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Prophets of Inclusion: Three Austin pastors and their struggle for LGBT equality

July 12, 2015

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When I sat down recently with three Austin ministers — the Revs. Sid Hall, Larry Bethune and Jim Rigby — to discuss their experiences as early LGBT allies in the church, I was surprised to learn how much they struggled personally and spiritually. Why would that be surprising? Why didn’t I pick up on that when I covered them on the religion beat back in the day? You think you’re really digging deep sometimes as a reporter, that you’re getting the whole story. But, as I write in this Austin American-Statesman column, I didn’t take into account that these passionate activist clergy were also human. That they suffered from loneliness and self-doubt and fear.

The column is a narrow glimpse into these ministers’ experiences. I also wrote a longer piece that goes into more detail.

Prophets of Inclusion: Three Austin pastors and their struggles to promote LGBT equality

Not long ago, at a Methodist church, the Rev. Sid Hall found himself weeping quietly in his pew. It should have been a happy occasion. The church was celebrating LGBT inclusion, a cause for which Hall has spent the last few decades crusading.

But in that moment, the Trinity United Methodist pastor felt the full weight of the struggle — the loneliness and fear he experienced as an outspoken ally to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He was viewed as a radical, a heretic. At times, he worried he would lose his job, his church.

“(I remembered) how scared I was, how alone I felt, how people walked on the other side of the hall at conferences to ignore me,” Hall said.

Fellow Austin ministers — the Revs. Larry Bethune of University Baptist Church and Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian — are intimately familiar with those feelings. Like Hall, they risked their careers to preach and practice what they believed was a radical Gospel message of love and acceptance. Like Hall, they were ostracized by some of their spiritual brethren.

The three ministers rejoice in seeing more clergy take up the banner of equality and celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision that legalizes gay marriage. But they also remember the dark, anxious days marked by hate mail and charges of heresy.

Bethune sometimes wants to ask those who have more recently joined the cause: “Where have y’all been?”

The work is less lonely these days. While Hall’s denomination still bans same-sex marriage and gay ordination, many Methodist leaders are now calling for change. Rigby’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), recently opened the door to gay marriage and clergy. And Bethune has inspired likeminded Baptists to embrace LGBT members.

Recently, in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, they gathered at University Baptist to reminisce about their individual awakenings on LGBT equality, the challenges they faced and the progress they’ve seen in both the church and state.

When a young associate pastor poked her head in, Bethune introduced his friends: “These guys are prophets of inclusion. They were leading the conversation and making trouble 25 years ago.”

The Rev. SID HALL, pastor, Trinity United Methodist Church:

Hall, who has a down-home Hoosier way about him, says he doesn’t think of himself as an activist as much as a “recovering placater,” always struggling to find the courage of his convictions.

Many years ago, he dreamed he was watching his own funeral.

“He didn’t have an enemy in the world,” said one of the mourners.

“That’s because he never stood up for anything,” said another.

The words chilled him.

In 1988, Hall was assigned to Trinity, a dying church in Hyde Park.

“It needs new life or a good funeral,” his district superintendent told him.

The young minister set out to fill the pews. He invited people from the neighborhood who seemed to appreciate his progressive approach to Christianity.

Trinity began to grow. Then a woman confided in Hall that she was gay and asked if she could come out to the church’s Bible study group. Hall discouraged her.

He’d been asked to leave his previous church for being too radical. He wasn’t sure he was ready for this. But he kept hearing that voice from the dream: “He never stood up for anything.”

Hall called the woman back and gave her his blessing.

In 1990, he presided over a lesbian wedding. In 1992 — despite the bishop’s attempts to prevent it — Trinity voted to become a reconciling congregation, meaning the church actively welcomed LGBT members. About 35 members left, taking hefty tithes with them.

At one point, Hall considered asking his mother for a loan to pay his salary. Instead, the church sold an antique Coke machine.

And so it went. Hall was committed to the struggle. He stopped conducting heterosexual weddings at Trinity. If gay people couldn’t be married in the church, then no one would be. He was arrested for protesting at national church conventions. Some of his fellow Methodists treated him as a pariah. Others offered support behind the scenes but didn’t take a public stand.

“The ones that create the most challenge for me are people who I know in their heart have views similar to mine,” he said, “but they’re not going to take the risk.”

He found comfort in his friendship with Bethune and Rigby.

“With these two guys, now I can be myself,” Hall said. “Now I can relax.”

The Rev. LARRY BETHUNE, pastor, University Baptist Church:

Bethune has a stately manner. White hair, trim goatee and a wise, unhurried way of speaking. He earned a master’s degree and PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became “cognitively aware” of his own biases.

He says he was “marinated in homophobia” — an expression borrowed from Episcopal Bishop Greg Rickel.

Confronting his prejudices in an Ivy League classroom was one thing. The real test for Bethune came when he began pastoring University Baptist 28 years ago.

He knew his congregation on the edge of the University of Texas campus included gay people, but no one spoke openly about it.

“Let it rise organically,” advised a pastor who had navigated the gay ordination issue at a different church.

So Bethune waited.

In 1993, Hans Venable, a gay man, was nominated to become a deacon. The congregation approved, and Bethune ordained him.

The church’s student minister at the time was outraged and alerted some of Austin’s most conservative pastors. The Austin Baptist Association called for a meeting.

It wasn’t the first time that University Baptist had stirred the pot. Members had voted for racial integration in the 1940s. The church had women in leadership. But a homosexual deacon was a step too far for many Baptists.

The association asked if Bethune was aware that Venable was gay. Bethune didn’t have to answer. One of the elderly members who attended the meeting said, “Yes, we knew. But we didn’t think it mattered.”

The church lost its fellowship with the local Baptist association and, later, the Baptist General Convention of Texas. And though most of the congregation stayed put, Bethune said the publicity prompted backlash.

“It’s a lonely experience to have a church in controversy,” Bethune said. “You’re trying to be pastoral in the midst of getting hate mail.”

But he drew on the strength of a congregation that had a long history of social justice.

“Without a prophetic church, I wouldn’t still be here,” Bethune said. “I get a lot of credit for what the church decided.”

The Rev. JIM RIGBY, pastor, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church:

Of the three, Rigby always struck me as the most intense, the biggest risk taker. There’s a sense of urgency when he speaks whether it’s from the pulpit or the steps of the Texas Capitol. With the Gospel in hand, he is constantly challenging the establishment and the privileged.

It’s hard to imagine, but when Rigby was growing up in Dallas, he believed the paramount virtue was “being nice.”

Years later, as a pastor, he witnessed police brutalizing protesters at a gay rights rally and immediately recognized his own homophobia — and the reason he had been so hesitant to ally himself with the LGBT movement.

“I was afraid people would think I was gay,” he said.

Niceness wasn’t such a noble virtue, he decided. Really, it just meant “wishy-washy.”

“There comes a day,” Rigby said, “when you have to cross a line.”

He quit wearing his clerical vestments in the 1990s to protest his denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage. He presided over a mass gay wedding event at UT. He ordained an elder who was an out lesbian.

Rigby watched 150 people leave the congregation, taking a large chunk of the church budget with them. He was hounded by Paul Rolf Jensen, a conservative Presbyterian lawyer who wanted Rigby defrocked. He faced a church tribunal for violating denominational rules.

Fear strengthened his resolve.

“There’s something about preaching from the gallows,” Rigby said.

In 2003, Jensen predicted that a church trial would cost Rigby his collar. “He’s going to tell the presbytery the truth,” Jensen told me, “and the truth will set him free to go to another denomination and a church that shares his beliefs.”

Rigby stood his ground: “Either they have to strip me of my ordination,” he said in a 2004 interview, “or the church has to change.”

The church did change. In 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to ordain openly gay ministers, elders and deacons (without requiring celibacy) and this year recognized same-sex marriage.

Rigby worries that LGBT Presbyterians emerging from seminaries may still encounter bigotry in the churches they serve. But he’s celebrating the progress of his denomination and his country.

On the Sunday after the Supreme Court ruling, Rigby decided it was time to put on his clerical robes again.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2015 1:14 am

    Thanks, Eileen!m

  2. August 22, 2015 4:39 am

    Odd. Every gay Christian I ever met was a Unitarian.

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