By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ANN ARBOR – He came to Michigan by way of “Richmond, by God, Virginia,” South Carolina, southern California, and Ringwood, Oklahoma – with a few other stops along the way.
For almost seven years, he has been the pastor of Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor.
And now, thanks to his unwavering support of equality for LGBT individuals, Charles Booker-Hirsch is at risk of losing his livelihood as a minister.
The 42-year-old, straight minister describes both of his life’s commitments – work for human rights and Presbyterian ministry – with equal passion.
“I was aware very early on of the economic disparities between black and white,” he said. “When I was five years old, returning from our downtown church, I sat up in the back of the family Ford and said, ‘Daddy, why can’t they get a mortgage like you’ve got?’ as we passed these ghetto areas heading back to our suburban home… That’s how the family story goes, and my awakening social conscience.”
Booker-Hirsch’s conscience said he knew he wanted to be a minister by the time he was in college.
“Considering my temperament and my awakening social justice concerns, being a Presbyterian minister seemed the right thing to do. Now for a lot of people being a Presbyterian minister and being a social justice advocate are not a natural connection. For me, and for many others, it is.”
Asked what “moves his heart” most about Presbyterianism, Booker-Hirsch said, “In a broader sense, it has a commitment to stand against tyranny and idolatry….And idolatry meaning false gods, that which we lift up to be absolute, which could be five verses ripped out of context in Scripture used to bash LGBT people. Or tyranny can mean exploitation. To me, ‘sin’ means exploitation, it means putting down whole groups of people.” Booker-Hirsch added that he loves the denomination’s emphasis on “reading Scripture, not literally, but seriously.”
Asked what he enjoys most about ministry, he said, “It’s the whole challenge of learning through relationships how to shape my beliefs.”
Booker-Hirsch’s respect for people, and their relationships, has gotten him into potential hot water with his church’s hierarchy.
On December 20, 2004, Booker-Hirsch received word from the Presbytery of Detroit of “an allegation against you that has been received by the Presbytery.” The allegation was filed by “serial litigator” Paul Rolf Jenson, who lives in Newport Beach California and who has instigated similar charges against Presbyterian ministers all over the U.S.
According to the allegation, Booker-Hirsch participated in the ordination as deacon of “a person or persons whom he at the time believed to be a self-affirming, practicing unrepentant homosexual.” In other words, a gay man who refused to be ashamed of his orientation.
“We have this terrible doublespeak right now in our denomination,” said Booker-Hirsch. “If we would be outright rejecting of LGBT people it would be more helpful in some ways, [but now they’re told] ‘You can be a member, but you have to sit in the back of the bus.'”
Booker-Hirsch is also accused of performing “ceremony/ies which he considered to be ‘marriage ceremonies.'”
“Well, yes, our church has a marriage policy,” said Booker-Hirsch. “And it’s very public, it’s public to the Presbytery, and it says we will name [the ceremony] whatever a couple chooses to call it as long as there’s a lifetime, loving commitment expressed.”
Even though, according to Booker-Hirsch, “None of [Jensen’s] charges have ever stuck.” Regardless, Booker-Hirsch will still be caught up in a process that could take years and could potentially result in his losing his ordination.
Booker-Hirsch has had one face-to-face meeting, on March 30, with the committee investigating the allegations against him. If the committee – which is akin to a grand jury, decides to file charges against him, the next stop in the process will be the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery, with an appeals process that could go as far as the general assembly. During the entire process, Booker-Hirsch’s resume will be “frozen” and, even if he wished to, he would not be allowed to apply for a position at any other Presbyterian church.
“We have succumbed to the love of the law rather than the law of love,” he said.
Asked his advice for straight people of faith in dealing with LGBTs, Booker-Hirsch said, “Get to know people – rather than thinking you know about them.”
By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman