Thursday, July 22, 2010

In the News: Argus Leader

Callison: Embracing the Church

Transgender minister to be received as ELCA pastor

Jill Callison • • July 22, 2010

When Darlene Audus was a teenager, her Lutheran father discouraged his daughter from dating Roman Catholic boys.

She didn't understand that kind of prejudice then, and the 76-year-old Clark woman today doesn't understand the prejudice directed at her granddaughter, Megan Rohrer, a lesbian.

"I back her all the way," Audus says. "She's a super gal."

Rohrer, 30, is the first openly transgender Lutheran pastor ordained in the United States. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Only a very few choose to change their bodies through hormones or surgery.

On Sunday, Rohrer will be part of the first rite to receive gay pastors into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"She's had a tough struggle to get where she's at," says Audus, a retired county auditor. "I'm proud because she kept at it. It would have been easy to give up. But I wished I could protect her from all those things."

"Those things," as Rohrer tells it in a telephone conversation from her home in San Francisco, include horrifying tales.

After graduating from Lincoln High School, Rohrer enrolled at Augustana College. In the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, the campus became a hostile place, she says.

"Aggressive football players would knock on my dorm room door and try to turn me into a straight person in violently sexual ways," she says.

In an attempt to exorcise Rohrer's "gay demons," students in her religion class threw holy water on her and sang hymns as she walked to class.

Rohrer moved off campus for three months, fearing for her safety.

But college faculty supported her, Rohrer says, and it also was the place where she discovered her calling and first fell in love.

"I would never wish an unsafe space for anyone, but sometimes having to take a stand helps push a person into a leadership position," she says. "I was able to find the determination to be a pastor in a church that wasn't yet ready to welcome me."

Rohrer entered seminary on the West Coast. She never considered joining a denomination that would welcome her as an openly lesbian pastor.

"Growing up in South Dakota, everything about my culture was Lutheran," she says. "I spoke Lutheran. A lot of the theology Lutherans proclaim and are excited about is kind of the natural way people live. It's hard to leave a culture behind."

Although her home congregation, Hope Lutheran, wouldn't fill out the necessary paperwork to allow Rohrer to pursue her calling, she says, she found support from the South Dakota Synod office.

Rohrer appreciates both sides' honesty.

"When you're in South Dakota, sometimes the person who disagrees with you most is your closest friend because they're honest with you," she says. "In bigger cities, it's different. If you disagree, you don't have to talk again."

Rohrer, who now runs a nonprofit agency for the homeless and serves four churches in San Francisco, was ordained outside the rules of the ELCA in 2006 - an extraordinary ordination. On Sunday, she will become a pastor in the ELCA.

That became possible when in August 2009, representatives of the ELCA voted to allow congregations to call pastors who were in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships."

Rohrer knows how difficult that vote was for many Lutherans. At the Churchwide Assembly last August, she and a Canton woman who opposed the change would pray together before every vote.

"Even when they're hoping the vote will go the other way, I really think God is bigger than this decision," Rohrer says. "I think our faith lives are bigger than this decision. I'm excited to be part of a diverse church where we can pray together."

Rohrer is in a committed, same-sex relationship and, for the past eight years, has served as a pastor to the homeless.

Many of the homeless she works with come from the Midwest. They left home either because their families rejected them or they assumed if their sexuality became public, they would be shunned.

"They left out of fear and never gave anyone the opportunity to accept them," Rohrer says. "That's another reason I continue to be engaged with congregations in the Midwest. We'll always have homeless as long as people can't openly welcome gay and lesbian people into families, church and school."

Audus could never reject Rohrer.

"It wasn't like you could go, 'That wasn't my granddaughter any more,' " Audus says of learning Rohrer is a lesbian. "It was just that the path would be a little harder."

Rohrer, however, might not agree that the path was any harder for her than anyone else. What she does acknowledge is that this is a world where secrets about sex lead to abuse of power.

"I want to be part of a church that holds me accountable, that asks me tough questions," she says. "I want to be part of a group of pastors that are honest about how they're forming healthy relationships. Being gay or straight doesn't matter. What matters is if you're in a loving relationship."

Jill Callison's column runs Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 331-2307.

You can find the original story here.

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