To Frank Schaefer, it wasn’t three of his four children being gay that bothered him so much, it was that they looked gay. So sometimes he’d offer pointers.
“Swing your arms when you walk,” Schaefer’s son Kevin, then 16, recalls his father telling him one fall day a few years ago.
The Schaefers were window-shopping during a family trip to Boston when Schaefer stopped Kevin and his sister, Debbie, who was three years older. “Not swinging is ladylike,” he advised Kevin.
He then pointed out to Debbie that she didn’t move her hips when she walked, like most women do. Maybe, he joked, the two could switch walks?
Kevin recalls being humiliated but not angry. He understood that his father was struggling with his own feelings. Debbie just brushed her father off. He wasn’t really criticizing, she told herself — he was just making an observation.
This painful scene between a parent and a gay child is perhaps not so unusual — until you widen the frame.
The next year, Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor in rural Pennsylvania, was in Boston again on a family trip. This time, he was there to officiate at the wedding of his gay son Tim — in violation of his denomination’s doctrine, which prohibits same-sex marriage.
The love of Tim and his soon-to-be-husband “is from no other source than from God,” Schaefer told some 120 people gathered that April day in 2007 at a restaurant overlooking Massachusetts Bay. The applause seemed to go on forever.
It took six years for word of Schaefer’s actions to find its way to the United Methodist Church. The church trial that followed a complaint to the bishop’s office made global news last year. In December, Schaefer’s defrocking ignited a movement that could well cause a schism in the country’s second-largest denomination, with a large group of conservative clergy a few weeks ago calling for dialogue on how to “part ways amicably.”
Meanwhile, Schaefer has become a national star in the gay equality movement — a sought-after speaker and the focus of a documentary, a play and countless stories in the news media. Yet even as he passionately advocates for gay rights, the 52-year-old Schaefer is an unlikely activist. Even now, years after the first of his three gay children came out, he talks about a continuing “evolution” in his beliefs.
All this makes the defrocked pastor an apt icon for America in 2014, when polls show a large swath of adults still have doubts about gay equality despite the whirlwind embrace of the movement by courts, governments and much of society.
“I was concerned, as many parents are, how people look at your children, that they fit in,” Schaefer says about the Boston sidewalk scene years ago. “I’m not sure there aren’t still issues deep down.”
Growing up in northwest Germany, Schaefer got his first glimpse of homosexuality on television, when gay parades from the bigger cities were broadcast to his home town of Wuppertal. Some of the gay men appeared nearly naked as they marched, he says.
His parents were appalled.
“The kind of sex homosexual people have is perverted,” Schaefer remembers his parents saying, echoing the views of the fundamentalist Baptist church the family attended.
Back then, Schaefer didn’t question them.
When he was a teenager, his perspective broadened a bit when he met his future wife, Brigitte. Her parents rented rooms in their boardinghouse to several same-sex couples, and he befriended one of the men.
“I held on to the beliefs I was brought up with, but I suspended my judgment on actual homosexuals,” he says.
Once married, he and Brigitte moved in 1989 to Norfolk so he could work as a translator. There, Schaefer switched to a Pentecostal church because he liked the modern music and instruments. An affable guy with longish hair and an ’80s-rocker look, he found the music helped him inspire young people in particular. Soon he felt a call to ministry.
He eventually made his way in the mid-1990s to Princeton University’s seminary, where for the first time he met several gay theology students and encountered a variety of views on how to read Scripture — including on the topic of sexuality.
“I thought: So there is a whole other way of seeing this, a whole other side of the church that has something different to say about this,” he remembers.
He wound up, somewhat randomly, in an internship with the Methodist Church, a diverse mainline denomination with more than 7 million U.S. members. He was drawn by the warmth and the openness to different styles of musical worship. It fit with his desire to keep worship upbeat, to make the experience a priority.
His “spiritual personality,” according to a church ministry test: “Joy giver.”
“He likes to preach a good sermon and have a good lunch,” says the Rev. Uwe Schaefer, his younger brother, who lives in Germany. “He’s not a troublemaker.”
The Methodist Church assigned Frank Schaefer after his 1996 ordination to churches in Lebanon County, a conservative, rural part of eastern Pennsylvania known for its traditional Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
The subject of homosexuality came up just a couple of times at work, when young people rejected by their parents came to him privately.
“I remember thinking: How can people treat one another like this?” he says. “I just listened a lot because I didn’t have a lot to say on the subject. I just tried to show love and support.”
And that’s where he left it. He never would have preached a sermon about it. He would never have marched in a gay pride event. He certainly would not have officiated at a gay wedding.
Meanwhile, his eldest son, Tim, was struggling in secret with being gay.
Each night, the teen would pray to God “to take this away from me” and cry himself to sleep. He considered suicide.
The secular and Christian cultures were telling him, Tim recalls, that his sexuality was abnormal, even perverse. Although he suspected his parents would accept him, their silence on the topic made him hesitant to share his secret with them.
Still, he and his father remained close. A youth leader at his church, Tim was around 13 when he went with his dad to one of the denomination’s annual regional meetings. The group was debating Methodist language around homosexuality, and the conversation was often contentious. Tim was struck by how few people supported gay equality.
It never occurred to Schaefer to bring the topic up with Tim on the way home. “I had the impression Tim was excited about the democratic process” of the meeting, he says. “I had no idea what he felt inside.”
Within a few years, in 2000, Schaefer got an anonymous call. Your 17-year-old son, the woman said, is gay and suicidal.
Schaefer and his wife didn’t hesitate. “We lost it in tears, hugging him. We told him we loved him so much and he did not choose this. We just affirmed him,” Schaefer says.
But for Schaefer, the crisis was just beginning. Gay equality had been an abstract idea to him until then.
“Now that my own son turned out to be gay, I was really struggling, and that came totally out of the blue for me,” he says. “I thought I had moved on on this issue long ago.”
Schaefer kept returning in his head to the same questions:
Was it my fault? Did I do something wrong? What kind of life might he have? Once this comes out, what might it mean for my life? My ministry?
But Schaefer didn’t want to let on to Tim — or even his wife — about his anxiety. He was supposed to be supportive; by then, he viewed himself as a liberal. He wanted to fully affirm his son despite his deep-seated angst. He wanted to be an example to his four children — Tim, Debbie, 15, Kevin, 10, and Pascal, 6.
Privately, however, Schaefer considered leaving pastoring. For a few months, he joined a program to explore becoming a hospital chaplain, a position that often attracts progressives because chaplains minister to people of various faiths.
But he returned to the world he knew, to church.
His concerns at the time were practical, not theological. He wanted to keep his job and expand his church, Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon. But he knew much of the congregation was older and more conservative. There was already unrest about Schaefer’s decision to have two services, one with traditional music and the other with contemporary music, and the older group felt it was being shortchanged.
By this time, in the early 2000s, gay equality had become a front-burner issue in U.S. religion. The Episcopal Church had elected Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop, triggering death threats against him and the exodus of dozens of conservative congregations. Other Protestant and Jewish denominations found their communities divided. A Methodist jury defrocked a female pastor who said she was in a relationship with a woman.
But Schaefer was unaware of this broader debate. He felt like he was alone, taking baby steps onto the ledge. His children remember him warning them when he was going to give what he deemed a “controversial” sermon, which was usually on a general social justice topic, peppered with vague terms such as “marginalized people.”
He feared backlash.
Kevin Schaefer, now 23 and a linguistics graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, remembers his father telling him that Tim was gay. Kevin was around 10.
“I remember he had a pretty serious tone, sort of like: ‘Be careful of this information.’ That’s how it felt,” Kevin says in an interview. His father seemed supportive of the older brother but also as if he were still “processing things.” Kevin watched his father closely. In 2004, both he and Debbie would come out as gay, increasing Schaefer’s desire to both support his children and remain discreet, for fear of dividing his church. At the same time, Brigitte began demanding that her husband use his position to be more affirming.
“Not just of GLBT people. In our area, it was a white conservative church, and I felt we needed to speak out on a lot of things,” says Brigitte.
She put a bumper sticker on her car with a blue and yellow equal sign, the logo for the Human Rights Campaign, a group that supports the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The overt display disturbed Schaefer.
“I knew my congregation, and I knew this would be divisive,” Schaefer says.
Brigitte was considering going further — leaving Iona and attending a church that was more openly progressive. Schaefer was feeling heat in all directions.
In 2007, Tim asked his father to officiate at his wedding. This was a new level of issues. He had affirmed his three gay children, but marrying his son would directly violate Methodist rules.
“We had told him: ‘You are in made in the image of God.’ [Refusing to marry him] would have been a negation of everything we had told him,” Schaefer says. But he knew his job was at stake. They decided to hold the wedding near Tim’s home, in Massachusetts, and told few people in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, he was gradually becoming more public about his views. In 2008, he gave a Father’s Day sermon about unconditional love and spoke about Tim. Frank and Brigitte joined a support group for relatives of LGBT people.
Years passed after the wedding, and the family stopped focusing on it. Then came April 2013, when a man who grew up at Iona and whose mother Schaefer had recently removed as choir director secured Tim’s wedding certificate and filed a complaint with the local bishop.
A trial would be held in November, with a church jury, at a church camp outside Philadelphia. Iona erupted and lost half of its membership. Some of Schaefer’s conservative friends felt betrayed.
“Since when is it not love to warn people of Judgment Day? Of God’s wrath? How is that judgment?” says Todd Zulick, an old friend of Schaefer’s who had volunteered as a youth pastor in his church.
Sounding hurt, he shared some of his writings on the topic, which he posts on Facebook.
One, titled “I Love Pastor Frank enough as a friend to tell him the Truth of Scripture,” says:
“Homosexuality is NOT the issue here; it can be any sin as revealed in the Bible. If we do not have an Absolute Standard then people can justify any sin. . . . We might as well throw the bible in the garbage, if each one decides what is and is not truth or sin.”
Schaefer and his attorneys determined that their best strategy was to stay away from his personal beliefs about homosexuality. They decided to focus on the fact that Schaefer was faced with denying his son — something most parents could relate to.
After all, Schaefer never expected it to come to this. He had shown for years that he was able and willing to keep his status as an LGBT supporter private, out of the church.
During the trial in November, Schaefer stepped up to the small, makeshift stand in the hushed camp gymnasium that was used as a courtroom to give his statement. Then events took an unplanned turn.
Schaefer started talking about his congregation and how his reputation for being a bit more welcoming had drawn new people to church. He spoke about a lesbian congregant who had suffered a stroke. When she walked up to the altar for Communion, the sanctuary filled with the sound of sobbing, even from opponents of gay equality, he said.
“Even in her illness, she changed the minds and hearts,” he said, pausing before speaking again.
“I found myself being transformed into something that was totally new to me. I became an advocate,” he said.
Then Schaefer’s tone turned sharp.
“I cannot go back to being a silent supporter. I am an advocate. And I am accepting this as a calling from God," he said. Throughout the gym, people could be heard weeping.
When he was finished speaking, Schaefer reached into his pocket and took out a rainbow stole that someone had given to him before the trial. He turned to the judge.
“Is that okay, bishop, to put this on?” he asked.
“Yes,” the bishop replied.
Schaefer looked out on the crowd.
“This is what I have to do,” he said.
This spring, Schaefer is booked to speak at churches — Methodist and otherwise — every evening for months on end. He is still flooded with letters and e-mails from around the country. They say things such as “You’re my hero” or “I wish I had a dad like you.”
Earlier in the year, Schaefer was giving a talk at Foundry United Methodist Church, in Dupont Circle, with several other United Methodist clergy members who had lost their jobs over the issue of gay equality, when someone stood in the back of the sanctuary. It was Robinson, the retired Episcopal bishop, who now lives in Washington. To someone like him, Robinson told the group, you are “saints and martyrs.”
The congregation that day presented Schaefer with a check for $31,000, money collected over a few weeks around Christmas.
At such moments, Schaefer basks in the warmth of others’ appreciation. But being a pastor is really all Schaefer feels he knows how to do. And right now, he’s a pastor without a job.
A rebel Methodist bishop in California has suggested that he come there to pastor, in what looks like defiance of the eastern Pennsylvania leaders who defrocked him a few months ago. He says he is likely to take the position if it’s formally offered.
Meanwhile, an appeals board in Pennsylvania is scheduled on June 20 to hear his request to overturn his conviction. Methodist leaders on both sides are calling for a solution to the divide. But even if the church allows him to serve again, he knows he will not go back to being the pastor he was before.
“One thing is, I’ll never be silent again,” he said this week from Oklahoma, where he was asked to speak to United Methodist pastors.
Those in the audience at his speaking engagements sometimes ask him whether he thinks liberal religion has any future or any scriptural leg to stand on.
He answers with his usual optimism.
“These are exciting times!” he said at Foundry. “This is the time! Change is coming!”
But he also knows it comes slowly. And in truth, he’s a bit ambivalent — not about gay equality, but about taking sides. He is a mediator, a peacemaker. “I find myself dragged into a whole new role, as a spokesman for the LGBT community, dragged in by my collar so to speak,” he says.
He often corrects himself after using the word “evolution” to describe his spiritual journey, replacing it with “development.” Evolution might sound too judgmental.
“We’re not pushing a liberal agenda,” he told the Foundry congregation.
He thinks he can be an emissary between the liberal and conservative worlds. After all, he’s intimate with the traditional view.
“I don’t judge people struggling with this issue,” he says. “This took me many years. I just think I can help people because I’ve been through this myself. . . . We’re all struggling, aren’t we, with Scriptures and what they mean?”
Not long before, Schaefer was faced with the idea that his struggle has had some painful consequences.
In December, prompted by the church trial and its aftermath, Kevin raised the exchange he’d had with his father so many years ago on the Boston sidewalk. He remains self-conscious about his walk, he told his father, always trying to swing his arms.
“This had an impact on how I see myself,” Kevin said.
Then he started to ask Schaefer if he had a story from his childhood that had affected him in a similar way. But before he could get the question out, Kevin’s voice was choked by tears.