Rev. Robert "Bob" Goldstein, long-time leader in Lutherans Concerned Chicago and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), presented this account of this life journey at the Proclaim Gathering in August, 2018 near Baltimore, Maryland.
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. I lived in an era just like the movie, The Imitation Game, regarding the life and suicide of the brilliant Alan Turing —which captures my era all too well. Arrested for “gross indecency,” he had a choice of two years in prison or chemical castration. He was the inventor of the first electro-mechanical computer that shortened World War II by at least two years. He chose the latter which meant ingestion of chemicals to dull his sexual drive and ended in his suicide. That was the terror of the Australian law too when I was a teen.
In 1962, I decided to go to America which was then the land of promise to try to understand this torment –using the language we didn’t have then; massive internalized homophobia. I also went because, if caught, I didn’t want to shame my family. Naively, I just wanted to understand the meaning of life. This I would understand later came as a great family sacrifice, as the mournful horns from the late-night West Texas freight trains engendered loneliness.
It was much cheaper to go by ship than fly in those days. So, I sailed away from Melbourne. One of the stops was Tahiti, a most beautiful tropical island. I befriended a French soldier. He was about my age. He showed me exciting things on the island. I will never forget our sitting together in the afterglow of the warm tropical night sky. Perhaps today he’s an old goat like me living in Paris. Things have changed for the better some 50 years later. In Chicago, I almost cry seeing young couples walking hand in hand on the streets. Oppression has been lifted. We are feeling ownership of our society.
I met my wife in seminary. I suppressed my confusing feelings. She was lovely person and brought me much peace. And an instant loving family. I had missed my family 13,000 miles away. My wife was the second woman ordained to a parish in the former Lutheran Church in America in 1972. The wounds from the old boys’ club and blockheaded comments of male parishioners never scarred her. In 1975 I was ordained, and my wife taught me how to do ministry. We were the first clergy couple –called to Immanuel, New Brunswick, New Jersey. In her 9th month of pregnancy, there she was at the altar celebrating communion. What a lovely message to the girls and boys in the congregation! I was always thrilled meeting more and more female clergy over the years. I think they changed the spirituality of the church.
In 1987, after extensive therapy, I finally began to find the real me. It was painful for the marriage and worse. Eventually I came out to my wife and we decided to separate. I was fired from our call and was placed on a very dubious leave from call by the bishop. I was sent to the “Clockwork Orange” –Lutheran Medical Center’s psychiatric unit to see if I were stable and not a pedophile. This was my only chance to stay in the ministry.
The hospital had a fine reputation. But the psych unit was a clockwork orange. It even had a nurse Ratchet who despised bad clergy and a psychiatrist who told me he still believed that homosexuality was an illness. Over two months of hell they tried to change me. They failed. Only the terrific black nurse who was the soul of compassion kept me going. In fact, in the last stages of my outpatient therapy my psychiatrist ran off with his secretary. So, one wonders who was the unstable one? Still he had to sign off my case, so over unending months my social worker convinced the powers I was no threat and no pedophile.
In 1991 I was invited back into the ministry by my friend and former New Jersey colleague Bishop Sherman Hicks now of Chicago. What anger he must have endured! Indeed, my spies at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) told me that the head for the division for ministry said, “Goldstein is precisely the kind of person we do not want in the ministry.” I took that as a badge of honor. I still felt isolated but then someone told me about Lutherans Concerned. I would spend fifteen years in Chicago parishes. Becoming involved with LC/NA and later led it in Chicago as a place of support and socializing for Lutheran LGBTQ persons.
In the 1990s, I called out any homophobic joke among fellow clergy. I was blunt, but I was honest. This style actually fostered a good relationship between Bishop Ken Olsen and then Paul Landahl of the Metro Chicago Synod with Lutherans Concerned/Chicago, --Bishop Landahl had a lesbian niece. We all developed together a series of very well attended Saturday sexuality conferences in almost every conference of the Synod. A theologian and a psychologist made morning presentations, each followed by questions. After lunch some of us told our stories and then we all broke into groups of ten to listen to each other. This helped bring Metro Chicago into a leading role on our rights in the ELCA parallel to the Sierra Pacific and Pacifica Synods.
My experience with the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, the predecessor of ELM and now Proclaim, was later in the late 1990s, when pastor Steven Sabin was both outed and fired by his bishop. In 1998 I lost a potential call to Aurora, Colorado. I had met with the Bishop in Denver and came out to him so that there would be no surprises. He was very pleased at my candor, and he wanted to put me in a large congregation that was not growing as it should. It was quite exciting because we few lesbian and gay clergy were always given small struggling congregations and not the large ones. Upon the unanimous recommendation of the call committee, I was ready to meet the congregational council.
But I was “outed” as a “pedophile” by a troublemaker in the congregation, whom I later learned had retired from the ELCA Churchwide offices. After a three-month investigation, three bishops exonerated me. The call to Aurora was destroyed, of course. One was always balancing on a knife edge with no official, only tacit, support of some fine bishops. I soon accepted a call to Immanuel, Edgewater, Chicago. It was a fun call as we broke up the cliques, freed the congregation to serve, so that it grew and grew.
Then I accepted the call to St. Francis, San Francisco, in 2005. We labored as a congregation with many others across the nation to promote the reform of the ELCA. St. Francis was kicked out of the ELCA but in their hearts had never really left. At the annual ELM retreats, I remember the emotional support we gave to many who were deeply hurt by thoughtless and vicious treatment by some of the ELCA powers. Many were in deep pain because very few candidates could get calls--and then, only if they were extraordinarily ordained by what now was the Extraordinary Candidacy Project. The photo of Joel Workin and his partner reveals the deep isolating pain we were all under in those hard times.
In 2009 the ELCA approved, in its muddled Social Statement on Human Sexuality, the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and laity, single or “palmed” in marriage. The relief from all those years of slugging struggle and lay education, hit me as if my body were full of concrete. I never felt so tired in my life and I left the celebrations and went back to the hotel and slept well into the next day. We had turned the corner. Another, in her paradoxical joy, told me she suddenly felt deeply angry at what this struggle had cost her and others. But the doors were opening. In 2010, I had the pleasure of guiding St. Francis’ return to the Sierra Pacific Synod. I was an openly gay pastor of a congregation predominantly lesbian, gay, and one dear transgender woman. It was a long way from that confused and repressed homosexual 18-year-old who left home for America to seek his fortune. And what a fortune God has given me!
Retirement came in 2011. Now, I am 74. In the gender diverse rights movement of today, there is a much more complex and exciting set of challenges for us, and especially for you in your present or future lives of ministry. I am a white male conscious to some degree of the privileges I have had and continue to enjoy. Like you, I am aware of gender oppression. I am aware of the systemic racism in our culture, in our government, and in our church. My long-time partner is black and many a time he has lain his head on my shoulder as he grieved over the racial insults and looks he has had to endure on many a day. People of color suffer in so many ways which our privilege blinds us to.
Now, I’m not freshly trained as you are on the intersections of queer faith and our multicultural struggles for justice and love. If I goof, please enlighten me. But bear in mind also that you can see much further than I into the vision of the kingdom of God on these very present and important issues you are being called to address through Word and Sacrament. How do you see further than me? Because you are standing on my shoulders and on the shoulders of my generation, just as I have been standing on the shoulders of those pioneers who suffered before me. I pray you will not forget that. I give thanks to God every time I am in your midst. You fill me with joy and deep love for you all.
Biography Date: August 2018
“Rev. Robert Goldstein | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed November 29, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/robert-goldstein.