For Homosexual Clergy, the Conflict Is Close, Personal

By Sandi Dolbee
San Diego Union Tribune [San Diego,CA]
March 11, 2004

The Rev. Donna Eubanks pastors New Creation United Church of Christ, which meets in Mission Hills. She is one of a relatively small number of openly homosexual clergy here.

Some faiths consider them sinners, telling them they need to change if they want to be fully accepted into their fold. Scripture verses condemn them, calling their lifestyle detestable and a perversion.

Yet they haven't abandoned religion. They've embraced it.

One is a rabbi in the Reform branch of Judaism. Another is a pastor in the United Church of Christ. Still another is a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

All three are homosexual.

From the ordination of an openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire to the same-sex marriage march that began in San Francisco, our society is enveloped in disagreement over this issue. It is a culture war clothed in the armor of morality and theology.

But what about the people who live this controversy every day?

Here is a look through the eyes of two women and a man - Rabbi Tamar Malino and Pastors Donna Eubanks and William Chester McCall - who are among a handful of openly homosexual religious leaders in San Diego County. For them, the debate is personal.


The Rev. Donna Eubanks remembers the first time she read Paul's writing in the New Testament against homosexuality. She was so shocked she dropped the Bible.

But since then, she's decided that the Bible has to be judged in context. "It is for me a book of inquiry and a book of very interesting pieces or concepts, if you are willing to be open to the spirit leading you," she says.

At 63, Eubanks says she's lived long enough to be convinced of God's love. "That knowing supersedes anything anyone says to me."

She grew up in the Midwest and became a social worker. Though she was not raised in any faith, she began exploring various traditions, settling on the Metropolitan Community Church, a fellowship of churches founded to reach out to gays and lesbians.

"I think what MCC did at the time for me was show the possibility that these other (religious) groups did not have all the truths," she says.

In 1987, at the age of 47, she became a MCC minister. She moved from St. Louis to San Diego, where she worked as an assistant pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of San Diego. In 1996, she began an independent congregation that is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the only major Protestant denomination that permits the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

"The United Church of Christ bears witness to the conviction that it is possible to be deeply faithful to the Bible, profoundly respectful of the historic faith of the church and of its sacraments, and at the same time support the full inclusion and participation of all God's children in the membership and ministry of the church," says the Rev. Jane Heckles, conference minister for the denomination's Southern California Nevada region.

Eubanks' small congregation - there are about 45 members in New Creation United Church of Christ - is predominantly gay. This month, it began holding its Sunday morning worship services in the chapel of the Mission Hills United Church of Christ.

While she says she would vote to legalize gay marriage, she acknowledges that there is a part of her that doesn't care. She and her partner have been together for 17 years, and years ago participated in a holy union ceremony in their church. "That commitment is what holds me, not a piece of paper, not a license."

She defines herself more as a follower of Jesus than a Christian, arguing that the latter moniker has been tainted. Too often, homosexual men and women found themselves shunned by the Christian churches of their origin, she explains. "They were no longer welcome or they were instructed that they had to be fixed."

So what would Jesus think of gays? "I don't think he would have any attitude about one's sexuality. If he had anything to say, it would be: 'Where and how have you demonstrated the love that I demonstrated for you?' "


Tamar Malino began studying to be a rabbi in the Conservative branch of Judaism. But she knew that if she wanted to be honest about who she is, she couldn't stay there.

So she left. After taking a year off, she went back to seminary - this time to a school in the more-liberal Reform branch of Judaism, which ordains gays and lesbians.

Now, the 32-year-old woman from North Carolina is in her third year as assistant rabbi at Temple Adat Shalom, a synagogue in Poway with about 640 families.

Malino says she was open with the congregation about herself and her partner, who also is an ordained rabbi, though she is pursuing a career in academia. "I didn't want to be where I would be uncomfortable, where my partner would be uncomfortable, and where the people I serve would be uncomfortable," she says.

The response "has been great. They've really been very kind."

Rabbi Deborah Prinz, Temple Adat Shalom's longtime spiritual leader, says Malino was hired because she was the best candidate for the job. "She's a really fine teacher and works hard and brings so much commitment to Judaism and to her work," Prinz says.

The senior rabbi acknowledges some people may have been concerned in the beginning. "But I think that was dispelled very quickly." One family may have left - at least in part because she was hired. "They wanted a more traditional setting, and this may have been one of the issues," says Prinz. But, she adds, there are other families who have joined.

Malino does not believe that homosexuality is a sin and does not believe the Bible should be taken literally. "It was written in its own historical and cultural context, and as a Reform Jew, I take that into account," she says.

She also supports same-sex marriage. "I think that gay people should have the same civil rights as everybody else, including the right to get married to the person we love."

She and her partner had their own wedding in 1998, an outdoor ceremony in New York presided over by Malino's father and late grandfather, both rabbis in the Reform movement. The couple also went to Vermont for a civil license, after that state made it legal. And they have an appointment to go to San Francisco's City Hall for a marriage license next month, if that city is still issuing them.

"It's like adding your voice to the group of people who are seriously requesting this," Malino explains.

Like many other faiths, Judaism is split over homosexuality. The Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism do not allow openly homosexual clergy, while the Reform and Reconstructionist branches ordain them. Malino hopes for a resolution.

"I think there can be, and I think there are some people in both the Orthodox and Conservative communities who are working toward resolution," she says. "Whether they actually change their beliefs or not, I think there will be growing levels of tolerance for each other's beliefs, and in some ways that may be the most we can hope for."


This year, the Rev. William Chester McCall III celebrates 25 years in the ordained ministry.

Born and raised in the Bay Area as a Catholic, he knew he wanted to be a minister since he was 12 years old. But he also knew he was a "sexual being," meaning he wanted to pursue ordination in a faith that would not require him to be celibate.

He began as a United Church of Christ minister and is now working with the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal movement whose roots are Judeo-Christian but does not subscribe to a particular religious creed.

Last summer, he took a one-year position as interim associate minister for First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, a Hillcrest congregation with about 650 members.

Church president Joy Gorian says his sexual orientation is not a factor at First Unitarian Universalist. "It has not in any way adversely affected our congregation, because we are a people who believe that human beings have dignity no matter what their sexual orientation is," Gorian says.

McCall considers himself bisexual. He's been married twice but has been in a same-sex relationship with a partner for the past 15 years. "It's easier to say I'm gay because that's the slot people are going to put me in, rather than say I'm bisexual," he says.

No, he does not consider his sexual orientation a sin. "If it's such a sin, then why I am so blessed?" asks McCall. Instead, he talks about the importance of being in a "right relationship" - one that is not abusive and includes commitment, accountability and sharing.

The 55-year-old clergyman has served in several congregations and social service organizations during his career. He says the color of his skin has been more of an issue than his sexuality. "People are more afraid of me because I'm a black male than because I'm gay."

McCall supports gay marriage. He and his partner, he says, consider themselves married - though the idea of doing it officially in San Francisco is a new option that they are considering.

Like others who defend homosexuality, McCall does not read the Bible literally. He believes it is not the Bible, but some of its interpreters, who condemn him. And when he needs reassurance, he looks at the screen on his cell phone, which is programmed with the message: "You are God's child!!!"

He sets down the phone and adds: "I don't just believe it. I know it."

What would God say about the religious divides over homosexuality? "Get over it," McCall answers. "God does not support anything that divides us from each other or ourselves."

He paraphrases Jesus' teachings from the Gospels: "Love thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself." He talks about the possibility of a world someday where the color of your skin or who you love doesn't matter. "I better hope that or else I wouldn't be doing what I do."


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