The Rev. Sylvia Pennington was an early pioneer in the Christian GLBT community as an ordained heterosexual woman sharing God’s all-inclusive love with "whosoevers" all over the world.
Sylvia began life in a Scottish Orthodox Jewish family with two older sisters who were very much a part of her life and ministry. She married and had a son. When her husband took his own life, she was left alone with her son. Her sisters and mom had moved to California.
She began her journey with Jesus through an encounter with the Holy Spirit at a church in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas on her way to California. This relationship with Jesus began in the early 1960s and led her to an Assemblies of God church in Los Angeles. There she heard about a ministry to homosexuals in San Francisco. Sylvia and her friend Ruth felt they were called to go “change” the gays to be straight. However, she was torn because she really loved Jesus but was also falling in love with Harry Pennington. Deciding she had to put some distance between herself and Harry, Sylvia went with Ruth to San Francisco to Glad Tidings Church. There they brought a lot of gay/lesbian people to church.
Harry followed them to San Francisco and Sylvia and Harry were married. After three months there, they went back home to the Los Angeles area. Later, while on another trip to San Francisco, Sylvia noticed that none of the "former gays" were still in the church. She was concerned and decided to go to their homes and look them up. She listened to peoples' stories and heard that they had tried to be what the church wanted them to be, but that they hadn’t “changed.” Sylvia began to see that being gay wasn’t any different than being heterosexual, one just loved someone of the same gender. She went back home to Los Angeles to think this over.
Syvia’s friend Ruth wrote the foreward to But Lord, They’re Gay and said this about Sylvia: “There are a great many that can say they have come to know God in a deeper way through His love manifest in her.”
A gay man, Bob, that Sylvia had met in San Francisco called and wanted to stay with her on his trip to Los Angeles. He invited her to the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Covering herself with much prayer, she went to the church and was surprised to find God’s gay/lesbian/transgender people there loving God and moved by the Holy Spirit. She asked and questioned: "God, how could this be?"
Syvia knew what she had witnessed that night and from there began what she described as her "changing years" that eventually led her to pastor in MCCs and to minister all over the U.S. and Canada: preaching, counseling, leading workshops, writing three books, and always sharing God’s all-inclusive love with everyone.
The Rev. Sylvia Pennington became an ordained heterosexual minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. After her license was not renewed, the church she was pastoring withdrew from the Fellowship and she continued pastoring for a time with Lambda Christian Fellowship in Hawthorne, California. She continued ministry under the name of Lambda Christian Fellowship until her untimely death.
Sylvia’s first book, But Lord, They’re Gay is both her story and the story of five Christian gay/lesbian people telling their stories about growing up Christian and gay/lesbian. The second book was a response to the growing biblical attacks against gay people in 1985 and was one of the first books written about the scriptural passages used to condemn GLBT peoples, Good News For Modern Gays: A Pro-Gay Biblical Approach. Then in 1989, she published her last book, Ex-Gays: There Are None!, from interviews she had done with more than a dozen people over the years, learning that many had tried not to be GLBT by going through change ministries, marriage, careers, ministry and other ways only to find that they are still God’s GLBT daughters and sons.
Sylvia received hundreds of letters from people all over the world and replied to everyone of them. She often called people after receiving a letter and the other person would begin crying in unbelief that she would reach out this way and care about them. Sylvia gave herself fully in ministry, counseling people into the wee hours of the morning and then getting up and starting over the next day. She was the most gifted, incredible saint I have known.
I was blessed to meet Sylvia in January, 1984, and traveled across the country ministering with her in 1989, right after we finished her last book. Sylvia died young at 60 on April 13, 1991, due to complications from congestive heart failure and diabetes. Unfortunately, I’ve been informed that her books are no longer in print.
(This biographical statement written by the Rev. Richard L. Dalton, pastor of MCC of the Sierras in Reno, Nevada, USA.)
Biography Date: June, 2005
Evangelical | Ally | Author/editor | Conversion Therapy | Pennington, Sylvia
“Sylvia saved my life. I was married with a young family living in rural Montana. I didn't know a good person could be genetically gay. I thought I had a mental illness or demons. No one could help me, and I was worn out, exhausted from the struggle. Sylvia came to Billings, about 80 miles away. I don't remember the exact year, but it was in the last years of her life. She somehow rounded up names of people who had attended gay events. I was so broke and financially broken that I had to hitchhike to see her, sometimes in rainstorms. I met with her several times. She told me that God loved me and saved my life. I had no money when others ordered catered sandwiches. I could not get the owner of the house to respond to my request for even a heel off a loaf of bread. I had nothing to eat all day. Sylvia shared her sandwich with me. My story is too long to tell tonight. I am amazed that anyone would travel around Montana where there was no one to affirm us, and stand up to all the religious opposition, and spend her own money to reach someone like me. I am still a coward about showing my identity in my small redneck town, but she did not care how many people condemned her. She challenges me to be the same. I never believed in the concept of saints, but I truly think Sylvia is a saint. Sometimes I talk to her in heaven and thank her for rescuing me, just in case she can hear. I have had a happy productive life. I have gone on to save tens of thousands of lives with my agricultural programs, so God had a reason for designing me. All those people would be dead if Sylvia hadn't saved me. ”
– as remembered by Dave on April 2, 2012
“In 1986 I was in the eighth year of a hiatus I had taken during which I did not affiliate with any organized church body. I met a pastor who just moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to start a new church for the gay community that would be apart from the MCC "franchise." To kick the church off, Pastor Allen had an ordination ceremony at which Rev. Sylvia presided. I can still remember her sermon, which used the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son for its basis; I felt like Rev. Pennington was preaching that sermon specifically for me. After the ceremony I talked with Rev. Pennington for twenty/thirty minutes. At the end of our discussion, Rev. Sylvia took a copy of But Lord They're Gay and Good News for Modern Gays, wrote a dedication to me in each and signed each. I promptly read both books and when her third book came out, I got it and read it also. Because of Rev. Pennington I got back active, first with this new church, a liberal RLDS community church, and finally a local Episcopalian church, all as an openly gay man. As of a year and a half ago, I joined a Church of Christ/Disciples of Church church. As a result of my meeting with Rev. Pennington, my church and spiritual life has grown and my involvement has also increased. She really turned my life around and I will be forever grateful to her.”
– as remembered by Bill Garnett on February 7, 2012
“I first met Sylvia in 1982 at the first conference held by the National Gay Pentecostal Alliance. She traveled to Omaha to be with us and was a great source of inspiration and encouragement. She and I remained friends until she passed. I still use her books and her story in helping others, so her legacy lives on.”
– as remembered by William Carey on January 30, 2013
“I met Sylvia over the phone when I found her phone number in the back of her book and phoned her; it was 1988 or 1989. I was so moved and touched after over a decade long struggle with being gay and Christian and trying to be Ex Gay, and her book gave me new hope that I could finally reconcile the two. We spoke several times on the phone and then Sylvia and her assistant Rev. Richard Dalton travelled to my home in Las Vegas where they stayed for about a week. I am uncredited, but I am the one who took the photos of Rev. Sylvia Pennington and Rev. Richard Dalton that are in the back of all her books. We worked on her book "Ex Gays, There Are None," while they visited me and I helped to edit that book. Sylvia was sick during that time and she asked that we keep the air conditioner on an extremely low temperature, which was hard for the rest of us.
I had been through and graduated from the Teen Challenge program in Reheresburg, PA. I was there to not be gay, but I realized after two years of being 100% cloistered that I hadn't changed. While I was at Teen Challenge, I was aware of David Wilkerson's big crusade to save gays in San Francisco. This was the same crusade that Sylvia volunteered for as a new minister out of bible school. Her connection to Teen Challenge through its founder, David Wilkerson, made her ministry more special to me. David Wilkerson was famous for the book and movie The Cross and The Switchblade.
I have only fond thoughts of Sylvia and Richard.”
– as remembered by Gary on January 7, 2013
“I wish I'd known Sylvia when she was alive. She died a year before I came out. I've read her book, Ex-gays There Are None. I have so many questions to ask about her time in Teen Challenge in San Francisco in the 1960's and 1970's….and David Wilkerson. She would have been able to join dots that others can't. Her book has been of great help for my research though. Anyone around who can fill me in on Sylvia's life at that time I'd love to speak with them. Anthony Venn-Brown author of A Life of Unlearning.”
– as remembered by Anthony Venn-Brown on October 2, 2017
“I was one of many gay men who wrote to Sylvia to thank her for her books and her ministry who was so surprised when I got a letter back from her quickly. Not long after, we spoke on the phone and became friends quickly. We met in person and she changed my life by sharing with me James 3:17 - in answer to my question, “how do I know if that niggling feeling that God doesn’t really love and accept me for who I am is actually from God or from the ‘good church people’?”
I was honored to help raise money for her in her last year to pay medical bills and will never forget the look on her face when I came to visit her in North Hollywood (from Chicago) and dumped a shoe-box full of cash and checks I had collected from so many who loved her next to her on the bed where she lay. What a joy that was, despite her poor health.
Several hours after she died many months later, which I had heard that evening, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a phone call. I picked up the phone and SYLVIA’S voice said, “Did I wake you, Doll?” She told me the strangest thing had happened; that people were saying that she was dead, but she wasn’t - and she was counting on my to help spread that message; her message. In the morning I wasn’t sure if I had dreamt that or if it was actually something I heard on my phone… but since then, I’ve been honored to share her message with many, including just this morning.
Bless her memory - bless all those of us who loved her and were given the gift of her in our lives.”
– as remembered by David Edelfelt on October 9, 2020
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