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Shower of Stoles Project

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Two years ago, Martha Juillerat stood before fellow pastors in Kansas City, Mo., and resigned her ordination in the Presbyterian church. The moment marked the end of Juillerat's losing battle to reconcile her vocation as a minister with her identity as a lesbian.

It also marked the inadvertent beginning of "The Shower of Stoles," a project that has given voice to hundreds of gay and lesbian ministers who have been denied ordination, been forced to leave the church or are serving in silence.

Before resigning, Juillerat had asked other gay and lesbian clergy to send her a stole, the band of cloth that ministers wear around their necks during worship. She had expected to get a dozen. Instead she got 80.

"When I spoke, I said, 'Those stoles represent the friends who are with me today in spirit,' " said Juillerat, who hung the stoles around the room where she gave her goodbye speech. "It moved people to tears. It made it obvious that we weren't just talking about me. We were talking about hundreds of folks who are denied the opportunity to openly serve their church."

Two years later, the collection has taken on a life of its own. Juillerat, who now lives with her partner in Minneapolis, has nearly 400 stoles, which she displays at congregations and church gatherings around the country to promote discussion of the ban on gay and lesbian clergy.

"Seeing the stoles is like seeing the Vietnam Memorial or the AIDS quilt," Jullierat said. "It helps take this issue out of people's heads and into their hearts. It makes it very real and very human and, to a certain extent, de-politicizes the issue."

The stoles have provided a human touchstone in the middle of an often fierce debate over the proper place of homosexuals in the Presbyterian Church. Like nearly all Christian denominations, the Presbyterians do not allow non-celibate homosexuals to serve as pastors, deacons or elders.

Last year, the church's General Assembly passed what became known as the "fidelity and chastity" amendment, which would change the church constitution to require homosexual clergy to live a celibate life. The amendment was ratified this spring by a majority of church presbyteries, local church bodies. But it won the popular vote by less than 2 percentage points.

Then, last month in Syracuse, N.Y., the General Assembly voted in an amendment to the amendment that many see as backing away from a firm ban on gay ordination toward some sort of compromise.

The debate over the issue has mirrored the arguments over homosexuality that have threatened to split other denominations. On one side are those who believe that ordaining homosexual would put the church's stamp of approval on a sinful practice. On the other side are those who believe that gay or lesbian couples who live in long-term relationships are no different than heterosexual couples and should be allowed to serve the church in whatever way they are called.

"But this is not an issue," said Juillerat, who served as a minister for 15 years. "This is about real people trying to serve churches."

Juillerat, 43, knew she wanted to be a pastor since she was a teen, a vocation inspired by her parents, who served 30 years as lay volunteers with the Presbyterian Church. She was baptized in the West Virginia church that her parents helped build to serve coal miners in Appalachia. "I was raised with the best the church had to offer," Juillerat said. "It was the most natural thing in the world for me to want to pursue the ministry."

Juillerat graduated from McCormick Seminary in Chicago in 1980, just two years after the church's General Assembly passed its first official statement that banned non-celebate clergy. By then, Juillerat knew she was lesbian. But she decided to go ahead with ordination anyway.

"The church meant the world to me," Juillerat said. "I made a decision to follow the party line and be single and celibate. I guess what I never anticipated was the terrible oppression of living a double life and of never having anyone to share it."

Juillerat served as pastor at a series of small churches in rural Missouri and Illinois. She devoted herself to her job, hid her sexual orientation and never dated. Then, in 1986, at a support group for women clergy, she met the woman who would become her partner. The two rural pastors began dating and fell in love. They knew they could be fired if someone filed a judicial complaint with the church. So they kept their relationship a secret.

Soon the secret began to take its toll. When they dined out, they would drive an hour and a half to Kansas City to escape the watchful eyes of neighbors. They invited only four trusted friends to their holy union, where they vowed to remain faithful partners for life. And they taped construction paper over the church windows so passers-by couldn't see what was going on.

The stress of living a double life came to a head on a Saturday afternoon in 1993, when Juillerat's partner had a near-fatal bicycle accident. Juillerat sat with her all night in the intensive care unit of the local hospital. The next morning, she preached at her church. She could not tell anyone about what worried her. "After that, we decided we just could not stay hidden anymore," Juillerat said. "We decided this was a sick way to live."

The two women came out at a regional church meeting later that year. Juillerat left her parish and supported herself by house painting, plastering and taking other odd jobs. Her partner, Tammy, who prefers not to use her last name since colleagues don't know she is lesbian, trained for another career. For the next two years they also talked to congregations about the issue of gay and lesbian clergy.

In 1995, unable to work as a pastor and tired of battling for a place in the church, Juillerat decided to resign her ordination credentials. "Leaving the ministry was the hardest decision I ever made in my life. I love to preach and I miss it terribly," she said. "But it was like the weight of the world was being lifted off our shoulders. For my own sanity and peace of mind, I needed to leave."

The end of Juillerat's career as a minister in September 1995 marked the beginning of a new kind of ministry. The stoles kept coming in the mail. Within months, she had 200 stoles and realized that she had an ongoing project on her hands.

Another 140 stoles arrived after she took the collection to a national convention of More Light churches, a network of Presbyterian congregations that support the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. She took more than 300 stoles to the church's General Assembly last year and this year. She didn't have a place to hang the display, so she asked volunteers to wear them. "It became a way for people to find a voice," Juillerat said. "I offered the option of people sending them to me anonymously. For those people especially, it was the one opportunity they had of letting the church know that, 'Hey, I'm out here.' "

Today the collection includes stoles from lesbian and gay seminarians, deacons, elders and ministers. There are also a few stoles given by the parents and children of homosexual people. Another 12 stoles have been signed by entire congregations in support of gay ordination.

These days, managing the stole project is a full-time job. This spring, Juillerat received donations from several churches to fund the project, formed a nonprofit organization and created a board of directors. She spends much of her time on the road. During the past three weeks she logged 5,000 miles on her pickup truck. She drove the stoles to the General Assembly in Syracuse. On the way home she stopped to preach and show the stoles in Cleveland. Then it was on to Tulsa, Okla., where three presbyteries were holding their regular meeting. This week she was at a gathering of 5,000 Presbyterian women at the denomination's headquarters in Louisville, Ky. She also sends a handful of stoles in the mail to churches for special events or ordinations. And she nearly always gets mail back from people who have been touched by the display.

"It was so moving to see all of them," said the Rev. Bill Chadwick, co-pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church, one of three More Light congregations in the Twin Cities. (The others are Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church and Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul.) "I went around looking at them by myself and just sobbed at the heartbreak of those who had received the same sort of call from God that I did, but were unable to fulfill it."

This article, reprinted by permission from The St. Paul Pioneer Press, was written by staff writer Maja Beckstrom and was originally published on July 12, 1997. Pioneer Press photos included on this page were by Joe Rossi.

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