Minneapolis Star Tribune, 5 May 01

Answers from Anita Hill on her life and Lutheran faith

Martha Sawyer Allen / Star Tribune

In answer to numerous questions: Anita Carol Hill is not the Anita Hill who challenged Clarence Thomas as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

However, this Anita Hill is garnering lots of national media attention because she's a new pastor ordained in an irregular service last Saturday at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) parish in St. Paul. She is not on the official ELCA clergy roster, but she was called by St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul to be a pastor.

Hill, 51, is a lesbian and has been in a relationship with her partner, Janelle Bussert, for years. The ELCA says she cannot be a recognized clergy member if she does not vow, as a lesbian, to be celibate.

Before her ordination ceremony, she talked with the Star Tribune about her life and goals.

Q. Where did you grow up and when did you realize you were a lesbian?

A. I grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, as a Roman Catholic. I remember the "whites only" and "colored only" restroom signs, but I was shielded from most of the conflict.

[After her graduation from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she met a woman and fell in love, and realized she was a lesbian.]

The whole women's movement was unfolding, and for me there was that sense of finding a place for one's self as a woman and a professional paralleled my coming out.

I kept my news from my family for a long time. It wasn't until 1990 that I told all my siblings. I told my mother first, and we had a long talk about it. She wished I weren't [a lesbian], because she was concerned about my safety.

Q. Why did you turn to the Lutheran faith?

A. The woman I was dating was involved in the Lutheran campus ministry. We started going through the study process about gays and lesbians in the faith. There were a dozen of us for 15 weeks on Sunday evenings. We started arguing about specific scripture passages, and finally we said let's set it aside and look at the larger picture of how scripture is claimed by us as Lutherans. That was a seedbed of my own spirituality and even a calling.

Q. What about the Lutheran faith appealed the most to you?

A. Lutherans talk about grace and that it continues to come to us. There is nothing that one does that puts us out of the loving grace of God. That's a pretty awesome thing. Your baptism assures you of something. Now, surely because we've received something we want to respond in a way that will be loving and helpful and serving our neighbor and all those things. But we don't do it because it will earn us a place at the gates of heaven.

That appealed to me and also having experienced a community of people who wrestled with something so big and still came to a place where we cared for one another. When we started the discussions about gays and lesbians in the church we had a dozen people, including some who were very negative about it as well as two who were openly gay.

Q. Luther Seminary in St. Paul wouldn't accept you because you were openly lesbian?

A. They wouldn't accept me because my candidacy wouldn't fit the vision and expectations rules for ELCA ordination. I went to United Theological Seminary [in New Brighton]. But I took Lutheran worship, confession and confirmation at Luther.

Q. Did anyone hassle you while you were at Luther?

A. I didn't make it an issue while I was there. I would rather never have to argue this issue. I would much rather see us free up the hands and the hearts and the working power of gay and lesbian Christians across the country not to argue this issue but to spend our time working for the homeless, feeding people who are hungry and caring for people who are sick.

We do everything around sexuality in this culture, and somehow gay and lesbian people have come to be the embodiment of what's wrong. The church can be a place to help families talk about sexuality and intimacy in a way that has some hopefulness and care around it.

Q. In your hundreds of talks with congregations about gay issues, what do you say?

A. When I have conversations with congregations now that are considering how to be welcoming to gay and lesbian persons I suggest to them that they spend two years in intentional education and conversation. Try to understand what science is saying about homosexuality, what scripture says, and, in the midst of that, I would encourage them to hear stories of people who are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, or from their parents, siblings and sometimes even their children.

Q. When did you meet your partner, Janelle, and how long have who been together?

A. We met at St. Paul-Reformation. I knew her. We began to date in 1993, and had a commitment ceremony April 20, 1996. It was here at the church. Five clergy took part, and we packed the house. We had a dance downstairs, and the congregation got all excited about it and repainted the lower room before the event. I think there were some elders who sat up well past their bedtime watching people of the same gender dance. We had a lovely time.

Q. The congregation lists members each Sunday who are having birthdays or anniversaries?

A. It has been our practice as a congregation for a long time to lift up for God's care everybody whose birthday or anniversary was that week. When we first talked about including same-gender couples in that list it ruffled us a little bit, but now we are so used to hearing it. I've seen gay and lesbian people come here who have never heard the words "gay and lesbian" said out loud in a holy place without "expletives deleted," or some condemnation. I've seen people come here and sit and cry their way through their first service. Many times.

There are still people who feel like their families and the church have said it's better that you're not alive than to be who you are. That's wrong and inappropriate and we in the church have an opportunity to do something about it.

Q. How long did it take you to realize you were called to be a minister?

A. I had left church work, but at the gay and lesbian march on Washington, D.C., in 1993 I had a dream that brought me back to apply for a job here, and go to the seminary. I hadn't expected I would work in the church again. I had become quite disheartened about it, so it was a shock to have this vivid dream about ordination. I don't know where I was, but it was very clear it was an ordination and people were laying on hands.

Q. So in some ways you're being propelled out far beyond what you would have wanted to do with this public ceremony?

A. I did not set out to make a career of this. It just unfolded one day, one week at a time. I would just as soon all the media attention be over, frankly, and we could just carry on with the work of this place.

It's awkward, figuring out what to say. Am I going to be made out to be some strange anomaly? I don't think I'm anything different. I'm just a person of faith called to speak around this.

I can't change the world. All I can do is reach as far as these arms can go, and I'm only 5'4". It's about being with people one to one to one.