Riverside Press-Enterprise, March 26, 2005

Lesbian pastor resigns post at Inland mission

The Rev. Jenny Mason is resigning from Central City Lutheran Mission one year after her appointment as associate pastor led the San Bernardino ministry to be stricken from the roster of Lutheran congregations and reignited debate over ordination of gays and lesbians.

Mason is quitting effective April 17 and plans to move to Minnesota to live with the woman with whom she has been in a relationship for a year. But her departure is not expected to cool the simmering dispute between the downtown San Bernardino mission and leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Both the Rev. David Kalke and the mission were relieved of their roles in the church in October for the appointment in April of Mason, an openly gay minister.

Kalke, who has led the poor, urban congregation for eight years, says he may separate the mission from a church hierarchy that he claims values rules over good deeds.

"We will become an independent, free-standing Lutheran entity," Kalke said. "We're going to create a church that's different. And we're going to start right here."

Unless the Pacifica Synod -- which has authority over Central City and more than 60 other congregations -- reinstates Kalke as pastor and puts the mission back on the official list of churches, the mission's board of directors may approve a split at its April 18 meeting.

Central City would then be free, Kalke says, to carry out its good works on its own in one of the most blighted corners of the Inland area, possibly as a nonprofit organization.

'Very Confusing Position'

Only a handful of Lutheran congregations have ever stepped away from the church over a policy they felt was wrong, Kalke said. In Nazi Germany, the issue was treatment of Jews. In South Africa, it was apartheid.

In San Bernardino, it may be the church's stance on homosexual ministry, which holds that only gay and lesbian pastors must be celibate.

"The church says it's OK to be gay, just don't act on it," Kalke said. "It's a very confusing position that creates second-class citizens within the church, and that's not what we're about."

Church leaders at the Chicago headquarters say the synod has followed policy in its dealings with Central City.

Central City's move toward independence would be a precedent-setting one, but its battle with its Orange County-based synod already has broken new ground.

In October, the synod council rescinded Central City's status as a congregation and relieved Kalke as pastor. That action followed the mission's refusal to remove Mason, who was leading an active lesbian lifestyle.

Bishop Murray Finck said Central City broke church policy when it appointed Mason, who is not on the official list of recognized pastors. Mason is affiliated with the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, a San Francisco-based offshoot of the church that has been assisting with the appointment of homosexual ministers for more than a decade.

More than a dozen other congregations in the United States have appointed openly gay and lesbian pastors. All have been punished more mildly, many with letters of reprimand.

Finck's decision to remove both Kalke and Central City -- upheld by the synod council -- was the harshest punishment since three openly gay and lesbian pastors ordained in 1990 were expelled.

Finck could not be reached for comment.

Last year, further controversy erupted in the church when three other openly homosexual pastors were installed, including the Rev. Dan Hooper of Hollywood Lutheran Church.

"We received a letter scolding us for having done it," said Hooper, who believes the disparity in punishments is attributable to synod leadership and location.

The Southwest California Synod, which has authority over coastal counties including Los Angeles, is far more liberal on social matters, Hooper said. The Pacifica Synod has authority over San Bernardino, Riverside and other Southern California counties.

"I don't think the gang members and the poor people there (in San Bernardino) care one whit whether Jenny Mason is a lesbian or not," he said.

Kalke, who has stayed on as chief executive officer of the mission, was given a one-year leave from his call.

The mission retains its status as a social ministry, and its programs for the homeless, teens and others in need continue despite cuts in synod funding.

Nonprofit Option

If funding from church headquarters is further slashed, Kalke believes Central City has built a large enough fund-raising network to go it alone as a nonprofit.

"Going out and doing good things for people is the law of God. This other thing is human law," he said. "We do not believe there's anything in God's law against gays and lesbians serving" as pastors.

Mason has not been punished because she already had been disciplined. The church removed her from its clergy after she acknowledged her homosexuality while serving as a missionary in Chile in 2002.

Mason said she plans to look for work in the nonprofit social sector in St. Paul, although she may minister again.

"It's a privilege to be one of the faces in a movement towards change," she said.

Mason said she respects Kalke's willingness to fight against church policy they both believe is wrong. Her stepping down will change little, she said.

John Brooks, a spokesman for the church in Chicago, said he would not comment on matters meant to be handled locally.

In the courtyard of Central City on Friday, Greg Carmack said he was conflicted about Mason's service there.

The Bible, he believes, says that homosexuality is a sin.

"But it also says, he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone," said Carmack, who spends his nights at the mission's winter shelter.

"I don't judge nobody," he said. "We're losing a very good person."