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Shower of Stoles Shines Light On Religious Discrimination

By |2012-11-22T09:00:00-05:00November 22nd, 2012|Michigan, News|

BTL photo: Crystal Proxmire.

Draped throughout the Pittman-Puckett Art Gallery and Community Room of Affirmations, dozens of colorful and personalized stoles reflect just a small portion of the LGBT people who have either left the church or who continue to serve while hiding their sexual orientation.
On Nov. 15 nearly 100 people gathered to see the stoles and to hear the story of their origin. Rev. Cheryl L. Burke also came, along with her three daughters, to share her own tale of religious exile and redemption.
Kevin Hogan of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion introduced Rev. Burke by sharing the five principles she subscribes to. “One, show up. Two, pay attention. Three, Tell the truth. Four, don’t be afraid. And five, don’t forget to breathe.”
Burke had been a student at Hope College and gotten her Master of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She grew up Presbyterian and served that denomination for many years, working her way up to Pastor with the hidden approval of church leaders. “They all knew, but told me not to tell anybody,” Burke said.
After a while, it just did not feel right. “I don’t think I can do this anymore God,” she said. “I don’t think I can be a minister only if I lie.”
So she took a leave of absence. “I took a year away from ministry to pray about it and think about it. In that time there was a church called First Congressional United Church of Christ in Huntsville, West Virginia that was looking for a pastor.
She took the job and on her first day she arrived at the church to find a giant banner across the front welcoming her and her partner.
While the church was very welcoming, the neighborhood had mixed reactions. An interview with a local reporter made the front page. “There was my picture on the front page with the headline ‘When God Calls a Lesbian.'” She said that for the next few months the “letters to the editor were awful and condemning… and supportive,’ and that it created a larger dialogue. Someone scratched the word “heal” into the cornerstone of the church and other local ministers were preaching about what an abomination it was to have a lesbian pastor in town. But there was also positive growth from it. People started calling the church to share their stories. “Gays and lesbians would call and say ‘I’ve never heard this from the church. Is this really true? Is it really possible?”
Burke has been with the United Church of Christ since the early 90s, and joined the Michigan conference in 2005. She and her wife Rev. Dr. Julie Kilmer were married in Washington D.C, though their marriage is not legally recognized by the state of Michigan. They have adopted three children, though because second parent adoption is also not legal in Michigan, there are complexities in the legal relationships. Burke hopes that Michigan will continue to work towards same gender marriage and adoption rights.
Her story is an oddity in the exhibit in that she actually has two stoles. “They contacted me and said that one had been lost, so I sent another. They found the first one so now I have two,” she said.
Each stole tells a story. The come from all over the world and are from anyone involved in church leadership who has left because they did not feel welcome, or who continued their service to the church while closeting their true selves.
The Shower of Stoles began in 1995 after Martha Juillerat retired from the Presbyterian Ministry after several years of taking part in community dialogues as an “out” lesbian minister. She traveled the country holding sacred conversations, but was continuously worn out by those who were not supportive. Finally she left and she wanted to do something symbolic of others like herself, people who left religious congregations because of discrimination and non-acceptance. It is now a project of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. To find out more visit http://www.welcomingresources.org/sosphistory.htm.

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