- When I approached St. Michael's Lutheran Church
, just off Montauk Highway in Amagansett, I could feel something like dread drip down my forehead and spread across my chest. Or maybe it was just sweat, as the locusts hissed a frustrated appeal under the scorching mid-July sun. The last time I had been inside a church - a Roman Catholic parish in my hometown of Staten Island - I was struck with that familiar nervous agitation that only a gay man in God's house can know. Something like being an unwanted guest at a bilingual dinner party, fearing that at any moment a Leviticus verse would fly my way, or the condemnations of Fred Phelps's
Westboro Baptist Church would suddenly become true, and holy water would sear my skin.
I knew I was being irrational, but my experiences with religious affiliations had always been questionable. In grammar school, I resented the conservative Catholic environment that failed to understand me, as I hid my fashion design drawings from my grandfather, and blocked the door to my bedroom so I could recite 1990s boy-band choreography without the confused expressions of my parents. Then there was the summer of Bible Camp, where every day culminated in a kumbaya
sinner's share circle, which left me feeling half brainwashed and mildly violated. In high school, my self-proclaimed best friend tried to save me on the downtown 1 train, with a pre-highlighted version of the Bible she bought me for my birthday, Post-Its denoting passages of interest for a sinner such as myself.
But I also knew something different was happening at St. Michael's parish. Katrina Foster
, a pastor from Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church, had relocated to the East End after over 15 years of service in the South Bronx. Pastor Foster is gay, and was one of the first handful of Lutheran clergy members to not only live openly as a lesbian, but to marry a woman and start a family, despite strictures set forth by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
(ELCA). She is one of a small demographic of Lutherans that have been striving for equality for sexual minority people within the denomination since the early 1990s, nearly losing her collar and congregation along the way. With the ink still wet on New York State's passage of Marriage Equality for same-sex couples, President Obama's
claim that his views on gay marriage are "evolving," and protest emerging from various religious institutions regarding the sacramental implications of the term "marriage," I sought Pastor Foster to discuss her perspective on these issues. Also, I was curious to meet a gay Christian - an anomaly I had heard existed, but had never encountered firsthand.
In the midst of all this soul-searching, I realized I was 20 minutes late for the service.
The church was small, one-story, with red clapboard siding, white resin lettering, and a metal door transported from a 1980s government office building. An older gentleman greeted me at the interior entrance to the chapel, offered me a mass program, and ushered me inside with a whispered "welcome." I had made it in time for the Gospel, and scurried toward the furthest-most pew, like a latecomer at a Broadway
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play interrupting the opening scene. Pastor Foster assumed the lectern, a petite woman with collar-length brown hair that was tied in an economical ponytail. Her cherubic face and youthful expression gave her the appearance of a 12 year-old schoolgirl in an old man's robes, an image made all the more endearing through the conviction with which she preached. On a solemn voice and half-closed eyes, amidst the soundtrack of an infant's uneasy cooing, she began her reading from Matthew 13:3.
"A sower went out to sow," she began. "And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path."
I recognized the parable from my days in CCD class, under the grating, automated voice of my catechism teacher, who had undergone a tracheotomy after years of smoking in the school parking lot. In the reading, Jesus, the farmer, tosses the seeds of God's grace onto the earth, and harvests the spoils of faith. Some of the seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Some fall on rocky ground and are choked by weeds. And others fall on fertile land, good soil, and "bring forth grain." As memory always bears the stain of bias, the way I remember the story, some are chosen, or destined to do the work of the Lord. The remaining majority either get devoured by a pigeon or noosed by a dandelion.
But the message here was different.
Foster removed herself from behind the lectern, faced the crucifix mounted on the far wall, and took a deep inhale. Like an actor turning to face the spotlight, her expression swelled when she met the eyes of her audience, as if stumbling upon the happy realization that she was suddenly home.
She spoke of the Gospel reading, about how it is not a matter of which category of seed a person is deemed, or where a person falls amongst the topography of Fate. It matters little to God if an individual is reared upon the craggy soil of a broken community, or on the fertile grounds of a stable home and loving family. Instead, it is about the indiscriminate love of Christ, how he does not screen individuals on whether or not they are a worthy candidate for his grace. This paradigm of love is as universal as it is uneconomical, unconcerned with profitable returns or ample bounty, as per Foster's analysis of the passage.
"The reality of the text is twofold," she said like a world-weary scholar. "This amazing grace, this superabundance of waste, this abundance of hope, love, and possibility, should be a model for us: to share our faith in Christ, even in places where it will not grow."
Like in the Bronx, she recalled, where communities of working-class matriarchs struggled against poverty and crime. These women were the brightest beacons of faith in Christ, Foster said, juggling loads of laundry up five-floor walk-ups, finding the good in a well-worked day, despite the socioeconomic odds against them. "By the time they got to their Sabbath rest, they were already worn out," she said, adding:
"Even from what appears to be little, dormant, or dead, God promises a harvest
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Foster and congregants following Sunday services. (Thomas McKee)
This message of universality and inclusion not only reflects a major tenet of the Lutheran faith, but more specifically, the central philosophy of the religious organization, GoodSoil
, a Lutheran interest group comprised entirely of gay and lesbian members and their allies. Founded in 1974 under the title Lutherans Concerned for Gay People, amidst a slew of forced resignations of openly gay pastors, the organization formed in order to create a culture of acceptance amongst members of the church. Their efforts culminated in the 2009 National Synod Assembly in Minnesota, in which a 619 to 402 majority voted to allow congregations to "recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships" for those on the pastoral roster.
This watershed moment encapsulated nearly two decades of enforced deceit for gay members of the church, and effectively overturned existing church doctrine, specifically an ordinance titled "Visions and Expectations," directed towards members of the clergy. Within the thirteen-page document composed in 1990, a single-sentence resolution stated that all ordained ministers of the ELCA "who are homosexual under self-understanding, are expected to abstain from all homosexual sexual relationships," offering an ultimatum for those called to a life of service under God: faith or family.
Incidentally, this decision coincided with Pastor Foster's first year of seminary in South Carolina.
But intolerance was a foreign concept inside the chapel, as nearly 30 worshippers stood in a collective Prayer of the Faithful. Each present member of the congregation offered a personal appeal during the prayer, letting slip their individual concerns amidst the silent symphony of bowed heads and expectant reverence. An older gentleman prayed for his family. Another woman petitioned for God's protection for a friend recovering from surgery.
I was surprised by this element of interaction and palpable sense of community. In my own experience, mass was the last place to expose one's vulnerabilities. Instead, it was the weekly arena for a communal show-off, a battle-ground built upon tradition and a seemingly sourceless sense of piety, where well-to-do-families upheld the artifice of domestic bliss
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, flaunted their family's Sunday fashions, trying desperately to silence rambunctious toddlers during an ADHD-proof service that let out in under three-quarters of an hour. Gossiping mothers whispered hearsays of adultery, as teenagers muted the vibrations of incoming text messages. And everyone was always off-key. Including the choir.
As each person volunteered a plea, my heart started palpitating as I realized it was almost my turn. I couldn't participate. Did they expect me to? What would I even ask for? My dream job? That fabulous Manhattan apartment in Hell's Kitchen? All of my legitimate concerns seemed too personal to share, too heavy for a humid Sunday morning. I had not even had a cup of coffee at that point. And church therapy was never my bag. I locked my eyes on the floor, and tried my best to conjure a physical posture of invisibility. I knew no man is an island, but this one sure is. So don't ask. And they didn't.
But then there was that formless, vague feeling of regret that followed as the blessing of the wafer began. Had I really become this cynical? Did I really think I transcended spirituality, just because I took a few psychology classes? I kept thinking of Julian Jaynes
, a historian and psychologist, who theorized that in ancient civilizations, man was pre-conscious, or "proto-subjective," and used religion as a linguistic vehicle to describe individual perception and emotional valence. Instead of "I feel," it was "[insert god's name] feels." According to Jaynes, theocratic societies were the filler space between un-consciousness and individual subjectivity as we know it today. Humans used religion because they lacked the words
to express themselves. But now, humans are hyper-conscious, twittering at the end of every bowel movement. We have complex languages, and science is everywhere. One can just Google-search the meaning of life, or something. So then what were these people doing?
But who was I kidding, soul-searching in the midst of cigarette smoke and three changes of major, shopping for a career like a fickle bride trying on wedding gowns, looking for that perfect fit which might not really exist. Suddenly, the thought of an omniscient hand guiding my path, an existential phone call from a greater being, seemed the one thing that was missing. Maybe I just didn't trust myself enough to be an atheist.
Foster interrupted this tangled reverie with the blessing of the Eucharist. "We come to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are forgiven," she said, before singing the communion hymn. Her voice was the loudest and strongest in the room.
By the time she sat down with me - now sans-robe, in all black with clerical collar and Birkenstock
sandals - remnants of fatigue were breaking through her nurturing disposition. And my fascination with this religious community that effectively functioned like an extended family - Foster as the gender-nonconformist patriarch in the middle - left me feeling a little disoriented and more than out of place. This had been her second service of the day. She is also the pastor at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, and just now, the hairs of her ponytail had gone astray, as she let slip her clerical countenance and shared her experiences in the church.
Raised in a small religious community in Fernandina, Florida, one can hear traces of a backwoods drawl when she starts talking about home, referring affectionately to her parents as "mama" and "daddy."
"When I was four, I was called to be a pastor," she said with an automatic determination, like a well-oiled reflex. "I just knew."
St. Michael's offers universal welcome and inclusion to all variants of worshipers. (Thomas McKee)
Foster started the process of coming out in her early teens, sneaking to the single dilapidated gay bar in Jacksonville with a flock of older girls in search of a larger community with which to belong. Her journey towards self-acceptance, like many individuals in the GLBTQ community, was marked by fear, isolation, and an inward shame, no doubt exacerbated by the conservative Christian environment in which she was raised. At 14, she was the target of an outbreak of homophobia. And at 15, she considered suicide, finding herself with the barrel of a gun placed in her mouth. She recounted the moment through hollow eyes and tunneled expression, with a kind of unwillingness to dwell in the dark.
"Something stopped me from pulling the trigger," she said. "And that to me was the hand of God."
That hand guided her to Newbury College, a small Lutheran campus in South Carolina - "I got a softball scholarship, as all good lesbians do," she joked - and immediately onward to Union Seminary, despite her incertitude as to the fate of sexual minority individuals on the pastoral roster. Implicit discrimination greeted Foster at the entrance to her seminary education, with a grueling two and half hour mental health evaluation after she disclosed her interest in doing ministry with gay and lesbian people. And a larger backdrop of explicit discrimination pervaded the Lutheran denomination, as gay clergy members were denied pastoral status, and the "Visions and Expectations" ordinance was passed. Though a yearlong internship in Manhattan fortified her desire to pursue the call to faith, exposing her to a greater culture of acceptance, not to mention the first annual Dyke March, her return to South Carolina for her senior year commenced with a silent imperative to prove her heterosexuality.
"Between ["Vision's and Expectations"] and the outbreak of homophobia, I called my friend, who was gay, and asked him to be my boyfriend. He would come to seminary functions, I would put on a dress, and he would wear a suit. We would dance together. I hate doing drag," she quipped. "As soon as it was over, we would find the closest gay bar and cleanse ourselves."
"I can't tell you how sick it made me to be deceitful," she added, disdainfully. "It's been a very long journey."
Though her road to ordination was paved with the craggy ground of institutionalized prejudice, Foster achieved clerical status in 1993. She was called to a small, predominately Caribbean-born congregation in the Bronx, where she converted the parsonage into a foster home for unwed teenage mothers, amongst other community organizing endeavors. It was at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church that she met her wife, Pamela
, and the two were legally married in Connecticut in 1998. The couple's daughter, Zoya
, is now nine years old, accolading as an altar server within St. Michael's Parish.
On the issue of gay marriage, specifically, the debate of nomenclature and the term "civil unions," Foster's approach is logical, rooted in judicial history. She believes the central argument of the religious right demonstrates "a confusion of ecclesial law and civil law."
"Plessy v. Ferguson
put into place 'separate but equal,' and it never was. Separate is inherently unequal. Brown v. Board of Education
recognized this inherent inequality and sought to rectify. And we have never really been able to rectify it," she said, adding:
"If you really want to get down to making all things equal, then call everyone's legally authorized relationship a civil commitment, or whatever you want to call it. But we have this term, marriage
Foster with wife Pamela, and daughter Zoya. (Thomas McKee)
As the sun scorched through the trellis above us, a quiet anger peaked through the even rhythm of Foster's speech. According to the pastor, you cannot overemphasize the parallels between the contemporary Gay Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, and her knowledge of its history is as detailed as her understanding of the Bible.
"If I didn't pay my taxes, if people expected or extracted less from me as a citizen, maybe then I would consider something else. But because I am a citizen of this country, because I pay my taxes, because I participate in this democracy, and because I am a good, responsible, law-abiding neighbor, I have earned by virtue of all of the above to be equal in the eyes of everyone," she said.
"My wife and I have been married for 13 years now, and we have an amazing daughter. You would want to have us as your neighbor."
On the surface, Foster has much to be proud of: a loving family, over two decades of service in three different congregations, and the satisfaction of overturning the tides of a collective normative within the Lutheran Church. After years of struggle, enforced deceit, and secret shame, she has emerged on the right side of a uniquely American history that continues to evolve. Federal recognition of Marriage Equality is eminent in our lifetime
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, and the new definition of the modern family
has changed the domestic landscape of our country.
Though she brims with pride, and for good reason, I could not help but question, did she think homosexuality was a fundamental sin? Something that, though cleansed at Baptism, was still a flaw that needed eradication, a stain as primordial as Eve's temptation to grasp the apple? Did she see herself as a sinner cleansed by God's grace, strictly for the fact of her sexual orientation? Are gay people the unfortunate-though-resilient seeds that fall on craggy ground?
A bead of sweat slid down my forehead as I stood to shake her hand, thanking her on a stutter for her time and willingness to share. I swallowed the urge to question the minutiae of her personal morality. As St. Michael's Lutheran Church is in the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ
congregation - a program that openly acknowledges and welcomes GLBTQ parishioners - I guess it is enough that on the East End, holiness and homosexuality imply no direct contradiction.
"How many gay people does God have to make before we realize, he wants us here," Foster said. "This is a place where you can be gay and Christian, and this is not an oxymoron."
St. Michael's Lutheran Church is located at 486 Montauk Highway, Amagansett. For more information on Pastor Foster, church services, and program schedules, call (631) 267-6351