Mitzi Henderson was raised in the Presbyterian Church, the child of parents who were devout religious leaders and activists for social justice. Married immediately after college, she was the mother of four young children during the turbulent sixties, and what volunteer hours she had were devoted to school and church involvements. When her family moved from California to southern Minnesota in 1971, she began work with the League of Women Voters, ecumenical campus ministries, as well as presbytery and synod committees. In 1978, the Presbyterian Church adopted a position of opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. Later that year, one of her college-age sons came out to the family as a gay man.
The family immediately went into the closet for several years, knowing the position of the church and fearful of the reactions of friends, colleagues and their church family. Mitzi and her husband Tom, a construction and business executive, studied, prayed and learned all they could about homosexuality, the Bible’s teachings, professional scientific and psychological understandings, and their own son’s life. The extended family included 15 adults, five of them elders. All of them eventually approached their pastors for counsel, and all were given sympathy, but no pastoral care or assistance.
Upon returning to California, Mitzi and Tom found and joined a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). It was a revelation. “They were all so normal, just regular families like ours.” Mitzi realized that fear was keeping them silent. “During the ‘60s, I had four little children, and though I walked my stroller in civil rights demonstrations, I couldn’t go to Alabama to join the active workers there. I strongly supported the Vietnam anti-war movement, but others were more knowledgeable and more eloquent than I. But when the debates got hot over gay and lesbian persons in the church, I knew much more, intellectually and personally than those who, especially in the church, were attacking gay people as sinful and unacceptable.”
In 1984, Mitzi joined a presbytery committee to help congregations begin to study homosexuality as a pastoral care issue. “It was an exercise in futility. No one dared do it - it was simply too hot an issue.” Because churches were unable or unwilling to provide pastoral care, she put her efforts into PFLAG, and founded a chapter in nearby San Jose. “It was a place where I saw transformation happening. Fear and distress were turned into joy and family wholeness.” She became an active leader at the local and regional level. This led to her membership on the national board, and from 1992-96 she served as national president of PFLAG. In these years PFLAG became a national membership organization, and an active advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. She continues her PFLAG involvement to this day, especially in the movement for equality through same-sex marriage.
It shocked Mitzi to learn from her son and his friends that most in the gay community viewed the church as “the enemy” and not the bearers of God’s grace. When she came out as a parent at a Presbytery meeting in 1984, her local congregation began a study, which culminated in becoming a More Light Church in 1986. In 1989, she headed the national committee to form the More Light Churches Network (MLCN), a group of Presbyterian congregations who oppose the ban on ordination. She served on the board of MLCN for three years. In 1997, she became co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a merger of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns and MLCN. More Light Presbyterians continues the work of advocacy within the church by assisting local congregations, providing resources, conferences and organizing leadership for progressive activity to open the church to full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
“When our son came out, it felt like a great weight, but it has become a wonderful gift. We have deepened our faith and our knowledge, we have met and worked with wonderful people, and we have experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of so many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and congregations.”
Mitzi has served as a trustee of McCormick Theological Seminary and serves on the Advisory Committee of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion and the Session of her local Presbyterian Church.
(This biographical statement provided by Mitzi Henderson.)
Biography Date: September, 2004
This video was shown at a 2019 reception honoring Mitzi Henderson at the Pacific School of Religion. The video clips were provided courtesy of PFLAG.
PFLAG is the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies. With over 400 chapters and 200,000 members and supporters crossing multiple generations of families in major urban centers, small cities, and rural areas across America, PFLAG is committed to creating a world where diversity is celebrated and all people are respected, valued, and affirmed. To learn more, visit pflag.org, like us on Facebook (/pflag), or follow us on Twitter (@pflag) or Instagram.
Presbyterian Church (USA) | More Light Presbyterians (formerly Presbyterians for LGBT Concerns) | Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA) | PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) | Activist (religious institutions) | Ally