By Jonathan Farrell —
In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride, Rev. Nicole Trotter, pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sonoma, welcomed Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr to speak at a recent Sunday service.
Almost 50 years ago, in 1974, Spahr was among the first women to be ordained as a minister among the mainstream Christian denominations. She began her ministry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and soon transferred to California. It was while Spahr was serving as Executive Director of Oakland Council of Presbyterian Churches that she became the first woman minister to publicly come out as a lesbian.
This caused tremendous controversy within the Presbyterian Church, some referring to her lovingly as a “lesbyterian.”
Demands for her resignation ensued and Spahr then began her “liberation work” for the LGBTQ+ community. In 1980, Spahr became the Minister of Pastoral Care at Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco’s Castro District.
Turning the homily into a conversation, Rev. Trotter sat with Spahr in front of the altar and asked her questions. “As I came out and traveled around the country with this new ‘liberation work,’” said Spahr. “I realized how many in our community were isolated and needed so much support.”
Spahr admitted the criticism and rejection were horrific, but “God’s love, the source of goodness from within, a higher power if one wishes to call it that, was ever-present.”
How, Rev. Trotter asked, in the face of all that hatred, did she not get discouraged? “After the grief,” Spahr said, “there’s a transformation. Even at the most difficult moments, wonderful people are there doing the work with you.”
Spahr worked to maintain that sense of humanity. “Coming to know us in your family and as your friends makes the difference. Telling our stories is so important to open people’s hearts and minds.”
Being open and out allowed people to recognize something of themselves. And while many condemned and vilified Spahr, she noted the many who stepped forward. Especially her then husband and her two sons, whose foundational support inspires her every day.
As her work with MCC in San Francisco grew, Spahr founded the Ministry of Light which became the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns. She served as executive director for over 10 years. From youth groups, parent groups, PFLAG, support groups, family camps, AIDS Ministry, speakers bureau, this ministry has become the L/G/B/T/Q Center in Marin County where it has continued to flourish for over 41 years.
In 2015, Marin AIDS Project and Spectrum Center For LGBTQ concerns combined to be called the Spahr Center, in her honor.
“This is the job we have to do, to help people become who they truly are,” Spahr told the congregation. “To move from judgment to acceptance and joy is to change not only hearts and minds but we must change structural and institutional oppressive systems.”
Spahr was a pioneer, helping to establish and spearhead services and outreach that had not existed before. Acknowledging how much has changed since those groundbreaking days, the “liberation work” is ongoing, especially now with so much legislation aimed at transgender people.
As ultra-conservative groups and forces seek to undermine the continued progress for the LGBTQ+ community, Spahr believes the call to love one another will prevail. “With a higher power feeding us, we can do this!”