Affirmative Presbyterian vote stands on the shoulders of years of faithful work

By David Lohman, faith work coordinator, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources

David Lohman, faith work coordinator

It was eighteen years ago in 1993 that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) called for a three-year period of dialogue on the issue of human sexuality. The church called upon lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Presbyterians to come out and tell their stories to the church. Only three brave souls chose to answer that call — the Martha Juillerat, her partner the Rev. Tammy Lindahl, and the Rev. Merrill Proudfoot. The three of them committed themselves for the next two and a half years to this work, participating in dozens of dialogues throughout the central states.

With so few of them able to share their stories with churches in their region, it was easy to dismiss them. They began seeking ways to share the anonymous stories of those who were closeted and still serving the church in a wide variety of capacities.

Despite the fact that the PCUSA had invited clergy to come out, no guarantee was made that there would not be repercussions. By 1995, the church was moving ahead to defrock Rev. Juillerat. So, no longer able to work in the church, she chose to voluntarily set aside her ordination. It was important for her and Tammy to impress upon their presbytery the fact that they were only two of hundreds of LGBT people of faith who were active in the life and ministry of the church. At the annual meeting of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns that summer, they asked LGBT friends and colleagues to send them a stole. Martha wanted to have the stoles with her when she stood in front of her presbytery to speak and set aside her ordination. They were hoping to receive a couple dozen stoles; instead they received 80 almost overnight.

A sample of the Shower of Stoles, a collection of over a thousand liturgical stoles and other sacred items representing the lives of LGBT people of faith, serves as background at the opening worship for Believe Out Loud.

After that presbytery meeting the stoles kept coming in, along with cards and letters. By the following spring they had 200. They bought suitcases at thrift stores and took them to a meeting of the More Light Churches Network in Rochester, N.Y. Seven weeks later the stoles now numbered over 350. By then, they realized that they had a sacred trust, and they committed themselves to finding a way to share this collection — and all of these stories — with the church. This sacred trust became the Shower of Stoles Project, which now includes over 1,100 items from people of faith from over thirty denominations and faith traditions. The collection celebrates the lives of LGBT people who serve God in countless ways, while also lifting up those who have been excluded from service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The project bears witness to the huge loss of leadership that the Church has brought upon itself because of its own unjust policies.

Martha Juillerat went on to spend the next ten years of her life traveling with the collection — logging over a half million miles on the road and almost a quarter million in the air, while overseeing about 1,500 exhibits. In 2006, she retired and gave the Shower of Stoles to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources. The stoles continue to be exhibited across the country and online.

We at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have been deeply moved by and grateful to Martha Juillerat for entrusting the collection to us, and for the courage she had to sacrifice her vocation and her career in the hopes of helping to create a more extravagantly welcoming Church. The Shower of Stoles Project has been a profound gift, not only to the Presbyterian Church, but to the entire ecumenical and multi-faith Welcoming Movement.

On this day, when we are celebrating the long-awaited change in ordination policy in the Presbyterian Church (USA), we must look back. We must remember, honor, and thank those who have blazed the trail on which we now faithfully and joyously walk.

Martha, for all the ways that you have played a part in making this day possible, a grateful movement thanks you.