Rev. Frank Schaefer never envisioned himself becoming a champion for gay rights, especially not as he ministered in the small country church of Zion United Methodist in Iona, Penn. But that’s exactly what happened. It’s been a long journey that began some 14 years ago.
“It all started in the year 2000,” Schaefer recalled. “I received an anonymous phone call from a lady in the community and she told me on the phone, in the church office, ‘your son Tim is gay and struggling with his sexual identity and I know that he is considering suicide.’ So of course my wife and I talked about it and we asked our son. We were very concerned.”
Schaefer and his wife talked to their eldest son Tim, and discovered he was in a great deal of pain.
Upcoming Michigan Appearances
Rev. Frank Schaefer will be in Ann Arbor May 10-11th, speaking Saturday at 7 p.m. at an event sponsored by Rainbow Crossing at the First United Methodist Church on State St. He will also be speaking at the church during Sunday service May 11, at 9:30 a.m. On Monday, May 12, 6:30 – 9 p.m., Schaefer will speak at the Equality Connections Banquet which supports The Center for the Study of Equality and Human Rights at Eastern Michigan University. This event will take place in Grosse Pointe Farms. For more details on these dates, visit http://www.javacasa.com/frankschaefer
“He thought it would be better for his dad, the minister, and for his family if he’d just be gone and, he told us, actually already had a plan in place. He told us, ‘I cried myself to sleep many, many nights praying to God please take this away from me.’ When it didn’t happen, he just thought it would be better for everybody concerned if he just took his own life.”
Schaefer and his wife were devastated.
“My wife and I just hugged him and rallied around him and told him, ‘We love you, son, no matter what, you are our son and we love you,'” Schaefer said. “We felt terrible and we expressed that to him. It was a horrible feeling to know all this was going on and we couldn’t be there for him. So we really affirmed him and said things like, ‘Obviously, you didn’t choose this for yourself. You prayed to be different. You didn’t want to be homosexual.’ So we told him, ‘Look, if anything, this is proof that this is not a choice. You did not choose this. You need to learn to accept yourself for who you are. God has created you the way you are. You are created in the image of God just like everyone else.'”
Fast-forward six years.
“Tim met Bobby and he got engaged,” said Schaefer. “He asked me later that year if I were willing to do the wedding for him. Without hesitation, I said, ‘Absolutely, son.’ I really meant it. It was an honor for me to be asked by him.”
Schaefer made the decision knowing full well it was against UM church policy.
“I did wrestle with it,” he confessed. “Not with the decision, but after I said yes I really thought at that time I was going to lose my job.”
Schaefer chose to be honest. He wrote to his bishop and district superintendent and told them what he planned to do. And nothing happened – until last year.
“One of my members found out about the wedding somehow and filed a complaint,” Schaefer said.
Soon after, he found himself facing a church trial.
“I tried to defend myself by saying this is not right,” said Schaefer. “The fact is we do allow [gays] to come to church, to become members and to even become active members. But we do not allow them to get married or become ministers in our church. And I said that’s treating people like second-class Christians.”
As his trial came to a close, Schaefer was direct.
“I cannot go back to being a silent supporter,” he said in his closing statement. “I must continue to be in ministry with all people and speak for LGBT people. Members of the jury, before you decide my penalty, you need to know that I wear this rainbow stole as a visible sign that this is who I am called to be.”
It was a bold move.
“I took a stand at my trial and it basically cost me my job and my career,” he said. “I was defrocked on December 19, 2013.”
What Schaefer didn’t know at the time was that God had a plan for him. The following day he received a call from a bishop in another district, offering him a position there.
“Another thing that happened was I got phone calls from all across the country, mostly UM churches and a few other denominations as well, inviting me to speak and to preach and to share my story,” Schaefer said. “So I’ve been busier than ever before in my life.”
It’s clear to Schaefer now how God’s hand was at work even as he thought he was losing it all.
“It’s just amazing how God sort of confirmed my call even though the church took my credentials away,” he said. “Now I’m involved in a ministry that is so much more powerful, and so much more far-reaching, that what I ever had in my little country church. I’m reaching thousands of people now. It’s just incredible how things that people meant for harm, God turned around and turned into a beautiful moment of healing for so many across the nation.”
The Pennsylvania United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer made national news when he was defrocked in December for performing the 2007 same-sex wedding of his eldest son. The United Methodist Book of Discipline expressly forbids such unions, maintaining that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Ministers are barred from blessing same-sex unions.
Schaefer’s situation was difficult, and the denomination offered a reprieve of sorts. However avoiding punishment was contingent on his agreement to not officiate any further same-sex ceremonies. Schaefer flatly refused, noting three of his four children are gay.
In a statement released through the Reconciling Ministries Network, Schaefer expressed difficulty in following the Book of Discipline’s “competing and contradictory statements.” “Frankly, my conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire Discipline,” Schaefer said, “because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters. It denies them their full humanity.”
But Schaefer wants people to remain in the church. “My message is an appeal to all LGBT members, as well as their friends and supporters, to remain in the United Methodist Church because we’re taking our church back … We’re at a tipping point, and we can work for changes,” Schaefer said.
Documentary In The Making
A successful Kickstarter campaign has raised enough money to begin production on a documenatary “An Act of Love – The Story of Rev. Frank Schaefer,” that will be directed, edited and produced by Scott Sheppard, who was raised the son of a small-town United Methodist pastor in Michigan. He has a bachelor’s degree in film and video production from Grand Valley State University and currently resides in Los Angeles. The documentary is projected to take approximately 18 months. You can help in the film’s creation by donating http://www.anactoflovefilm.com.