Elmhurst University celebrates the legacy of 1968 alumnus the Rev. William R. Johnson, the first openly gay person to be ordained by a mainline Christian denomination, with two events this month.
Coinciding with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, the Elmhurst University Chaplain’s Office and the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ are partnering to sponsor “Out and Faithful: A Multifaith Celebration of Queer Spirituality and a Call to Advocacy.”
The event, set for 7 p.m. Oct. 11 in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, 190 Prospect Ave., will honor the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s ordination in 1972 by the United Church of Christ with music, a panel of speakers reflecting on spirituality and human sexuality and a call to advocacy.
“We’re building around this historical moment to connect faith and religion and spirituality with queer identity,” said H. Scott Matheney, Elmhurst University chaplain and a Presbyterian/United Church of Christ minister. “But this isn’t just for LGBTQ+. It’s for everyone, regardless of where you are in the landscape of gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Those slated to speak at the Out and Faithful event include Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky from Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard; the Rev. Marilyn Pagan-Banks, senior pastor at San Lucas UCC in Chicago; the Rev. Pamela Lightsey, academic dean at Meadville Lombard Seminary in Chicago; the Rev. Eddie Journey, executive minister of Second Baptist Church in Evanston; and the Rev. Shawna Bowman, pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
Matheney said Elmhurst, a UCC-affiliated university, has made great strides in equality. About a decade ago, the school was one of the first in the country to ask students directly on admissions applications about their gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Certainly, that’s one of the great stories about a university and community trying to be more faithful, more open and more honest,” Matheney said. “There’s been immense growth. Are we where we need to be? No. We know there have been gays in our lives since creation, but we’ve not been honest about it. I think these attempts, both the events this month and in general, help provide an environment that allows somebody to wrestle with sexual orientation questions honestly and openly.”
The Rev. Sarah Lohrbach, a 2009 Elmhurst graduate, continues to help spearhead National Coming Out Day initiatives for her alma mater.
“I was actually a part of doing this back when I was still a student and it’s been such a joy getting to do this again,” Lohrbach said.
While at the university, she was actively involved in and eventually served as co-president of the queer student group, which at that time was called SAGE (Straights and Gays for Equality). The group is now known as Queer Straight Alliance (QSA).
“I was also the Cultural Life Committee Chair for Union Board and brought the first-ever transgender speaker to campus for National Coming Out Day while I was in that role,” said Lohrbach, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theological studies and Christian ministries.
This most recent NCOD initiative was sparked at a spring luncheon held by Matheney, she said. Attendees, which included individuals from local UCC churches, university faculty and staff, alums and even a student, were brainstorming ways to restrengthen the Elmhurst/United Church of Christ connection, which Lohrbach said has dwindled over the years.
“One of the themes we kept coming back to regarding where our organizational values intersect was LGBTQ+ inclusion,” she said. “A suggestion I made that day was to have the Illinois Conference UCC and Elmhurst host a joint pride celebration. That then led to further conversations between Scott, me and the Illinois Conference Minister, Rev. Molly Carlson. Those conversations gave birth to the joint NCOD event we titled ‘Out and Faithful.’”
The coordinators also found a great tie-in to the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Johnson.
“Fifty years in relation to the 2,000-plus years Christianity has been around seems like the tiniest drop in a bucket, but it is by no means a small thing,” Lohrbach said.
She said the event will be both a multi-faith celebration of LGBTQ+ spirituality and a reminder of the vital work that still needs to be done, especially within religious communities, to continue to expand the welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people.
“We have come a long way from where we were 50 years ago … even 15 years ago when I was still in my early stages of coming out as a lesbian,” she said. “But our work is far from over and is desperately needed as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation continues to show up across the country.”
Additionally, the university will host the William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture, an annual forum that explores the issues and stories of the LGBTQIA+ community, at 4 p.m. Oct. 19 in the Frick Center Founders Lounge, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst. Admission is free and all are welcome.
This year’s Johnson lecture, “From Stonewall to the White House: Media as a Weapon for Change,” will be presented by journalist, author and activist Mark Segal.
A participant in the Stonewall Riots in 1969, Segal went on to found the Philadelphia Gay News and is the author of the memoir “And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality.”
Matheney hopes both events garner large turnouts.
“I always want young people to come to these lectures and events because I want them to be able to experience and think and be challenged. And I, of course, want those from all religious communities to come and wrestle with the big questions. And I want alums to come and be proud of their institution and look at what Elmhurst is trying to do,” Matheney said.