This autobiographical statement was provided by John Auer in April 2011 when he was asked to share his story and journey as one of the persons honored as a “Leading Voice” by the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in April 2001.
I am 67 years old. Julie and I retired two years ago after nearly 40 years’ of my preaching in local UM churches – Chicago, Fresno, San Rafael, Reno. I wondered, in the sense of be-wonderment, at my selection as “Leading Voice,” but the company was much too glorious and compelling to refuse!
Material facts of my origins come to mean more to me through the years. As with many stops on the Underground Railroad, and with the internationalist perspective of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, where I was born, grew into a small but mixed-racial community. I remember from childhood both a Black woman cleaning regularly in our home, and a Black man playing faculty volleyball with my father.
When we took our kids to see Oberlin 20-some years ago, we all were stunned by the raw power of a metal sculpture of train tracks bursting forth from the earth. We were proud to pass on to our kids that Oberlin was both the first racially-integrated and the first coeducational college in the country. The college continues to be known for a creative, rebellious, life-loving, truth-seeking spirit embodied in arts, culture, and public life. Still sounds good to us! Plus it was founded by the Congregational Church!
I was born into World War II and shuffled for the duration between my parents and grandparents -- St. Charles, IL, where my parents “bridged” the ethnic European and economic “sides” of the Fox River! My father had to try enlisting in the Navy three times before his once-broken, forever-shortened arm could be overlooked. In many ways both my parents’ lives were marked by staunch determination to serve.
Like her mother in the year 1903, my mother graduated from Knox College, Galesburg, IL, home of the populist poet Carl Sandburg. She went on for a Master’s in Sociology, worked at Hull House, and taught in Evanston Public Schools until they were married. My dad’s Master’s in Political Science and PhD in Speech and Public Address came from the persistently activist U. of Wisconsin!
Our folks were dedicated to raising two younger sisters and me with consciousness of public service and action. I am sure I inherited a “lifelong passion” for writing Letters to Editors at the drop of most any issue! Patron saints of our home included Jane Addams, Norman Thomas, Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson. Election Nights were holy gatherings of family and friends. International students came for Thanksgiving Dinner, and we joined in congregational distributions of Christmas Baskets.
I was baptized in the Congregational Church but do not remember much about “church” until we moved to Charlottesville and the U. of Virginia in 1952 – two years before Brown vs. Board of Education! White racial unrest, fear, reaction were everywhere in the air, and in the courts, until many public schools closed in 1959, the year after we moved to Bloomington, IN, U. of Indiana, -- from which my dad at last “retired” and where my mom lived to the end of her 96 year-old, unceasingly quick-minded life.
My folks chose the Unitarian Church in Charlottesville as the only institution/corporation besides League of Women Voters to stand openly for desegregation. Many of my peers were transferred to private schools. The example of my folks keeping us “public” served us well raising our three kids in Chicago – older two of them adopted, one African-American, one Mexican-American. Respect for and commitment to inclusive, participatory public life – even Dorothy Day’s “harsh and dreadful love” for impossible institutions – took root and grows stubbornly in us still. Julie and I married on a Saturday in 1965, graduated from college the next day, and two days later began training for two years in the Peace Corps – teaching English as Second Language in Southeastern Turkey!
A 7thgrade PE teacher directed that we all ask our parents about the word “queer” we were deploying so indiscriminately. In both high school and college I did a lot of stage-acting. I made two rich and breathless high school-age pilgrimages to Greenwich Village to see all the off-Broadway shows I could in a week. I subscribed to The Village Voice. A company member aboard a showboat owned and operated by Indiana University told me he’s sure I saved his life from a robust colleague alternately loving and hating his own sexuality and projecting that.
My father as chair of the Speech and Theater Department, had to remove the director onboard that summer under pressure from police about to reveal his alleged sexual liaison with a minor. He saw an “issue” to dispose of, where I felt a relationship to grieve. Yet in his last years, still serving as “class agent” for his year of graduating from Wabash College (a “male-only” school to this day!), my father vigorously and vocally defended a college-stage production of Angels in America – no matter what the cost in alumni donations might be! Such is “eternal” consciousness-raising.
My call to ordained ministry abruptly followed the murder of Dr. King, with the unfinished business of the Poor Peoples Campaign and Resurrection City, activist foretastes of the Beloved Community embodied by Jesus and sustained more off than on by his body the church. Though I enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, I did field placement for several years at what is now Holy Covenant UMC in Chicago – a congregation exuberant in worship, study, fellowship, prayer – and militant in pursuit of local justice and full inclusion – at one point refusing appointment of a male pastor, until at last a woman could be recruited from another conference! I am a devoted lover of congregations.
I trained with the AIDS Pastoral Care Network while serving United Church of Rogers Park UMC in a Chicago community growing rapidly with gay population. Our congregation hosted the first national gathering of Reconciling Ministries Network – an exhilarating weekend! – and plowed through a year-long process to become “Reconciling” itself. I served on the District Committee on Ordained Ministry that first approved, then (shamefully, I believe) rescinded approval of Phyllis Athey’s candidacy. Not long after, she killed herself. Helping to redeem her call in the sight of her Church grew into a daily reminder to me of who I hoped to be as an ally to the LGBT community.
I performed holy unions in Fresno and was privileged to be one of the “Sacramento 68” officiants of the service for Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, for which we were glad to appear before the Conference Committee on Investigations. A member of our congregation in San Rafael met Rev. Karen Dammann, on leave from Pacific-Northwest Conference, struggling with whether to seek appointment as an out lesbian living with partner and child. We created a “Stoles Project” vestment for her. I functioned as unofficial “point person” for public relations and clergy support of her request. She was tried and found “not guilty” of violating her orders. The San Rafael congregation publicly reaffirmed its identity as “Reconciling” and spelled out what that meant at a time Judicial Council was forbidding use of the term.
Our son Jeffery came out to us at age 20. While this only fed our fire to witness inclusiveness in the Church, it much more powerfully and humblingly invited us into a lifelong journey to honor identity and vocation, life and work, of a dearly beloved one. Twenty years later Jeffery is partnered and studying for a PhD with intent to write a history of LGBT communities in Nevada. In retirement Julie and I remain active with local PFLAG chapter and affiliate with local MCC congregation, where I have been pleased to preach several times. I am trying to write at http://www.johnnyjubilee.blogspot.com.
Here is part of the closing of my statement, “No Longer My Own,” that I provided to the United Methodist Committee on Investigations that was convened to investigate the Sacramento 68:
Finally, these complaints are not about us. They are about specific gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons touching our lives and our works; and about their families and friends; all with very real names and faces, natures and histories. They are about the larger gay community, contending with gross prejudice and abuse by those with a desperate need to be “right” about something, to “hold the line” somewhere. . . .
These complaints are not about going to trial per se. They are about changing mind and heart, word and deed, in both church and world. New occasions, still, are teaching new duties, and God is making all things new. If this happens to be an issue of human liberation, whose time, under God, has come, then the church imperils itself, its very own life and work, to deny the just claim of the issue. I consider we are, in our ways, giving the church the chance to be church, yet once again! It is the chance of the church to be true to our own better self, to rise to our own resurrection-invested self-interest in the full exercise of earthly justice and undying love!
I believe the church one day, as always, in spite of ourselves, will rejoice in all those who did what was needed, throughout our history, to help keep our own best options alive. The effect of homophobia in the church is to deny the blessings of church to persons who seek to make the very covenants of loving and lasting commitment so desperately needed in our hurtful and hurting world. The further effect of homophobia in the church is to deny the church, the Body of Christ, the Spirit-led blessings of full participation by each and all of the children of our ever-creating, new-making God.
Let the committee help us, that we not deny, even defy, ourselves such opportunity to be made more whole. Let the committee imagine all that the church might have yet to learn from those whose committed relationships have endured, precisely with so little religious sanction and, really, with no cultural support at all! Lead us to be united with all those persons whose oppression has excluded them from all-too-many of our covenants through the years. By their longsuffering, we may yet be healed!
Rev. John J. Auer III died on July 21, 2020.
Biography Date: April, 2011