San Bernardino Sun, 20 April 04

SB mission calls first gay minister

Staff Writer

SAN BERNARDINO - A gay woman became a minister at a Lutheran mission Sunday, a move that resonated in the faith community far beyond her church's Westside neighborhood.

The controversy stemmed in part from the Rev. Jennifer Mason's refusal to take a vow of celibacy, which is not required of straight Lutheran ministers.

But while some church officials and a few protesters passed judgment, many people who live near the Central City Lutheran Mission on North G Street said they don't care about the new pastor's sexual orientation or what goes on in her bedroom.

In a low-income neighborhood with its share of single-parent families, gun violence, drug addiction and teen pregnancy, many residents said they're grateful for the services Mason and her church offer to at-risk teens and the homeless.

"Her sexual preference makes no difference whatsoever," said Amado Cortes, 19, a church worker who lives next door to the mission, takes part in after-school programs and works with a youth ministry. "People trust her because of who she is and the way she treats people.'

A mural painted on the side of the church depicts a dark tribute to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and includes the flags of El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Honduras. Another mural warns against exploiting women, drug use and incarceration. They were painted by about 50 former graffiti artists, said the church's cultural director, Alex Avila, 25.

"Some have turned around," Avila said. "They're working on (general equivalency diplomas), or community college, or trade school. This isn't about sexual orientation, or race, or gender. It's about community.'

Nelson Martinez, 40, said Mason and her church are filling an important void.

"They're helping get people off the streets," Martinez said. "When the kids here get out of school, where do they go? The police know the crime rate around here. The city knows a large percentage of the teens here go into the criminal justice system. The kids come here and we help them.'

The Central City Lutheran Mission served 68,000 meals last year and works with 100 children and teens from the 13th and G Street neighborhood every day, said Tom Dolan, the church's administrative director.

Mason, 41, said she was excited before her installation service.

"Gays are everywhere we're doctors, lawyers, politicians, police,' she said. "Part of our gifts come from our sexuality.'

Mason's partner, Jodi Barry, 36, said she was disappointed that a day she would remember as "a joyous occasion" had turned into a media event for some participants.

Four protesters, men who said they came from Las Vegas and Los Angeles to make themselves heard, chanted "Shame, shame, shame" and other slogans for about an hour before Mason's 2 p.m. installation service. Gilda Lucky, 34, who lives up the street from the church, was angry and warned other residents not to stand near the protesters.

"What are they doing for the after-school program for the kids around here? What are they doing for the mission helping the people who don't have enough money at the end of the month?" Lucky said. "This lady (Mason) does so much for the people in this community.

"Don't stand next to their signs!" Lucky shouted at a curious neighbor. "They're haters!"

Elsewhere in the U.S. on Sunday, two gay men were appointed as ministers at Lutheran churches in Hollywood and Minneapolis. The Bishop Murray D. Finck of the Lutheran Church's Pacifica Synod, which includes San Bernardino, had urged last week that Central City Mission reconsider Mason's appointment.

Finck could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln of the San Bernardino Catholic Diocese reiterated his church's stand on homosexuality.

"The Catholic Church believes that sexual orientation is a given, not a choice," Lincoln said. "Her ordination as a pastor is a matter within the confines of the institutional Lutheran Church."