Ross Merkel is the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Oakland, California. Saint Paul, an ELCA congregation, is a growing, joyful church with outstanding worship, education, fellowship, and service to the community. I have been a member of St. Paul’s for five years. About a year ago, in the middle of a dialogue sermon, Ross made a statement that no one in the congregation could have anticipated. Speaking from his heart, he said something that made listeners do an intellectual double take.
Now, given the discussion in this issue, you might be expecting to read that Ross announced to the congregation he was “coming out.” But that isn’t what happened. You see, everyone in the congregation already knows that Ross is gay. Ross came out to the congregation eight years ago, and the people of St. Paul stood by him through the ecclesiastical trial, and they stood by him when he was defrocked, and they demanded that he remain as their pastor. With the quiet support of a sympathetic bishop, he did. Ross’s orientation is really not an issue for this blended congregation of gay and straight, families and singles, old and young, Black, White and Asian, physically challenged and physically able.
Ross’s statement was much more provocative than a simple declaration of personal orientation. What he said is this: “If I were not gay, I wouldn’t be a pastor in the Lutheran church.” With this statement he subverted the listener’s expectation by criss-crossing conventional social and religious categories.
From a young age Ross knew that he was “different,” and he knew that society judged that difference very harshly. Society called the feelings he had “deviant,” “bad,” “unacceptable.” Growing up in the church, however, he consistently heard the message of the worth of each and every human being. As a young man, a deep experience of the grace of Jesus Christ called him back to the church, and he determined to share that message with others by becoming a pastor. Ironically, the church that taught him about grace and soothed his wounded spirit also required that he hide his orientation.
The statement, “If I were not gay, I wouldn’t be a pastor in the Lutheran church,” is a Christian statement. What is more, it is profoundly Lutheran. Lutheran Christians are blessed to be the bearers of a grace-filled tradition of paradox, of holy simultaneity. Lutheran theology lifts up Jesus’ paradoxical message that the Reign of God is truly and completely both now and not yet. Deep in our bones, we affirm Paul’s teaching that we are simultaneously sinners and saints. Our daily experience of life in the world confirms that it is in weakness, when we are most dependent, that we find strength and are made strong.
The paradox of Ross’s experience is that the grace of Jesus Christ was mediated by its earthly vessel, the church, to a man whom the church rejected. The power of the church’s message that all are loved and valued by God was stronger than the church’s power to counteract its own message.
Five years ago I moved to the West Coast in order to begin my doctoral studies in Systematic Theology. After finding a place to live and registering for summer French, I set about finding an ELCA congregation to join. I visited the two closest, and another some distance away, and then I looked in the phone book. St. Paul’s ad caught my eye and I visited the following Sunday.
I had been looking for a congregation with a lively and successful alternative worship service, and I can’t say that St. Paul fit that category exactly. Their worship is more traditional, the music is organ-driven. But the service was definitely alive. People sang enthusiastically to the Cornell setting. Towards the back I heard tambourines, and some people around me seemed almost ready to sway—pretty out there for Lutherans! There was energy and Holy Spirit in the air, and the sermon was powerful.
After church a member talked with me during coffee hour, but I could barely hear her above the conversation around us. It seemed to me that the entire congregation stayed for coffee…and stayed, and stayed. No one wanted to go home! My host told me all about St. Paul’s history, about the many ministries that St. Paul supports, and how active the members are. As I was leaving she said to me, “You’ll be back.”
I joined St. Paul because of the excellent preaching, the lively worship, and the warm and friendly fellowship. And in addition to that, I joined because of the people who fill the worship space. Along with gay and straight people, I saw two folks in wheelchairs and one with a mental disability. I saw different colors and all ages. What I saw was a small pre-view of what I imagine the reign of God will look like. And I joined St. Paul to participate in civil disobedience. I wanted to be a member of the only Lutheran congregation I knew of that had an out, gay pastor and was still in good standing with the ELCA.1
Supporting my lesbian and gay sisters and brothers in the fight for their full acceptance in the church is a matter of personal honor to me. Let me go back a little. My parents were missionaries in Liberia, Africa, which is where I was born. I say this to illustrate that my parents are thoughtful and religiously engaged Christians, and at the time, theologically conservative. Still, they did not impress upon me any perspective about homosexuality at all, pro, con, or neutral. It just never came up.
By the time I entered seminary in 1991 I had met a few gay people. I was familiar with the biblical injunctions, but just didn’t see what the fuss was about. The newly formed ELCA was in the throes of its 1991 sexuality study controversy, and I read the study thoroughly and found it helpful. It was during my years in seminary that the category of “homosexual” began to be filled with content—a real person, a real friend, in a real crisis.
I met David during my first semester of seminary and was immediately drawn to him. A Mennonite, he was gentle, funny, devout, easy to talk to. He came from a large family of seven brothers and had served in leadership capacities in his congregation from boyhood. When David decided to become a pastor, his congregation rejoiced and happily sent him off to seminary. David and I became great friends.
One night, shortly before Christmas break, David came to my room with something important to say. He was shaken and tearful but resolute. He told me that he was gay, and that, having spent his entire life fighting and denying and trying to change, he was finally accepting it, and was going to stop hiding. He said he knew what this would mean. His congregation would throw him out and he would no longer be a candidate for ordination. His mother would reject him. He had no idea how his brothers would react, and if he would be cut off from all, or only some, of his family: his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews. He had everything to lose by coming out—his place in the family, his place in the church, his vocation and ministry.
David told me how much he desperately wanted this to not be true, and how he had tried to change. Knowing that it was expected, David had dated women. As an adult he had even become engaged. He told me, “I really did love my fiancée. She was my best friend. For a while I convinced myself that this could be enough—for me, and for a marriage. But when we would go out together to a restaurant and my head turned for an attractive man, and I felt nothing like that for her, I knew I couldn’t do it. And it would have been incredibly unfair to her.”
David was feeling suicidal, despairing. He told me that some days the only thing keeping him alive was a little squirrel that played in a tree outside his window. In the mornings he watched this little squirrel, and seeing its zest and appreciation for life, he would think that perhaps it could be worth staying alive.
While I hadn’t guessed that David was gay, I wasn’t surprised or shocked to learn it—it made emotional sense, and clarified some parts of our relationship that had confused me. On the other hand, I was deeply moved. I feared for his life, and grieved for his pain. A shift occurred inside of me that evening, as several areas of tension in the debate around homosexuality slammed into focus. The first: David was not making a choice to be gay. He had fought it all his life. Second: David was one of the finest people I’d ever met, a devout servant of Jesus Christ and a child of the church. He wasn’t harming anyone. Third: that the church would reject such a one as him was a travesty. It was unjust. Since that time I’ve been a member of the cause.
I wouldn’t have joined St. Paul, though, if it had only been about a cause. I needed a church, a community, and a pastor. So what is it like being a member of a church with a gay pastor and a membership that is around 20% lesbian or gay? Since it’s an experience that most Lutherans haven’t had, it’s natural to be curious. At St. Paul, that the pastor is gay and many of the members are, is not an issue. It’s known, it’s accepted, it isn’t surprising, no one’s caught off guard or uncomfortable. I’m as likely to ask a male friend in the choir how he and his boyfriend are doing as I am to ask a female friend the same thing. It doesn’t feel weird.
On the other hand, people at St. Paul are very aware that homosexuality is an issue in the larger community. Gay and straight members of the congregation march in the annual Pride Parade in San Francisco. St. Paul is a leader among the Bay Area churches in promoting the cause of ordination for gays and lesbians. St. Paul actively and financially supports two ordained positions filled by members of the LGBT2 community.
The fact that the pastor is gay and the congregation is mixed gay and straight has made St. Paul strong, and helps it to be a welcoming place. The trauma of Ross’ ecclesiastical trial several years ago brought people together in the way that shared adversity does. The diversity of sexual orientation at St. Paul makes it a comfortable place for other kinds of diversity, including varieties of ethnicity, income, physical ability, and even faith. St. Paul harbors a Jewish family, a couple of Buddhists and a few agnostic spouses, who come for the fellowship.
There’s a tendency among those who are apologists for a cause to try to illustrate that the group in question is “really just like you and me, with just this one small difference,” and I want to resist that tendency. St. Paul and other communities like it are different from other congregations in ways that reflect their constituencies. Just as a church with a large Vietnamese population would reflect Vietnamese culture, so the larger life of St. Paul reflects the gifts, peculiarities, and consciousness of gay culture.
St. Paul reflects gay culture’s emphasis on the liberation of masculine emotion, and love of celebration. St. Paul reflects lesbian culture’s intense concern for gender and power issues, and the placing of relationships, children, and health ahead of career. Women and men in equal numbers host fabulous coffee hours; the altar guild counts men and women as members; and choir members are as vigilant as the choir director in keeping the language of its anthems inclusive.
Yet, if you were to sit at a table of lesbian, gay, and straight folks at a Wednesday night supper, you’d hear complaints about politics, new-baby updates, and discussion of whether the sanctuary needs repainting. Enthusiastic compliments on the chicken casserole and Caesar salad would be paid to the chefs. It’s a conversation you could hear anywhere, in any church basement.
It’s important to say that sexuality really isn’t at the center of St. Paul’s life—Jesus is. Worship is. Ministry to sisters and brothers is. That might sound remarkable, but it’s also refreshingly, appropriately unremarkable. It’s people being Christians, bringing the gifts they have to the table to share. When volunteers put together the annual “Mystery Writers Dinner” fundraiser, it’s about raising money for a women’s shelter. When Ross preaches, he preaches about the grace and power God gives so that we might live in freedom. When the choir sings a gospel anthem and raises the roof, the praises are in Jesus’ name and for his glory.
I know that some would say to me, “But right is right and wrong is wrong. Doesn’t the bible condemn same-sex sexual acts?”3 And I would respond, “Yes. Yes it does. And I respectfully, carefully, disagree with the bible.” I also disagree with verses in the bible that condone slavery, bar women from public speaking and leadership, and prescribe death by stoning.
The bible is a collection of stories that bear witness to revelatory encounter with God. God’s Word is found within the human words. But as Martin Luther reminds us, we don’t worship a book,4 we worship Jesus Christ, and what we believe we know of God must be viewed through the lens of the cross. Therefore I take seriously the bible’s bedrock, prophetic message of justice and equality for all people. When necessary, I critique the bible in light of the bible.
To me, the ethical implications of being lesbian or gay versus straight are about the same as being left or right handed. That is to say, there are no intrinsic ethical implications. It is what it is. Are there social and structural implications? Sure. Scissors manufacturers have to make two kinds of scissors. Left-handed people have to learn to shake hands with the majority right-handed world. It’s not an insurmountable difficulty for either side.
Ross Merkel is my pastor. Since I’ve been ordained and gone to a new congregation, he’s still my pastor, and also a friend and a mentor. I can’t remember many conversations with Ross about sex or sexuality. He’s actually kind of an old-fashioned guy, and will joke about sex, but really doesn’t want to dwell there. We talk about the joys and frustrations of ministry, and a shared love of German and Martin Luther. At the pastors’ pericope study we back each other’s interpretations of Pauline theology. Ross, by the way, loves Paul, and would preach on the second lesson all the time if he had his way.
The ELCA does not recognize Ross Merkel as a pastor. He was removed from the roster in 1994. Yet he leads the largest, growing urban ELCA congregation in the East Bay. When new members are asked why they joined the congregation, Ross’ preaching and the inclusive community are the number one reasons given. Ross has been an adjunct professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in pastoral care, and because of his persistent vision, five congregations together with St. Paul support a full-time youth minister and a full-time nursing home chaplain.
Ross’ statement “if I were not gay I would not have become a pastor” reveals the heart of the Christian faith: the rejected one is become elect; the despised one is called and empowered to bear God’s gift of grace to many. The one who was a stumbling block for many is become the shepherd of many, a strong building block in the family of faith. Surely you see it—is this not an image of Jesus Christ? Ross Merkel’s journey, and the journey of many like him, follows in the footsteps of the cross. Why does the church persist in opposing their resurrection? For they are rising and have already risen. The church must run to the tomb and see.
1Since that time other congregations in California, Kansas, and Minnesota have called “out” gay or lesbian pastors and have not been removed from the ELCA’s fellowship.
2Shorthand for “lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender.”
3 I’m careful to say, “same-sex sexual acts” rather than “homosexuality.” The bible clearly does not condemn homosexuality, a modern concept that references the orientation of an entire person. I do acknowledge that a few verses in the bible condemn same-sex sexual acts. One ought to also recognize the specific context of the reference.
4“Here [in scripture] you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and lowly are the swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.” Martin Luther, “Preface to the Old Testament,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 119.