As several hundred churchgoers left Takoma Park's Sligo Avenue Seventh Day Adventist Church yesterday morning, they were greeted by the chilled November air and 40 picketers, singing "We Shall Overcome" and tossing out charges of sexual and racial discrimination.
The band of protesters, led by Mormon activist Sonia Johnson, marched in behalf of Carole Rayburn, a Silver Spring psychologist who was rejected for two ministerial posts in the Adventist Church.
Rayburn, 43, who was graduated from an Adventist seminary in 1979, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in September against the Sligo Avenue church, the Potomac Conference, which is the Adventists' area-wide overseer, and the church's worldwide board.
Although battles over women's religious roles rocked many denominations throughout the 1970s, Rayburn's suit is one of a new crop now reaching fundamentalist churches.
The Episcopal Church, for example, weathered its ordination-of-women fights nearly 10 years ago. The issue was not even on the Adventists' agenda at their 1980 World Conference, notes James Londis, senior pastor of the Takoma Park church. Only a few North American Adventist churches have voted to allow women as church elders.
One of them, ironically, is the 3,300-member Sligo Avenue church, which also is one of the few that has hired women and blacks in leadership jobs. "In fact, we hired a woman for the position she was seeking," said Tim Garrison, one of the church's seven associate pastors.
Rayburn alleges in her suit that she was not hired as an "associate in pastoral care," (the title Adventists give to females serving as associate pastors) because she is a woman and was an officer in a black student group at Andrews Seminary in Michigan.
In an internal Oct. 30, 1979, memo regarding Rayburn, Ken Mittleider, then chairman of the Potomac Conference, which selects pastors for all Washington-area Adventist churches, wrote, "She is a crusader. You will notice one of the activities she joined in at Andrews is 'the Black Forum.'
"She will constantly be working from the 'underprivileged' trying to better their situation from a material standpoint. . . . There seems to be a clear ringing of attitudes of what I would fear most as to her effectiveness in a role as associate in pastoral care."
Mittleider, now in charge of Adventist operations in Zambia, Zimbabwe and other southern African countries, said it was Rayburn's "attitudes" and activist beliefs that killed her job chances, not her sex or membership in the black organization. Reached at his home in Salisbury, Zimbabwe, Mittleider said Rayburn earlier had attacked him for being a "male chauvinist."
He was not opposed to her membership in the black group, he said, but was simply passing along a concern from black Takoma Park church members that Rayburn's membership in the Michigan group was not "contributing positively."
He said Rayburn's talent for working with the poor would be a "mismatch" at the "sophisticated" Takoma Park church.
As evidence of the church's non-discriminatory racial attitudes, Mittleider said the Potomac Conference, which he said is considered a "white" group, recently hired three black interns to reach "the educated blacks."
Rayburn, who converted to Adventism from the Methodist faith 11 years ago following the death of her husband, said, "The doctrines of the church appeal to me, but had I known I was buying into sexism and racism as part of the deal, I wouldn't have become an Adventist." Rayburn's lawyer, Eileen Stein of Alexandria, said she is asking that Rayburn be hired at the Sligo Avenue church and paid back salary.
"It takes so much energy to reform the old churches," said Johnson, who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church because of her support for the Equal Rights Amendment. "Even women who have won ordination are finding it's not the answer as they're told they're too uppity."
Sligo Avenue church elder Richard Osborn said Rayburn's claim is "absolute baloney." "It's unfair to tag us as discriminatory. As far as ordination, 80 percent of our membership is overseas where there's a different view of women. In the interest of a unified church throughout the world, we can't push it from North America.
"Trying to force the courts into telling churches who to hire is the wrong way," he said. "We have a very cosmopolitan church here, a mixture of Indians, Vietnamese and blacks. The charges just don't make sense."