Mary Elyn Bahlert was born in 1949 and grew up in an unchurched family in Wisconsin. Her family was politically active; her father was in the labor union movement. She was taught from a young age that she should be working for the liberation of people. When she heard negative preaching on gay and lesbian people that happened in churches in her area she felt like it did not resonate with what she saw in the Gospels. She had family members who were gay and had been raised to not have negative feelings against LGBT people, so the anti-LGBT interpretation of the Bible was too narrow for her. She was not involved in any church at the time and this preaching pushed her further from any involvement.
When she was 20 years old, Mary Elyn began to feel a call to ministry. She observed that ordained clergy had been active participants and leaders in the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. These ministers became examples for Mary Elyn, in particular, Father James Groppi. Their declaration that the world could not go on the way it was--that the status quo was unjust--touched her deeply. She felt called to act like those ministers that were working for liberation and equality. This began her spiritual journey to find where she could become a clergy since she did not belong to a church at the time. Her search led her to the United Methodist Church, which was well known historically for its social justice work, and also to Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community, which was progressive but came from an evangelical base.
A year after her decision to become United Methodist, Mary Elyn moved to California to study at the Pacific School of Religion. Her years there were a process of learning about people who were different from herself and the people she had been around all her life. Her time at seminary strengthened her distaste for the way that Christianity had been used as a source of condemnation and increased her awareness that the Church is meant to be a way of helping others. After receiving her Masters of Divinity degree in 1984, Mary Elyn knew that she wanted to stay within the Bay Area of California. She began her ministry as an associate pastor at First United Methodist in downtown San Jose from 1984 until 1988. After that she served as the pastor of Lynnwood United Methodist Church in Pleasanton. Thereafter she was at Tracey First United Methodist and Aldersgate United Methodist before being appointed to the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland in 1998.
Some of the congregations that she had served had active LGBT members and Lake Merritt was no exception. The congregation had come to a place of wide acceptance of LGBT people by learning to respect all members as fellow Christians even if they disagreed upon that issue. After starting her ministry at Lake Merritt, she performed marriage unions for gay and lesbian couples. Although the larger church turned a blind eye to her presiding over marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian people, she realized that she could always be challenged for this. However, she has experienced that the perspective from the larger church has been one of “don't ask, don't tell.”
Mary Elyn's preaching often focuses on the importance of knowing one's own relationship to God. The tendency for Christians to focus on another person as a 'sinner' is not her idea of the Gospel message. That tendency is what has been harmful to LGBT people. Although in many cases evangelical churches are seen as opposed to acceptance of LGBT people, Mary Elyn sees her evangelical background as helpful for her acceptance. Mary Elyn believes that we are called into a relationship with Jesus that is not about exterior rules and other things. It is about loving people, not trying to control the Gospel by making it a narrow set of moral precepts.
Mary Elyn and her husband Jeff were married in 1984 and live in Oakland.
(This biographical statement was written by Joel Layton from information provided by Mary Elyn Bahlert.)
Biography Date: August, 2012
United Methodist Church | Marriage Equality | California
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