Ralph Carl Wushke is a Lutheran pastor, HIV/AIDS advocate, past chaplain of the Ecumenical Chaplaincy at University of Toronto (U of T) in Canada, and founder of the Qu(e)erying Religion program at U of T. With a credit to the late Joel Workin, Wushke compares his over 40 years since ordination in the Lutheran church to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, saying that the prodigal son is the church who left and wasted its inheritance, and that he is the son who stayed. During his time, although experiencing discrimination for his sexual orientation, he never left his Lutheran faith and identity.
Wushke has always been drawn to religion. Born in 1953, his hometown is Wapella, Saskatchewan. Wushke was raised in the Lutheran church. He describes the German-Lutheran up-bringing as a “pre-modern world.” His early childhood was spent with no electricity or running water and in the winter he was taken to meet the school bus on a horse-drawn sled. At around the age of 8 or 9 years-old, Wushke started to realize that he was “different” from the other boys in his class. By the time he was 16, he was fully aware that he was gay and knew that there was no way that he could act on it or talk about it in the small town where he grew up. When he was in confirmation class, a new 26-year- old pastor from the United States arrived. It was through the impact of this pastor that Wushke realized that the church might be able to provide a path and a life for him.
From 1971 to 1974, Wushke attended Luther College at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and then moved on to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. Throughout college and seminary, his awareness of his homosexuality was becoming an issue. He realized that it might be a challenge to be a Lutheran pastor and be a gay man. He struggled with suicidal ideation and would often pray to God to change him. In 1977, while on a pastor’s retreat in Alberta, Wushke took the risk to come out of the closet to another pastor by the name of Don Johnson. Wushke recalls Johnson as being very kind and supportive and even promised to help him find resources. On November 4th, 1978, Wushke was ordained in his home congregation in Wapella. Even though he was still in the closet at the time of his ordination, everyone who had some type of leadership roll in his ordination knew that he was gay. He felt that it had more integrity for the people leading the service to know about his sexuality.
In the same year, Wushke began to serve at a parish only 60 miles from his hometown, in Redvers and Carlyle, Saskatchewan. At this time, he was still closeted and truly believed that he could hide his sexuality. However, after two or three years, he knew that he could not keep up the lie and knew that it would probably lead to neurotic behaviour to be a closeted pastor for the next four decades. Therefore, in 1984, after six years in that parish, Wushke decided to resign from that church. At the time, his leaving and not having another church to go to was considered very unusual, but he did not wish to cause controversy by coming out while at that parish.
For the next 20 years, Wushke stayed active in Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA) (now Reconciling Works) helping to spread their belief of full acceptance and inclusion of people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions in the life of the Church. Wushke was the only Canadian to serve as the co-chair of the board of directors of LC/NA (1988-90). At that time Wushke decided he wanted to be an openly gay Lutheran pastor. He decided that the reasonable approach was to ask the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) if he could be called to a parish that would know that he was gay. Wushke describes their reactions as a “reflection of the times.” The bishops were shocked, confused, naive, and did not know what to do with him. One bishop asked if he would be celibate and another confessed to “wishing that he never told him.” The bishop from Alberta wrote him to tell him that “his homosexuality was a cancer of the soul.”
In 1988, Wushke was invited to a meeting with the National Bishop, Don Sjoberg. In this meeting, it was explained to Wushke that since he had come out, the ELCIC bishops needed to have a common practice for this type of situation. A “statement of practice” was placed in front of Wushke that stated that "self-declared and practising homosexuals” could not be ordained as pastors, and those who were already ordained would not be eligible for call to a parish. In 1989, this practice (that Wushke called the Wushke Policy) was taken to the National Convention of the church and was adopted as church-wide policy. In June of that year, Wushke received a letter informing him that he was being removed from the list of pastors looking for a call. He still stayed active in the Lutheran church, despite the discrimination due to his sexual orientation.
In 1990, Wushke was diagnosed with HIV and became the Executive Director of AIDS Saskatoon. He was active in the Canadian HIV/AIDS movement until 2000, including a four-year term on the Canadian federal government’s Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS. Even with a successful career in HIV/AIDS, Wushke still wanted to be a pastor. He was able to find an LGBTQ-inclusive United Church of Canada congregation, Bathurst Street United Church, Toronto. While serving Bathurst United Church, Wushke was able to obtain his Master of Sacred Theology and become the chaplain of the Ecumenical Chaplaincy at University of Toronto (U or T). In 2005, during his time at U of T Wushke founded a program called Qu(e)erying Religion. This program is a multi-faith initiative that fosters open spaces for U of T students who are interested in exploring the rich, sometimes troubling, and often sacred intersections of gender identity, sexual orientation, faith, religion, spiritual practice, race, and culture.
When Wushke turned 65 in August of 2018, he was feeling pretty tired and decided to retire from his positions. What he did not know was that he had a very serious heart disease--a side-effect of the first generation anti-retrovirals he took in the 1990s to manage his HIV diagnosis. On April 3rd, 2019, he had open heart surgery and realized three months later that he was, in fact, not tired at all and wanted to return to the ministry. It is important to note that the “Wushke Policy” had remained in place until 2011 when the ELCIC replaced it with a policy that was more LGBTQ-friendly. In 2019, the ELCIC opted to facilitate the reinstatement of LGBTQ clergy who were forced out in the 1980’s. And almost as if fate had destined it, an opening became available at First Lutheran Church in Toronto, the oldest Lutheran congregation in the city. On January 18, 2020, with a full congregation Ralph Carl Wushke was officially reinstated and after a 30-year exile, the church came back to him, as he never left the church.
(This biographical statement written by Emily Calaman from an interview with Ralph Carl Wushke and edited by Wushke.)
Biography Date: March 2021
Wushke relates his story in this podcast with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation:
Luther College (University of Regina) posted this profile for Wushke:
The Toronto Star published this story on January 27, 2020:
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) | Clergy Activist | Ordination/clergy | AIDS | Reconciling Works (formerly Lutherans Concerned) | Toronto | Canada
“Ralph Carl Wushke | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed April 19, 2021, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/ralph-carl-wushke.