When Tim Schannep’s husband, Tony Garcia, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the couple knew they had a battle ahead of them. What they hadn’t anticipated was how that journey would be complicated because of their sexuality.
“We encountered all kinds of homophobia and bigotry while he needed medical care,” Schannep said. “[Hospital staff] wouldn’t even get us a wheelchair, so I ended up picking up Tony and carrying him to the car.”
For Schannep, like many ELCA members, ensuring all people have the same rights and opportunities is a basic tenet of his faith—a response to Jesus’ call to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
When the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted the “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” social statement and its accompanying “Recommendations for Ministry Policies” that recognized same-gender relationships in the ELCA, many LGBTQ Lutherans felt truly welcomed by their church for the first time.
Today the work for full inclusion in the church and communities continues, and many ELCA congregations and members are leading the charge to ensure that LGBTQ folks aren’t just welcome, but are equal participants in the body of Christ.
“Willing to listen”
In their 22 years together, Schannep and Garcia had plenty of experience fighting for justice for the LGBTQ community. But as they looked forward to life together as seniors, they discovered a need that hit close to home. “When we turned 60, I started looking to see what kind of retirement or assisted living facilities were out there where we could be together and found the options were really limited,” Schannep said.
As they began conversations with neighbors, community groups and Chicago aldermen to develop LGBTQ senior living facilities, they found allies at Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill.
“There were LGBTQ members at Grace prior to Tim and Tony’s arrival, but [the couple] brought a courageous public witness to our ministry as we worked for full inclusion,” said Daniel Ruen, pastor of Grace. “Through our relationships with Tim and Tony, we were brought to a state of profound awareness about the need for safe, senior housing.”
From writing letters to lawmakers to hosting movie screenings, discussions and a fundraiser to support their efforts, the congregation wasn’t afraid to prayerfully enter into difficult discussions. “They were very willing to listen and be involved. For people to actually take time to listen and hear somebody’s story is really important,” Schannep said.
“Part of Christ’s body”
Ensuring LGBTQ individuals are heard is an integral part of how Asher O’Callaghan understands his calling. “Any time we try to cover up or silence diversity, we lose part of Christ’s body,” he said.
A lifelong Christian, O’Callaghan is all too familiar with how difficult it can be for some members of Christ’s body to feel included. O’Callaghan, who is transgender, said that as a child attending a more fundamentalist Christian denomination, “I grew up being afraid that I was going to hell.”
When he came out as bisexual at the campus ministry he was attending, O’Callaghan said “the response was basically, ‘We love you and disagree with you. So you won’t be allowed to lead in any way.’ ”
It wasn’t until O’Callaghan was invited by friends to attend a service at House for All Sinners and Saints, a then new ELCA congregation in Denver, that he finally found a spiritual home. “I had never experienced liturgy before,” he said. “I didn’t understand what was happening, but it felt like it was holding my life together from week to week.”
For members Amy Clifford and Stuart Sanks, O’Callaghan was the first person they’d been in relationship with that had transitioned. Both had welcomed him into their faith community pre-transition and became closer with him over time. “Our intention at House is to welcome someone with no constraints, no assumption, no judgment,” Clifford said. “I don’t think it’s any different for [Asher] as it was for anyone else. We allow [people] to come as they are.”
While at House, O’Callagahan made his transition. “Allowing us to walk through [Asher’s] process of transitioning was powerful for our congregation,” Sanks said. “I remember that having a profound effect on everyone. Asher is a gift, not only to our church and to the Lutheran denomination as a whole, but a gift to the capital “C” big church.”
In 2015, O’Callaghan became the first transgender person to be ordained through the ELCA’s regular ordination process. Today he is the program director for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) where he works with synods and congregations to raise up LGBTQ leaders, living out ELM’s belief that “the public witness of LGBTQ rostered leaders proclaims the gospel now, enriching and transforming our church.”
“In order for God to really reform me, I have to encounter people who are truly different from me,” he said. “The church can only be what God intends for it to be when we have the widest array of diverse people at the table.”
‘My church honestly saw me’
For lifelong Lutheran Aubrey Thonvold, working to ensure equality for LGBTQ individuals is not only a calling, but an essential aspect of who she is.
“It is like the two parts that make my heart beat,” she said.
“In middle school,” Thonvold said, “I realized I liked girls the way my friends liked boys.” And while her rural congregation wasn’t openly opposed to same-gender relationships, as Thonvold remembered it, they weren’t particularly welcoming either. “We didn’t necessarily say they were wrong, but we never talked about LGBTQ people either.”
This silence put Thonvold at odds with the two parts of who she was as a Lutheran and a lesbian. But when the ELCA voted to officially recognize same-gender relationships, she felt a sense of release.
“For the first time in my life I felt like my church honestly saw me,” she said. “It was as if I was waiting for permission from my church because my faith and my family were so intertwined.”
Since that time Thonvold has gone on to work on campaigns in Washington, Hawaii and Oregon where she helped people of faith mobilize to pass laws that ensured the right to marry for LGBTQ individuals—including herself and her wife, Heather.
Today Thonvold is the executive director of ReconcilingWorks, an organization dedicated to “full welcome, inclusion, and equity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their church, congregations and community.”
“My faith has told me and taught me, we do justice work because Jesus has called us to,” she said. “We are called to make sure that folks on the margins not only have a place at the table but are given a seat of honor.”