Jane Adams Spahr
I resume a series of personal reflections on the LGBT Christian movement that is continuing each Wednesday of June, Pride Month, extended to the first week of July, given my post on Orlando last week. For those unfamiliar with this blog, be assured that I will return to other topics next month!
Rev. Jane Adams Spahr goes back to the earliest days of the LGBT Christian movement, but her influence will be felt for generations to come.
When she faced multiple church trials for her activism, it was apparent to me that the church could only embarrass itself by her prosecution, because, re-purposing a then current Sara Lee pastries ad (“Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”): “Nobody doesn’t like Janie Spahr.”
Her genius, I believe, was encouraging EVERYONE to tell their own stories, in her words, “personing the issue.” And as it has turned out, that was the saving grace of the whole LGBT movement, that we were everywhere, telling our stories to our families, friends, coworkers, congregations, communities, congressional districts, and political parties. I believe that’s why our congregations and culture were so readily transformed.
My earliest recollection of her was during a party in the San Francisco Bay area. She was faux flirting with my host, a Presbyterian minister and closeted gay man, who returned the innocent flirtation. I knew both were gay, but they did not know that of one another. I found myself later saying to my host, “I think Janie would be supportive if you came out to her.” And to her, “I think Bill would be supportive if you came out to him.”
Janie was blessed by a truly loving husband, Jim Spahr, whom she credits with facilitating her being/becoming herself. We should all be so lucky, to have a partner who supports our emergence even if it means divorce. They and his wife Jackie are still friends, and when I served as the interim pastor for MCC San Francisco, this “trinity” was the first to welcome me over dinner and the last to say farewell to me just before I returned to Atlanta, again, over dinner.
In the early days, she brought me to the Bay Area to consult me about the founding of the Lazarus Project, even as she was initiating her Ministry of Light.
We each had our own spheres of influence and our own way of doing things, but I was surprised to learn that some fellow travelers in the movement imagined there was great dissonance between us. Once, after a devastating defeat at a Presbyterian General Assembly, we came out of the hall, grief-stricken. As an introvert, I could find no words to speak, but as an extrovert, Janie found just the right words to comfort us, something I later wrote about, commending her.
Yet afterward a mutual friend told me that the tension was so great between us that “you could cut it with a knife”—but I felt no such animus, and had no idea where that notion came from.
There was a moment that dismayed me, however, but it was not Janie’s fault. It came from the fact that she was “grandfathered” in as a minister, having been ordained prior to May, 1978, when the denominational ban on LGBT ordination was enacted, preventing my own ordination.
And it came because Downtown United Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY, hired her as an associate minister. I was stunned by that piece of “good news” in a phone conversation with one of my other heroines, Virginia Ramey Mollencott, and I honestly say that I felt a twinge of envy, for it was a position to which I could never have applied, not being ordained. Yet I was furious when the denomination would not allow her to fulfill that call.
Because of her charisma and inclusive and generous spirit, as well as the generosity of the Downtown church, which then hired her as a “lesbian evangelist” to travel the country on our behalf, Janie Spahr became for many the face of our movement in the Presbyterian Church. Yet she and the church founded That All May Freely Serve, a ministry intent on representing the many faces of our movement. Wherever I travel for speaking engagements, I encounter someone whose life has been touched or transformed by her ministry.
And usually I find it was simply because she listened to them, and offered them words of assurance, affirmation, and encouragement.
Nobody doesn’t like Janie Spahr!
That All May Freely Serve recently made available a video of my personal account of the movement (8 minutes) followed by fellow activist Cleve Evans. Warning: I look pudgy, but I weighed 153 lbs. when it was taped last April!
Earlier posts in this series:
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