By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
There was a celebration last weekend for the Reverend William R. Johnson, who marked his 40th anniversary being the first openly gay person ordained by a Christian ministry in the history of the modern Christian church.
Two Bay Area churches, including the one where he was ordained, and a Berkeley seminary school, recognized Johnson’s contribution to LGBT visibility within the Christian faith.
“I’m very appreciative and humbled,” Johnson told the Bay Area Reporter. “I appreciate the recognition of 40 years of hard and diverse work that I’ve done. And it’s always good to come back to the Bay Area, which I love more than any place in the world.”
Now residing in Cleveland, Ohio, Johnson, 66, visited the Pacific School of Religion and New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley and Community United Church of Christ in San Carlos, where he was ordained. His visits included discussions about the significance of his ordination for LGBT Christians and the broader LGBT movement past and present.
“He stood up and insisted by his own example and took the consequences professionally that there would be a place for gay people in the church,” the Reverend Elder Jim Mitulski, pastor of New Spirit Community Church, said. “He was ordained in 1972 and didn’t get a job in the UCC for 18 years.”
After completing an undergraduate degree at Elmhurst College, Johnson entered the Pacific School of Religion where he completed his seminary studies in 1971. While attending, he worked as a youth minister for Community UCC. Since knowing his sexual orientation, the Texas native said that he never had trouble reconciling it with his faith.
“I grew up in a home that was very affirming of diversity,” he said. “I didn’t grow up believing that I was sinful or sick. I experience same gender feelings as very innate and natural and I don’t think anything natural is evil or bad. The challenge for me was affirming my gay identity in the context of the church.”
During a seminar on homosexuality in 1970, Johnson responded to a speaker’s comment discrediting gay parishioners, resulting in him coming out before 400 attendees.
Three months later, Johnson was called to ministry by UCC, a requirement to apply for ordination. After his request was initially turned down, Johnson’s San Carlos church requested that a council meeting be held for constituency church clergy and delegates to decide Johnson’s fate as a minister.
A year later the meeting was held and after four hours of discussion, 96 delegates voted 62-34 in favor of Johnson’s ordination.
“It was on Gay Pride Day in 1972,” Johnson said. “It was a very special day for me. In the intervening 40 years, literally thousands of open LGBT people have been ordained to the ministry. The opening of that leadership door has been exceedingly important because the more people get to know us the more they come to appreciate us and grow out of their inculturated homophobia.”
Eighteen years passed before Johnson was actually invited to hold an administrative position within the UCC.
His LGBT activism includes founding the UCC Gay Caucus (now UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns) and co-founding what would become P-FLAG/San Francisco. He has also founded UCC constituent churches in New York and Ohio. He has a scholarship in his name and is a published author, teacher, and film producer. Johnson currently sits on the board for the American Civil Liberties Union, the northern California chapter of which is being honored as this year’s San Francisco Pride organizational community grand marshal.
Attending the New Spirit Community Church service on Sunday, June 17 was J.T. Hills. While Hills, 30, is straight, he understands the importance of LGBT visibility in the church. Raised by a lesbian couple, one of them is currently undergoing the ordination process within the UCC, a right afforded by Johnson’s trailblazing work in 1972. Hills, too, is studying at PSR.
“Today’s a way for us to look back and realize how much things have changed in the last 40 years,” Hills said. “It’s about looking at where we’ve come from and moving forward.”
That same day New Spirit celebrated becoming the 1,009th “Open and Affirming” congregation in the UCC, a designation that indicates to the LGBT community that they are welcome within that church. New Spirit is affiliated with UCC, PSR, Metropolitan Community Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries.
“We were already a little gayer than some,” Mitulski joked during the service. “Now it’s official.”