Jun 16, 2020
The Journey of a German American, queer, community psychiatrist, mother of a biracial son to Ordination in the ELCA
By The Rev. Carol Luise Kessler, M.D., M.Div.
In honor of the LGBT people whose calls did not meet the Visions and Expectations of the Church.
Today, when I drive past the closed doors of Transfiguration Lutheran Church on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, I remember the day I was ordained by Bishop Steven Bowman, when the congregation gathered despite a blizzard. Rev. Barbara Lundblad, the pastor who had inspired me when I lived in Washington Heights, preached on Matthew’s gospel. She preached on the text of resurrection that inspired my master’s thesis centering on the Greek word, egeiro, that is woven throughout the gospel at those liminal moments that lead from death to life. At Union Theological Seminary, Professor Brigitte Kahl taught how egeiro is best imaged as an open hand with the possibility of closing into a fist or opening to reach out and touch. At the tomb, Mary and the other Mary learned that Jesus had egeiro’d risen. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he could have abandoned her, but had a dream from which he woke up and egeior’d/got up to wed her. Jairos’ daughter egeiro’d/woke up. Rev. Barbara Lundblad lifted up Bob Marley’s anthem, “Get Up, Stand Up, Stand Up for Your Rights; Get Up Stand Up; Don’t Give Up the Fight”.
I was born a child of God to German immigrant parents in Queens, NY who’d fled war-ravaged Germany to join aunt and uncle who’d arrived in the 1920’s and to meet in English class. Their union was a challenge. Roman Catholic woman and Lutheran man; not welcome in one another’s churches. I am told it was easier to convert to Lutheran, and so they married and baptized me in the Lutheran tradition.
My Roman Catholic/Lutheran mother was the church-goer – singing in the church choir. We walked around the block in Middle Village, Queens to the stone church on the cemetery hill, fashioned in German tradition. I sang, “Lord please curtsey” only later realizing that the words were, “Lord, have mercy.”
I enjoyed the church service and wanted to serve as an acolyte. I learned that girls were not permitted on the altar. My friend and I were angry and disappointed. I remember doing well in Sunday school and being active in church events as a “good girl.” Church was not as welcoming to my older brother who struggled with learning and sitting still. When teachers met me, they’d say, “Not another Kessler!” My brother Carson and his friend would get in trouble for such stunts as holding a star in Sunday School and singing, “You can trust your car with the man who wears the star; the big bright Texaco star!”
I experienced church as a place of rules and tradition, and when I left for Brown University’s Seven Year Program in Medicine, I explored other faith traditions. I danced Jewish folk dances at Hillel House. I sat in Quaker silence. I sang in an Episcopal Church choir.
My call to ministry was born when I went to El Salvador during a twelve-year war funded by an average one million US dollars/day. Having been asked where my parents were during the Holocaust in Germany, I felt compelled to be at the site of my country’s massacres. And so, I joined a Roman Catholic Archdiocese Health Program in El Salvador as a lay missionary, training often illiterate peasants to be health promoters in a zone of conflict. There, I lived with children of God, where priests no longer served after clergy serving the poor had been massacred; where physicians no longer practiced after those treating the poor became branded “communist/terrorist.”
I came to know women who would not receive communion because they couldn’t afford to be married in the church and saw themselves as living in sin. We sinners gathered regularly in the Christian base tradition of celebrating the Word. The Word, translated by Luther into German, came to us in Spanish. Each of us sinners gathered and reflected on how it touched us on that day, in that place. We sang; wept; laughed. Our communion was the ever-present meal of tortilla and corn coffee.
The time came to return to the United States, where I entered five years of residency training to become a child, adolescent and adult psychiatry at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx. Having felt alienated by the “objective” biological focus of medicine, while at Brown University, I began to take courses at Harvard Divinity School. One summer, as a field education student, I lived in a house in Jamaica Plain, at a newly formed community, the Christian House of Reconciliation” with a nun and four men newly released from maximum security prison.
Seeking faith community in New York City, I studied class by class with liberation theologians at Union Theological Seminary – James Cone; Beverly Harrison; Dorothee Solle – as I journeyed with patients at Bronx State Hospital; Jacobi Hospital; and North Central Bronx Hospital. It was the time of the AIDS crisis, when the plight of people infected with HIV was ignored since they were mostly gay or suffering from substance use disorders. I was blessed to have a Chilean American mentor, Tomas Agosin M.D., who would witness the poor psychotic mostly people of color confined to Bronx State and wonder if they were prophets. When he “moved up” to the role of administrator, he gathered with the patients, weeping, and thanked them for healing him.
As the years went by at Union Theological Seminary, I thought, “Why not earn a Master of Divinity?”, and so I had a field education requirement. By then I was working at a Bronx Lebanon Community Mental Health Center for children and families on Webster Avenue, “across from the White Castle.” There, I had an African American teen patient who would appear unscheduled after such escapades as spending the night as a stripper. One day she arrived, upset that she had been asked to leave her church choir. I was shocked to learn that it was a Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, since I only knew white German Lutherans. It was then I learned of Transfiguration Lutheran Church.
And so, I met Rev. Heidi Neumark, when I called the church to advocate for my patient’s place in the choir. I later met with Heidi and created a field education placement at Transfiguration. Heidi said, “You’ll preach and run a group for the Chicas – Latin American teen girls. Terrified, I came to learn that I loved to preach. With time, Heidi wondered why I was not pursuing ordination. I had kept my relationship with a woman hidden up to then, and when Heidi learned of it, she responded, “So what”. She gave me a card that sits on my desk today with the German proverb, “Keep weaving, and God will give the thread.” I remembered Rev. Barbara Lundblad who had been my pastor, while in relationship with Nicole, parenting their son. I was introduced to brave Katrina Foster, then Pastor at Fordham Lutheran Church, and recently running for bishop as a proud lesbian wife and mother. The Lutheran church has rules. “So what”, many said.
I must say that I am not good at hiding who I am. Friends would often say, “How can you be a psychiatrist; your face gives you away!”
Thank God for Union Theological Seminary, where fellow LGBT seminarians gathered. I recall a sermon of a peer choosing to leave the Methodist denomination because as a lesbian she would always be a locust. I passed as straight in the synod, much as I passed as Jewish with the name Kessler at Stuyvesant High School where I did not want to be branded Nazi.
Until my psychological test that is part of the ordination process. I was asked to draw a person and dutifully drew a stick figure. The psychologist commented that the figure had nothing below the belt. “Oh”, I said, “I can’t draw. I made the face too big and there was no room for legs.” “What orientation are you?”, asked the psychologist. “Lesbian”, I responded. “Why did you tell me that! I meant are you Freudian or Jungian? Now I have to tell the synod.” I did not know she was the sexual orientation police.
Thank God for gay friends with whom I sang in the Stonewall Chorale, for Pastors Neumark and Lundblad, and for the company of queer seminarians. They found the interchange to be hilarious. Resurrection among the outcast.
The psychologist spoke with me and felt compelled to write to the committee – “Carol shared something that she doesn’t want the committee to know.” This led the committee to convene to ask what the secret was. I asked to have a boundary, assured by my circle of support that I was not a heretic for sidestepping “Vision and Expectations” vow to homosexual celibacy.
Months later, having completed all the steps, I was almost approved for ordination. I had informed my mentor on the committee that I was pregnant and assumed that everyone was aware. After congratulating me, I clarified that I would be waiting until my son was born to seek a call. All were stunned. “Well that changes things,” they declared. “We’ll need to discuss this and reconvene.”
At the time, I was serving as an intern at Gustavus Adolphus Church, where I shared new of my pregnancy with gracious, loving Pastor Amos. He said, “Just wear your robe. No one will notice!” I did as I was told until some months later the congregation – a blend of gay, straight, old, young, white, African American, Latino, Indonesian, Chinese, Estonian – asked if congratulations were in order and prepared a celebration!
Thank God for the body of Christ!
I had been told I would never conceive and had little opportunity after being the victim of sexual violence and domestic violence in marriage in young adulthood. I had little desire for intimacy with men. I had considered adoption and indeed spent thousands of dollars supporting a single teen through her pregnancy. She had chosen me through an adoption agency that has since been shut down due to deceptive practices. After six monthly calls, she neared the child’s birth and told me she had changed her mind. I was devastated.
I had found love at Saint John’s House, a Lutheran Social Services supportive housing program, where I met William Sanabria, a South Bronx dwelling Puerto Rican man who provided care for formerly homeless mentally ill residents as a case manager. He played music with them, sharing his skills as a drummer in the Yoruba tradition. St John’s House became a home and William and I became partners. “Let’s make a baby”, he said one night, and we conceived now seventeen-year-old Rafael.
I was heartbroken by the committee’s reaction. Tell them to “Leck mich am Arsch” my faithful mother said. “You wanted a baby and if they don’t understand that they’re not Christian.” Eloise, the Puerto Rican receptionist at the Bronx Lebanon clinic was like a mother to me. She advised me to have the clergy bring in their parent’s marriage certificates to compare them with their birth certificates.
My spiritual director, a Roman Catholic nun, saw me as Mary, an unwed mother. She helped me see God’s grace in my story and in my womb, and to have the courage to tell my story to the committee. “I believe my pregnancy is a miracle”, I told them. “You can decide whether to ordain me or not.”
And, miracle, I am ordained since April 2002, when we gathered at Transfiguration, where I served after Pastor Heidi Neumark left. There, William and I married, in February 2009, in the presence of God and the body of Christ. We let Pastor Paul Block know that we would join in matrimony on any Sunday during regularly scheduled worship, with whoever happened to gather. My Transfiguration family cooked up a soul food feast and we celebrated in the parish hall.
As an ordained pastor/psychiatrist, in keeping with liberation theology, I have maintained a preferential option for the poor. The synod called me as a community psychiatrist and I stayed in the Bronx with patients who keep on keeping on in the face of institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism that breeds substandard housing; lack of safe recreational space; and a school to prison pipeline. I stayed with the families I loved as resources dwindled, rooted in God’s grace and love. My patients prayed for me as I grew ill – an overspent Martha trying to fight windmills. I wound up with sepsis in an ICU last year. God called me to “not just do something, but to sit there!” To enter Mary time/Sabbath time. “You taught me to take care of myself. It’s time for you to take care of yourself”, a disabled youth I’d worked with for years told me.
Today, the doors of Transfiguration Lutheran Church are closed along with the doors of all Metro NY Synod churches, as people get up and stand up/egeiro in streets around the world. Church doors are closed as they were closed to Martin Luther when he rose, branded a heretic, to encounter faith alone through grace alone while in refuge. Not long ago I heard Union Theological Seminary President, and public theologian, Serene Jones speak with Krista Tippett on the NPR podcast, “On Being”. Even before the COVID pandemic and the global uprising in the face of yet another police murder of a black man, Serene Jones reflected on this time as a Reformation time. Things as we know them are falling apart. We may not be around to see the transformation. And grace abounds.
While in seminary, the African American leader of the gospel choir chose a song for me to sing. I close with its words:
When you can’t see your way
And you feel that you have gone astray
Doing all you know to do
God has not forgotten you
Hold your head up and be true
And God will open doors for you.
Oh, you can fight on
Through your longest day
And even though you can’t see your way
GOD WILL OPEN DOORS FOR YOU!!! – Walter Hawkins.