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Erv Uecker & Ross Walker | Profile

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Biography

Erv Uecker was born in Chicago on July 2, 1932 as the only child of Erwin Uecker Sr. and Margaret Schoenheider Uecker.  His father worked at an automobile dealership and also had an interest in a savings and loan institution. The family was active in a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation.  Erv attended a public elementary school and then a Missouri Synod Lutheran high school.  As a teen Erv started asking a lot of questions about his church which he thought were not answered very well.  He studied one year at St. Olaf College and then came home and got a job at the American Can Company; he was more interested in earning money at that time. 

Erv enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1951 as the Korean War was heating up. He worked as a chaplain’s assistant; first as the administrator for the chaplain at the Naval Training Center in San Diego.  After two years he went to sea on a destroyer escort, serving on the staff of the Pacific fleet admiral and chaplain.  Erv’s experience in the Navy exposed him to many other religious traditions. 

After Erv returned to Chicago and he returned to the the American Can Company and was offered a position in a pilot management training program.  He wrestled with feeling a call to be a minister. His family had strongly discouraged him from pursuing this as they didn’t see it being a lucrative career. Erv decided that working in a funeral home might be closer to a ministry vocation, so he enrolled and graduated from Worsham School of Mortuary Science. He served an apprenticeship at a Jewish funeral home on the South Side of Chicago, eventually becoming the general manager. He learned a lot about Judaism and integrated it into his Judeo-Christian framework and it became a significant element in his theological development. 

During this time, Erv meet Ross Walker through a mutual friend whom they had both dated a bit. They become good friends and after five months they entered into a committed relationship and moved in together. Erv and Ross mark November 30, 1957 as the beginning of their life together.

Ross Walker was born in Chicago in 1938 into a large and loving extended family, the middle child of three. He grew up in a two-flat with a small basement apartment that was filled with relatives.The family traces its roots to Minnesota. Ross’ grandfather had died years before at around age 45 after which Ross’ father and one brother came to Chicago to find work.  They decided that they were not employable because their last name was Gaetzke, so they changed their name to their mother’s maiden name, Walker.     

Ross’ father and mother were active members and leaders in a Presbyterian Church. The rest of his mother’s family was Roman Catholic, so Ross spent time in both traditions.  He graduated from Austin High School in Chicago 1956 and got a job with Standard Oil downtown on Michigan Avenue.  Soon thereafter he met and fell in love with Erv.  Erv’s father offered Ross a job as a teller at his savings and loan.  Ross had come to his same sex attraction in his early teen years, while Erv slowly came to that awareness later and began to admit to it while in the U.S. Navy.

While being part of a church community was important for both Erv & Ross, the closed Communion policy of the Missouri Synod Church was increasingly problematic, as they truly believed that the Lord's Table should be open to all. They affiliated with a Lutheran Church of America congregation in Chicago, learning after they joined that the pastor and his same sex partner were living in the church owned parsonage a few blocks from the church.

Ross was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961. After basic training in Missouri, he did three months training to be a chaplain’s assistant at Fort Ord in California and then returned to the Chicago area where he was assigned to 5th Army Headquarters in Hyde Park, completing his two year service obligation there. Ross and Erv were able to continue living together in their apartment about a mile and a half away.

Erv was still feeling the pull to be a minister so he went back to school, earning a bachelors degree in scholastic philosophy from Loyola University in 1966. He then enrolled in the Lutheran Church in America seminary in Maywood, Illinois. After that first year, he moved with the rest of the students and faculty to the newly-formed Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in Hyde Park, the merger of four area Lutheran seminaries. Ross was also feeling pulled into a career change so enrolled in Chicago State University to get an education degree. They were both working and studying full-time—while still living together—during this period. 

Erv graduated from LSTC in 1969, was ordained that June and called to be an associate pastor at Wilmette Lutheran Church in a northern suburb. The anti-Vietnam War movement was growing during this time; Erv and Ross both became militant antiwar activists, participating in Clergy & Laity Against Vietnam and participating in demonstrations at nearby Northwestern University. The Wilmette congregation was conservative politically and was not pleased with Erv’s activism.  Erv recalls being part of an alternative Memorial Day commemoration in Wilmette Square where names of the United States service dead were read and having members of his congregation literally throw stones at him. 

Given the reality that being publicly gay would close out vocational options for both Erv and Ross, they decided to live their life together in public with integrity, while not labeling themselves as a gay couple. They would not be “out,” but neither would they lie about who they were.  They succeeded in walking this delicate line for many years.

Ross graduated with his education degree and went to work as a special education teacher, first at a private school in Gage Park and then in the Chicago Public School system. Special education was newly mandated in all schools by the state at this time, so teachers like Ross were in great demand. Ross taught in many different areas of special education, from preschool through high school.  He taught exceptional and gifted children as well as those with learning disabilities. Ross also initiated and wrote the first environmental education curricula for the Chicago Public School System. In 1975, Ross was nominated by parents and staff at his school as Illinois Teacher of the Year and received that award at a ceremony in Springfield. 

Seeing that the Wilmette congregation was not a good match for Erv, his friend and colleague Jerry Johnson who was Synod president suggested two other congregations in the Chicago area where he might serve. Erv chose St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. St. Luke’s was a blue-collar congregation that was changing into a community-based church under the leadership of its previous pastor. 

When Erv was first meeting with St. Luke’s leaders and given a tour of the parsonage next door, he told them that he would have to bring his friend who would be living with him to see and approve the living quarters. Since Ross was a fine cook and enjoyed working in the kitchen, he requested updates in kitchen equipment before they moved in. 

Erv served as St. Luke’s pastor for ten years ending on Christmas Day 1979. The congregation thrived through this period as it became an even larger community congregation, hosting and sponsoring around 60 different programs involving many persons from the community. The building was in use from early morning to late at night with meals served to 200 senior citizens daily, a preschool, youth groups, drama groups, a counseling center and more. Ross participated fully in the life and leadership of the congregation. He was elected to the Church Council their second year there (which was atypical since Council members had always been long-time members) and served on the Council throughout the rest of their time there. 

While not publicly identified as such, Erv and Ross were fully accepted as a couple at St. Luke’s. After some time, even the married couples’ group invited them both to socialize with them. The only time an issue arose around sexual orientation was when a group holding a lesbian and gay dance asked to use the church. The Council did not approve this request. Erv called them to task, pointing out that almost every other group of persons were using the building. The Council reversed its decision and allowed the dance.

Another of Erv’s innovations at St. Luke’s was to develop an ecumenical staff, so that the persons who worked there came from several different Christian traditions. This action brought resistance from the ELCA Synod leaders who wanted to strengthen their denominational identity there. This displeasure from Synod leaders, combined with Erv’s mother’s failing health, Ross’ feeling that teaching was becoming more paperwork and less time with students, and Erv’s fatigue after intense years of ministry lead them to decide to move to Wisconsin in 1980 to run the horse farm they had acquired earlier.  Erv was also commuting to Chicago to serve as President of his father’s savings and loan.    

In 1983, Erv and Ross decided to move to Milwaukee and sell the horse farm which was becoming too much hard labor. They got involved in the LGBT community there first through the BESTD Clinic, which had been founded in 1974 as a volunteer-run, free health clinic, specializing in STD testing and treatment. Ross served as president for eleven years, through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis; Erv was and continues to be treasurer for more than 30 years. The clinic has continued as an all-volunteer enterprise up to the present. Erv and Ross also played a significant role in the development of the Milwaukee LGBT Center.

Erv served as pastor of a community church for about six years, seeing it through a major redevelopment and remodeling project.  He retired from there due to burnout from all the ministry work. Together they participated in The Village Church, an ELCA congregation in downtown Milwaukee for a few years. But in their advancing years, Erv and Ross found themselves tiring of the political entanglements of congregational life. 

Erv and Ross attended a funeral in a United Church of Christ congregation in a nearby town and found it appealing, primarily due to the dynamic and loving minister. They began attending this thriving and growing congregation where Erv became a supportive pastoral friend to the pastor. When same-sex marriage finally became the law in Wisconsin in 2014, Erv and Ross decided to get married on their 57th anniversary, November 30, 2014.  After the pastor joyfully announced the wedding to the congregation, 250-300 persons came for a grand celebration of Erv and Ross’ life together. 

Erv and Ross moved into a retirement community five years ago.Erv coordinates the arrangements for clergy to come in to lead worship there, preaching and leading worship several times a month. To their knowledge they are the first male same-sex couple living in the denominationally-sponsored facility.

(This biographical profile written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Erv Uecker and Ross Walker and edited by Erv and Ross. Picture shows Ross on the left and Erv to right)

Biography Date: December, 2015

Additional Resources

Erv and Ross shared memories of their decade at St. Luke's in Chicago in this letter:
https://stlukesls.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/a-letter-from-the-rev-erv-uecker/

This information about Erv and Ross was published in the History of Gay & Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
http://lgbtran.org/exhibits/profiles/Erv Uecker and Ross Walker.pdf

Tags

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) | Clergy Activist

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