ people have religious backgrounds, perhaps resultant of a search for meaning and belonging in a hostile society. Whatever, when religions push people away, as the Presbyterians did to this well educated minister, it is even more painful.

Selisse focused her considerable energies on a broader context after concluding, “no one should ever have to choose between a career they love and the person they love.” Out & Equal became her form of ministry, not a denominational appointment of course, but a deep call to create justice and equality in the workplace worldwide. I doubt most of the CEOs had any idea they were dealing with a minster, but she had the skills to make change as a result of her theological education.

From a handful of SLUTS to an impact on over 40 million people in more than fifty countries through Out & Equal, Selisse Berry proves that the church’s loss is the world’s gain. Ironically, if the Presbyterian Church had ordained out LGBTIQ people in 1990, there might not be workplace equality in 95% of Fortune 500 companies and many government agencies both here and abroad. This is not a thank you to Presbyterians for creating the conditions for such work. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the power of a committed woman to make her important contribution. Selisse’s recent retirement only raises the question of what she will do for an encore.

The Reverend Dr. Jane Adams Spahr, seminary friend and mentor of Selisse, took on the Presbyterian challenge in another way. She was ordained in 1974 and served as a local pastor and church bureaucrat until 1980 when she was urged out because she had come out. She continued her ministry through the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco and then developed the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns in the Bay Area that she directed for a decade. All of this was during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In 1991, she accepted a call to co-pastor the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. Heterosexism reared its ugly head and she was eventually barred from the position. Undaunted, a word I would use to describe Selisse as well, Jane Spahr became a “travelling evangelist,” a “lesbyterian” par excellence.  She created yet another organization, That All May Freely Serve “to resist and transform structures and systems of injustice by being present and engaged – pastorally and as advocates – during these times of transition in the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

Over the years, Jane was brought up twice on ecclesial charges for presiding at same sex marriages. Even when convicted, the local authorizes refused to impose the penalty. History and the Supreme Court proved them all prophetic. The ordination ban was eventually modified so that local Presbyterian churches are free to select their own ministers regardless of sexual identity thanks to Jane and her friends.

Jane is now Evangelist Emerita of TAMFS, spending her energies on the many forms of oppression that still hamper Presbyterians and others. The Jane Adams Spahr Reconciliation Project at San Francisco Theological Seminary is her marvelous encore. It is a brilliant answer to the question: what do people do after they achieve their goals? They expand them. Rather than gloat over their victory, these folks are now reconciling with their former opponents and inviting everyone to address a broader agenda.

Through the Spahr Project, “communities live into their promise of inclusion by opening up opportunities for congregations to experience the many ways LGBTIQ people of faith and spiritual practice are called to serve, and to recognize even more deeply the full dignity and humanity of all families.” Recognizing the intersectionality of all justice issues, and using the wisdom gleaned from the sex/gender struggles, the group seeks “1) To open up spaces for faith communities to hear the stories of those who have been silenced or excluded, and 2) To lead communities of faith and spiritual practice into reconciliation conversations and actions.”

The Spahr Project is a model for other groups, especially ones that have been predominantly white and upper educated. Wisdom gained on one struggle can be useful in another. As these folks address white supremacy and anti-racism, for example, their experiences and resources from the sex/gender struggles will be put to good use.

I see a pattern here with Selisse and Jane, and others who have moved in creative directions despite massive rejection by churches. Some of the best and brightest ministers are tolerated, even celebrated, when they are closeted. But once they are honest and out, they are rejected and expelled. Still, some persevere in the basic direction in which they feel called. They tap into the deepest root of their theological training to create community both local and international.

Both Out & Equal and the Spahr Project make me feel as if I have seen the arc of justice reach the other side my lifetime. Luckily, the movements are ecumenical so others of us can share in their successes. They are a source of inspiration because I have seen little or no progress on sex/gender in institutional Roman Catholicism over five decades.