The Rev. Esther Hargis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1947, the daughter of two teachers and the oldest of four children. She grew up attending Lyndon Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Louisville, and her upbringing there influenced her greatly. She gained a great fondness for the Scripture, and a strong belief in Scripture's ability to be a conduit through which God speaks. However, unlike her family she did not think that the Scripture always spoke literally. Another important formative influence of her Southern Baptist upbringing was the importance of talking to people about faith. Her pastor when she was growing up was not communicative, but she grew up watching and listening to preaching like that of Bishop Fulton Sheen. These encouraged her to think of Scripture as a set of stories we can relate to, rather than as a simple dry text. In her mind, one had to make Scripture make sense to people for it to be important.
Another thing that she learned while at her church was the importance of action. When she was around 13, her church was in the middle of constructing a new building. Like most Baptist churches at the time, it was planned to simply have a steeple without a cross, with which the young Esther disagreed. She thought that a cross was an important part of the church. One day, when no one was around, she decided to draw a cross on the diagram of the plans in the hallway. When the church finished its construction, the steeple included its own cross. Esther remembered this, since it taught her that if one wants something done, one has to act upon it.
In this environment, there was no speaking about LGBT people at all, she recalls that discussing things like that would have been completely beyond the scope of Southern Baptist conversation. It was only in high school that Esther began to hear about LGBT people, although she still had yet to know any out LGBT people. Even as she began attending Georgetown College in 1965, she remained unaware of LGBT communities.
It was the church that she attended in her undergraduate school, Faith Baptist Church, that provoked her interest in social justice. It was there that Esther began to feel that religion had a responsibility to be active in the larger world. It couldn't just be concerned with individual personal piety. She felt lucky to have found a church with this emphasis, since it was an unusual focus for a Baptist church to have at the time in the South. The church was willing to respond to the growing climate of calls for change that were rising all over the country. She grew to see Martin Luther King Jr. as a ministerial role model, with his assassination making a large impact on her. After the later assassination of Robert Kennedy, she began to become disillusioned with the state of the U.S., and what it meant to be patriotic.
It was in her senior year of undergraduate college that Esther began to feel a call to ministry. She began to question what God wanted her to do with her life; she had previously been unsure what degree she wanted, eventually settling on psychology. After a retreat in her senior year though, she felt the call to ministry and the overwhelming feeling that God would love her no matter what. This religious experience strengthened her drive to enter into God's service, even with the barrier of being a woman. She didn't know any women who were ordained, and at first did not even conceive of becoming ordained.
She entered Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in January of 1970, originally planning on entering campus ministry. It was with the encouragement of two women at her school that she decided late in her seminary training to pursue ordination. The process in the Southern Baptist Church she was at was a local one: the individual church would vote whether she should be a pastor or not. Esther was worried that her home church would ordain her based upon her family’s long history of attendance rather than on her individual merits. She was unanimously voted to become a pastor, which meant that she became the first woman to be a Southern Baptist minister in Kentucky. Her first job away from her home parish was under the direction of the Southern Baptist Mission Board. They sent her to Massachusetts in order to found new parishes. Although many ministers before had not been able to do so, when Esther was unable to found a church, it was blamed on her being a woman. After a year, Esther left the board and started to look for a parish to minister to, holding odd jobs in the meantime.
It was in between parishes that she moved to San Francisco in 1974, working as a secretary at IKG Industries. She also started to look at churches in the American Baptist Church rather than her Southern Baptist roots. She felt the American Baptist Church was more ecumenical and social justice oriented, while still being Baptist. It was at the First Baptist Church of Oakland that she was able to find a place for her ministry, starting there in 1974. At First Baptist Oakland, she met Martha Olney, with whom she would begin a relationship. Five years later, she became an associate pastor at Lakeshore Baptist Church. While she was a pastor at Lakeshore, she began to understand herself as a lesbian. It was a long and difficult process: she took over three years wrestling with it before she could even admit it to herself. That inward difficulty didn't stop her from being involved with the Bay Area LGBT community. She was involved with the Pride Parade march and the community that she found within Oakland allowed for her to overcome all the stereotypes that she had been taught about LGBT people.
When her wife Martha received a professor position at University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1985, Esther took a job as a campus minister there. Although LGBT people were not interested in campus ministry, she wanted to be involved in supporting the LGBT community. When other ministers would stir up controversy or ire against LGBT students, Esther made sure to provide a voice in public that supported and protected students, including public rallies. These actions made her feel like she was doing something of value for her community.
In 1990, Esther became the pastor at First Baptist Church in Berkeley, where she would spend the next 14 years in her ministry. At the time that she joined the First Baptist Church, there was a organization forming called the “Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.” After its creation, Esther was voted to become one of its initial council members in 1993. This organization would soon raise controversy among more conservative churches in the American Baptist Church of the West, and Esther spent a great deal of time defending her church and that organization.
As the controversy built, Esther eventually decided to be public with her sexual orientation. Although some advised her against this and she was anxious over being one of the figureheads in the controversy, she publicly announced her sexuality. In 1995, the American Baptist Church of the West voted to 'disfellowship' four churches including the First Baptist Church of Berkeley because of their attitudes towards LGBT people. Upon appealing to the national church in 1999 it was decided that they could be disfellowshipped from their region, but could remain in the national denomination if they found another region to belong to. Esther considered this a betrayal of the Baptist concept of polity, but the church was able to find another region to join. After they were disfellowshipped, Esther also made sure that the churches would table at conventions in the American Baptist Church of the West so that they could raise awareness.
In 2004, Esther left First Baptist in Berkeley to take a year off. She spent a brief amount of time as a chaplain at a retirement community before moving with her wife and son to Albany, New York, where she has retired and volunteers locally.
(This biographical statement from phone interview of Esther Hargis by Joel Layton)
Biography Date: March, 2012