Susan Wolfe-Devol, the first woman to become a Lutheran pastor in Orange County and a hard-driving advocate for inclusion and social justice in the church and its ministry, has died at the age of 61.
Wolfe-Devol died Dec. 16 in Ventura after a brief illness, her husband said.
For years, Wolfe-Devol was among those in the Lutheran church who reached out to the LGBT community and helped clear the way for the 2009 vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that permitted gay and lesbian clergy to openly marry and continue to serve in the church.
Wolfe-Devol served as an associate pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Santa Ana from 1985 to 1990, becoming Orange County’s first female Lutheran minister. She later served as an associate pastor at Angelica Lutheran Church in the Pico-Union District in Los Angeles.
By the time she arrived at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, where she was pastor for 13 years, she had emerged as a leading voice of inclusion and making the LGBT community feel welcome at the church — “bringing your entire self to church,” as one congregant put it.
Morgan Rumpf, a congregation president at the church for years, recalled St. Matthews being “the church of broken toys” in the early 2000s, a place that welcomed the marginalized, the misunderstood, the castoffs and the spiritually broken.
“She spoke for those who’d been pushed to the sidelines,” said Richard Gasparotti, who also served as a congregational president at St. Matthews. He said Wolfe-Devol was someone able to harness the “electricity” that the church’s widely diverse congregation seemed to exude.
When Rumpf and Gasparotti were married in 2008, during the brief window before Proposition 8 again banned the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, Wolfe-Devol helped them write their commitments, presided at their wedding and then offered encouragement when the legal validity of their marriage seemed in doubt until the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015.
“Sue was a huge, straight-out ally for the LGBT, long before it became fashionable,” Gasparotti said. “She reminded us that we were married in the eyes of God and that it mattered less what the state of California thought.”
Wolfe-Devol’s resolve to crusade for gays and lesbians may have been born years earlier when she got to know a closeted gay man who, despite his compromised existence, was an early champion of women’s rights, said Keith Banwart, pastor at St. Matthews of Glendale.
Born in Ventura on May 30, 1955, Wolfe-Devol earned a degree in sociology at UC Berkeley and a master of divinity degree at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Iowa. She served an internship at an all-black congregation in Detroit, an apprenticeship that her husband Steven — a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times — said cemented her passion for the ministry and shaped her sense of social justice.
Those who worked with her, and those who sat in the pews and absorbed the words of her sermons, said she radiated compassion and humor.
One congregant, who posted her thoughts on CaringBridge — a website devoted to those fighting an illness, said she was a fully-developed atheist until she was welcomed into St. Matthews. Wolfe-Devol, she said, won her over immediately when she dropped an F-bomb when they first met, and then blushed.
“I knew she actually cared about me when she took me to lunch after having just met me and divulged some of her saddest secrets, moments that had tested her faith,” Alissa Davis wrote.
Banwart said he last saw Wolfe-Devol in the spring when she showed up at his church for Easter services. Keeping a tradition they’d followed for years, they met up the next day at the Abbey in West Hollywood for “clergy cocktails.” Despite the health setbacks she’d endured, he said he was struck by her undiminished sense of humor.
Wolfe-Devol is survived by her husband; a son, Pierce; her mother, Elizabeth; a brother, Ben; a sister, Connie; and three nieces and nephews.