Hers is the ministry of ‘yes’
The first time the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was brought to trial by the Presbyterian Church, the prosecutor in the 1992 case likened her to an “addictive gambler,” a “confirmed bank robber” and a “habitual child abuser.”
The third time she was brought to trial, by the church she loves and refuses to leave, a religious tribunal found her guilty of violating the Presbyterian constitution. But then several of its members apologized to Spahr, and their decision admonished not the faithful minister but the faith itself.
“We call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” panel members wrote while finding Spahr guilty in Napa last August. “We as a church need to be able to respond to … reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion.”
So just what crimes has Spahr committed? The 68-year-old grandmother is a lesbian, officiates at weddings of same-sex couples and insists on calling those unions marriages. To do otherwise, she says, consigns her flock to second-class citizenship, and “I have seen the violence that has done.”
With a 36-year ministry and three church trials behind her, Spahr is the most visible symbol of her denomination’s struggles over how to treat its lesbian and gay parishioners and clergy members. Her supporters and detractors both believe the shrinking church’s future is at stake.
Since 1996, the Presbyterian Church has voted five times on the validity of same-sex marriage and whether gays and lesbians may serve as elders, deacons and ministers — without allowing either. The denomination is voting yet again on ordination. Nonetheless, in the last decade, nearly 100 congregations have left the Presbyterian Church (USA), aligning themselves instead with denominations that view homosexuality as a sin against God.
Similar clashes are playing out in nearly every mainline Protestant faith and are finding their way into Congress and secular courts. Last month, a federal appeals court heard oral arguments on whether California’s ban on same-sex marriage should be overturned. Also last month, after years of acrimony, Congress repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Spahr has been likened both to Jesus Christ and the devil incarnate. The retired minister with the infectious smile and fierce heart has been hailed as another Rosa Parks and derided as an irritant, a provocateur, an ecclesiastical anarchist.
“Right now, she is straining our church to the point that it could well break and could well fail,” said the Rev. James D. Berkley, a Seattle minister whose complaints led to Spahr’s second trial in 2006.
The Rev. Annie Steinberg-Behrman tells a different story. “Janie,” she testified in August, “saved my life.”
Spahr remembers sitting in the front pew, listening to a visiting preacher talk about all the things he’d do if only he were young. He’d work with the poor, he told the Pittsburgh congregation; he’d battle oppression. He’d open his arms and his ministry to embrace all those souls the world shoves away.
As she sat there with her twin, Joanie, Spahr kept thinking: “I am young. I can do those things.” It was 1952, and she was 10.
Four years later she knew in her heart that one day she would become a minister, though she’d never seen a woman in the job. People would smile when they heard her goal: “Isn’t that sweet.” Boyfriends would laugh, incredulous: “You’re too much fun!”
She married the first man who took her dream seriously, Jim Spahr, her best friend to this day. It was Dec. 28, 1964. Then Jim went off to Vietnam. Spahr entered seminary. Jimmy was born in 1967. Chet followed two years later.
Shortly after being ordained in 1974, Spahr got her first church, Hazelwood Presbyterian Ministry in Pittsburgh’s inner city. It was the kind of place, she says, “the men said no man would want. It was too difficult.”
“We drove over to the church the first time, and the garbage cans were on fire,” she recounts. “To go to the inner city and be there, it’s just a whole other thing…. When I left that church, I gave the men’s room a new toilet, because that’s what they needed.”
At Hazelwood, Spahr learned to pray “with your hands open, like you’re receiving something.” And to preach “from the neck down,” with her heart, not her head. She learned about poverty and racism and love.
Her teacher and mentor was Wanda Graham Harris, who later became Hazelwood’s pastor. Harris is African American, and the two were called the “checkerboard staff.” Harris, Spahr says, “took me into a community that was so frightened of me and said, ‘Now, you just go love them, Janie.’ ”
Her goodbye gift from the Hazelwood community was a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an admonition: We want you to carry this with you always. You are us now.
“It was so hard to leave there,” Spahr says. “This is what the Presbyterian Church was.”
The things that Jimmy Spahr remembers best about the day his mother came out as a lesbian were the placemats on the dinner table in the family’s San Rafael home. His was a frog. He was 9. Chet, 7, had a rooster.
Their father had made a big pot of soup, which he followed with an announcement: “Mommy, tell the boys the wonderful thing you learned about yourself today.”
It was 1976, Spahr was youth pastor at First Presbyterian San Rafael, and the Presbyterian Church was in the middle of its first two-year study of homosexuality. Each regional group of churches — known as a presbytery — held meetings on the topic. Spahr had been invited to speak at one about whether there was a link between the oppression of women and of gays and lesbians.
But first on the agenda were the Rev. William R. Johnson of the United Church of Christ, the first openly gay person ordained in a Christian church in modern times, and the Rev. Ellen Barrett, the first openly gay priest to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
“They began to tell their stories, and I sat there going, ‘This is my story,’ ” Spahr recounts. “I came running, running home to Jimmy … and said, ‘Oh, Jimmy, I know who I am. I’m a lesbian.’ And he said, ‘I know. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me for a year.’”
For most of her life, Spahr had felt more attracted to women than to men. She’d been told that she would grow out of it. She’d seen at least one therapist who figured he could cure her. Jim had taken to leaving books around the house like “Loving Someone Gay,” by Don Clark.
So there they were at dinner, explaining it to the boys over soup: Daddy loves women. Mommy loves women. And can you see how that doesn’t work?
“It was no big deal,” recalled Jimmy, now 43 and a father himself. “Half my friends’ parents were probably divorced. That’s what people did. And ours was a really easy thing to understand too. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t love each other.”
But Chet got excited: “Oh, Mom, this is great. Let’s go tell the church!”
Recalls Janie Spahr: “And Daddy said, ‘Oh, Chetty, the church won’t be near as excited as we are.’ And that’s been the truth.”
Two years after Spahr came out to her family, the Presbyterian Church put in place its first explicit ruling on homosexuality: “Unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination.”
If a gay man or lesbian was already ordained — as Spahr was — that person could remain a minister. But the denomination would no longer ordain others. And, as Spahr found out the hard way, a homosexual minister could not change churches, because it would again raise the question of sexuality and ordination.
In 1991, Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., hired her as a co-pastor. The complaints came fast and furious. Fourteen churches in the Genesee Valley Presbytery protested her hiring.
“Homosexual conduct” is “contrary to the order that God intended,” prosecutor Julius Poppinga intoned during the trial that ensued. It is “incompatible with Christian faith and life.”
It doesn’t matter if “the constitution does not say you may not call a confirmed bank robber as your minister,” Poppinga continued. “It does not say you may not call a habitual child abuser” to the pulpit. Just because it does not explicitly outlaw hiring “a confirmed homosexual proves absolutely nothing” either.
The highest court in the Presbyterian Church eventually ruled that Downtown Presbyterian had erred in hiring Spahr. But that congregation still could tap her as a traveling evangelist.
Spahr spent the next 14 years criss-crossing the country, telling her story at churches and universities. A woman in Des Moines with a lesbian granddaughter told Spahr, “I waited until you came to tell my friends about her.”
But she was likened to Nazis at Princeton Theological Seminary, faced bomb threats in Pennsylvania, was screamed at during an Austin appearance by a woman who spat, “I hate you for making me think about things I never want to think about!”
The big question is why she stays in a religion that has scorned her and her work. Her answer is a meditation on the power and responsibility of religion:
“I’ve seen what faith communities have done to some of my brothers and sisters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,” she testified in August. “We get them after they have been told they are terrible and awful and going to hell…. It is up to us in our ministries to be part of the healing.”
Spahr had just landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago when she turned on her cellphone and found an urgent message: Please call Annie Petker as soon as possible.
Petker was associate pastor at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes. She had been born in a Presbyterian hospital, been married for nearly 23 years to a church music director. The Presbyterian Church, she says, “made me who I am.”
But on that summer day in 2000, Petker was in trouble. Sitting alone in her kitchen, there was no one else she could think of to call.
“I had already come out to family, immediate family, the year before,” Petker recounts. “I knew I had to come out to the church…. I am an honest person, and I couldn’t do ministry with people not knowing who I am.”
She also knew that if she came out, she would lose everything she loved. “So I called Janie.”
Spahr guided Annie and Allan Petker through the announcement to the churches where they worked, provided moral support when Annie stood before 200 members of St. Peter’s by the Sea and answered questions for three hours: Why do you have to leave? Are you going to be celibate?
And finally opened her home when Annie moved north to start a new life.
“I just remember at one point thinking, ‘I have now officially hit bottom,’ ” Petker said. “Except I had Janie. She was the one person that I knew was there for me.”
Last March, Spahr was charged with violating the Presbyterian constitution for presiding over more than a dozen same-sex weddings during the brief window such unions were legal in California.
One of those was the Aug. 7, 2008, wedding between Dr. Victoria Steinberg-Behrman and the Rev. Annie Steinberg-Behrman, formerly Annie Petker. During Spahr’s trial, they were asked what would have happened if Spahr had refused to marry them.
“My biggest fear of coming out in the church was that I would lose the church. And I did,” said Annie Steinberg-Behrman, who has since become a minister in the United Church of Christ. “If Janie would have said no, it would have been like heart-breaking, absolute rejection from the church.”
Spahr was found guilty in August and has since filed an appeal. Even if she loses and is ordered by the church to cease and desist, she says, she will still marry same-sex couples as a matter of conscience.
“The ‘no’ must not win,” Spahr says. “Because I believe God’s word is a big yes.”