By Megan Rohrer
Here in Peru, there are rainbow flags everywhere. Our tour guide at the Convento de Santo Domingo in Cusco showed us the ruins of the Incan temple that was destroyed by Conquistadors and missionaries during colonial times. While in the rainbow temple, she assured us, “Here the rainbow is the sign of the Incas, not gay stuff.”
My wife, Laurel, and I gave each other a knowing look. We had received numerous alerts from the U.S. Department of State about the dangers of traveling when you are LGBT. The alerts warned that some places might refuse to honor our hotel reservations or abuse the friendly nature of LGBT travelers in order to rob them.
Before our trip we decided that if we encountered hatred, we would pretend to be sisters. However, our newly gained rights to legally marry has imprinted our marriage on all of our passport and visa forms.
The rainbow flags in Peru remind me of San Francisco, where I am the pastor of Grace Lutheran. The rainbow flags are unfurled every June for Pride month. Last month, Grace decided to place small window clings in the front entrance of our sanctuary. The one-inch rainbow-colored hearts with crosses in the middle were meant to be a special sign that LGBT folk were welcome at our church. Others, we hoped, would see the rainbow and remember God’s promise to Noah after the flood to put down the archery bow of vengeance.
Soon the pastor of the congregation that rents space in our church informed us that the sign must be taken down or they would move out. The signs could not work, he said in an email, because his congregation would not allow LGBT people to come to their services.
Our tour guide at the Convento went on to tell us that the stones of the Incan temple fit together like Legos and had a trapezoidal shape that prevented them from falling down in earthquakes. The missionaries who tore the stones down, believing they were a more advanced civilization, rebuilt in plaster. The next big earthquake made the church collapse and revealed the strength of ancient wisdom.
I was 6 when the ELCA was formed through a grand merger. So when people told me that the Lutheran church had always declared LGBT people taboo, I believed them. Later I learned about Charles Lewis and his call from the board of missionaries to be the pastor of the Lutheran church in North Beach, Calif., to minister to “single men” – code for affirming ministries to gay men. Charles also served as a night minister to the homeless of San Francisco and graced the cover of The Lutheran.
Later I was told the story of the election of the first Lutheran bishop in the American English Lutheran Church’s Southwestern Synod, who would have served as a provincial bishop in Houston. In 1979 (before there were any policies about LGBT pastors), Dan Harms was elected bishop. Warned that the vote might jeopardize the future merger that would create the ELCA, the outgoing bishop made sure the voting body knew the bishop-elect was gay and required a second vote. Again, Dan was elected.
Thinking that the voting members didn’t understand the ramifications of what they had done, the bishop sent the voting members home and told them to talk with their congregations. They voted for Dan a third time. Due to the pressure and the fear of what his election would mean for the future of the Lutheran church, Dan withdrew his name from the election and never served.
It would take more than 30 years for the next gay bishop to be elected. Bishop Guy Erwin is currently serving the ELCA Southwest California Synod.
In Peru, our stay has been wonderful. One hotel owner, after learning we had the same last name, insisted we switch from two twin beds to a king-sized one. While there are some countries where you can still be killed for being LGBT, in others it is only our racism that convinces us that the residents couldn’t be as progressive as we are.
Back at home in San Francisco, a huge rainbow flag is flying in the Castro. After purple, the flag adds magenta to symbolize that LGBT people live on all the continents in the world. At Grace Lutheran our rainbow window cling also remains in our sanctuary windows. The council, uncomfortable that there would ever be a worship service in the building that their pastor wasn’t allowed to visit, decided that the gospel’s wisdom and Jesus’ welcome was a much more ancient wisdom that guided our faith.
And despite their threats to leave, the renting congregation has not left.
During this month of LGBT awareness, I pray that we always experience more welcome than we expected. And whether you see the rainbow as special welcome for you or your loved ones who are LGBT, a sign of God’s love or as a reminder of wisdoms of our elders, may you always know that God is with you and for you. Amen.
Megan Rohrer is pastor of Grace Lutheran Evangelical Church, an ELCA congregation in San Francisco. She is also the executive director of Welcome, a communal response to poverty. She is currently traveling through South America and will be visiting all the new wonders of the world, inspiring her to think in a more global way about all of God’s wonders.