St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8 Apr 01

At St. Paul church, quiet `warrior' prepares to defy ELCA policy

Lesbian in committed relationship to be ordained by congregation


Anita Hill's warrior soul is trapped in the body of a Lutheran minister.

Instead of raging against her enemies, Hill tells her story quietly and calmly, catching herself when she feels she's begun to ``preach.''

``I chuckle about the word, but she is a justice warrior,'' says Michael Cobbler, a Lutheran pastor from Indiana. ``She is as fierce as anyone I know in terms of caring for all, and fairness for all, and yet she's a gentle person, too.''

They are qualities well-suited to her role as longtime pastoral minister at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul. But they don't fully define her in the eyes of her church.

Hill also is a lesbian in a committed relationship, which defines one thing she is not: ordained.

That will change April 28, when St. Paul-Reformation ordains her despite rules of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America barring people in same-sex relationships from ordination. The congregation, which will install her as pastor the next day, could face censure, suspension or expulsion from the ELCA.

Hill, 49, says it's time to take the risk.

``I have been engaged in studies of homosexuality in the church for 25 years,'' she said. ``For the church to continue to call for studies, it's like, `O Lord, how long must we wait?' ''

`In the trenches'

Almost every mainline Protestant denomination in the United States has seriously debated homosexuality. The ELCA has not taken a position on the blessing of same-sex committed relationships and does ordain those who are gay and lesbian, but only if they abstain from sexual relationships.

Hill's relationship was blessed in a commitment ceremony at St. Paul-Reformation in 1996. Her partner stood up for the ceremony, as did Emily Eastwood, a member of St. Paul-Reformation. ``I don't know why she has put up with the church as long as she has,'' Eastwood said. ``A lesser person would say, `I'm not going to take this. I'm outta here.'

``I've heard her describe herself as having the survival instincts of a rat, getting down there in the trenches and surviving in very unpleasant environments.''

Growing up in the Deep South in a family where money was always tight, Hill endured class differences whenever she hung around with the rich kids at the course where her dad was the golf pro.

Her first same-sex relationship occurred when she was 1,000 miles from home and already married to the one man she had dated in college.

She has been obliged to tell her story -- ``the Meet the Homosexual Show, or Homosexuality 101,'' she says -- hundreds of times. As her mother once said, ``It's OK if you have to be one, but why do you have to have the kind of job where you have to tell about it?''

Her story is as personal and painful as it is practiced. The easy route, it would seem, would be to flee the trenches, or at least find a different denomination.

``We might as well ask Anita to be heterosexual,'' Eastwood said. ``The theology of the Lutheran Church matches with her understanding of her faith.''

New self, new church

Growing up in Louisiana and Mississippi, Hill had ``heard of a Lutheran'' by the time she graduated from high school, she says. Her family wasn't particularly religious and had stopped going to the Catholic Church when she was ten.

She would find a new identity and a new church at the same time, and spend half her adult life trying to reconcile the two. She came to Lutheranism as a direct result of coming out as a lesbian.

She had married upon graduating from Mississippi State University, where she studied to be a biology teacher. She followed her husband to Michigan, where he attended law school.

Within a year, Hill met a woman at work and fell in love.

``That sort of turned my whole notion of self upside down,'' she said. ``I wrestled really hard with this question of, `Who am I?' ''

The woman she met was the organist at the Lutheran campus ministry at the University of Michigan.

Hill divorced. The campus pastor was helpful to Hill and her partner, and the president of the church council invited them to couples group.

``We naively packed our little Lutheran hot dish and off we went,'' Hill said.

The reception was warm, but afterward the phone lines in Ann Arbor were hot.

``They took it to the pastor and said, `We don't know what to do with them. They're coming as a couple,' '' Hill said.

It was the mid-1970s, not long after the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental disorder. Hill was drafted for her first study group, a campus ministry task force on the ethics of sexuality.

``This was the place for me to wrestle with matters of Scripture, trying to understand Scripture, what Scripture is for, what its authority is for us as a Lutheran body,'' she said.

The congregation could find no reason to exclude a gay or lesbian couple from the church, and it became Hill's first real church home.

``I desired to be a part of the church community. I hadn't had much of that in my upbringing,'' she said. ``Church had been kind of a social gathering, but the faith piece was not solidified for me until this experience.''

She also heard a call to ministry as she discovered a gift for talking to straight people about gay and lesbian people of faith.

The couple moved to the Twin Cities, where Hill's partner was to attend school. The relationship ended a year later, but Hill remained in St. Paul. She joined St. Paul-Reformation's congregation in 1981, then worked on its gay and lesbian ministry staff beginning in 1983.

Debate within ELCA

St. Paul-Reformation was on a mission. With a long history of inclusiveness toward African-Americans, refugees and people with disabilities, St. Paul and Reformation churches consolidated in 1977 and soon developed a ministry for gay and lesbian people looking for a church. In 1993, the congregation decided to call a gay or lesbian person to serve as pastor by the year 2000, and Hill was hired as a pastoral minister in the hopes that day would come.

``Over the years she has gained a lot of experience and skill and maturity in relating to people,'' said the Rev. Paul Tidemann of St. Paul-Reformation. ``She's far more patient publicly in responding to people who disagree over issues around homosexuality than I sometimes am.''

Although the congregation voted unanimously to ordain and call her, disagreement elsewhere has not abated. That debate, in its most gracious form, engages people earnestly grappling with differing interpretations of Scripture and theology. Others find her story scandalous.

The Saint Paul Area Synod of the ELCA has no timetable for possible action against St. Paul-Reformation. Bishop Mark Hanson has called for open discussion among synod members, and a series of public forums has been largely cordial.

More debate has emerged in the synod's online discussion about ordination, but it focuses on Lutheran theology and scriptural interpretation rather than Hill's ability as a pastor or the ministry of St. Paul-Reformation, which is considered a vital inner-city church.

``I find the Bible much broader than what I've come to call the six Bible bullets that people want to point at and say, `Here's where it says something about homosexuality,' '' Hill said. ``We need to start looking at the ambiguities of life and determine how God is with us in the midst of those.''

She recalls an ethics class she took at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

``The bones of that course are really helpful to me, which is to say, whenever you're looking at an issue of moral deliberation, you need to be looking at Scripture, tradition, science or reason, and experience.''

One belief might emphasize God's word alone as revealed literally in Scripture. Another might stress human experience of the divine in the modern age. The debate about homosexuality and the church is about accepting one argument predominantly, all of them equally, or some of them in varying degrees.

``In some senses, I think this whole ethical consideration has to start from the place of experience,'' Hill said. ``God didn't stop communicating with us because the Bible was closed after 66 books. God continues to communicate with us.''

Peg Brendan, a member of St. Paul-Reformation, has listened to Hill answer the tough questions.

``It is an amazing experience to watch her discuss her faith so openly and genuinely,'' Brendan said. ``That's especially true when I think of what this costs her in terms of personal scrutiny and judgment that goes along with being a flag bearer on this issue.''

`Introvert's nightmare'

As ordination day approaches, the fatigue sometimes catches up with Hill. ``This is a bit of an introvert's nightmare,'' she said.

``In public situations, she doesn't cut loose very often,'' said Hill's partner, Janelle Bussert. ``With some exceptions, she's not angry in public. She can be angry in private. I think it's good for her.

``When she's not in a situation where she might hurt people's feelings, she can let off steam. I think it's kept her sane. Otherwise she'd carry grudges. She talks about carrying grudges, but I don't think she does. I think part of it is her ability to let loose and get angry in private conversations.''

Hill meets monthly with a spiritual director and participates in the women's Bible study at her church. She finds an outlet in her love of music and playing the drums.

She also finds sustenance in her prayer and spiritual life with Bussert, and counts on the support of her congregation, which has dozens of people working on ordination plans.

``I am really humbled by the way this ordination has become a symbolic act not only on behalf of our congregation, but the Lutheran community that is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

``Although I'll be the one standing up front, it's really the ordination of this whole congregation. It stands for everybody here. I'm quite awed by what is happening. I will be glad when the attention is over and I can just serve my parish.''