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Hers is the ministry of 'yes'

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was found guilty of violating the Presbyterian constitution. Her offense? Officiating at same-sex weddings. A lesbian herself, she says she won't quit the church she loves.

January 04, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, center, performs a wedding ceremony for Sherrie Holmes, left, and Sara Taylor at Marin Civic Center in San Rafael.
The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, center, performs a wedding ceremony for Sherrie… (Frankie Frost, Marin independent…)

Reporting from San Francisco — 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."

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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."

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