Bill Johnson’s advice to young gays and lesbians of Elmhurst and any other “child of God’’ committed to justice and equality is to “get vocal, get visible, get free.” It’s the principle he has followed in the nearly 40 years since his historic battle for ordination in 1972 by the United Church of Christ.
The trail-blazing alumnus, who made history as the first openly gay person to be ordained in modern times by a mainstream Christian church, was honored on October 11 as the College inaugurated the William R. Johnson Guestship, formerly called the LGBT Guestship.
President S. Alan Ray presented Johnson, vice president of the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries of the United Church of Christ, with an honorary plaque. The two men then were joined for a conversation, “Christian Theology and the LGBT Person’’ by Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, and Dr. Riess Potterveld, president of Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California, where Johnson attended seminary after graduating from Elmhurst in 1968. The Guestship lecture was delivered the following afternoon by author Michael Schiavi, who discussed the life of the gay activist Vito Russo.
The lecture came as the College has drawn national attention for being the first academic institution to ask an optional question on sexual identity on its application. The question reflects the College’s commitment to diversity and is meant to let LGBT students know that they will find the resources and welcoming environment at Elmhurst that will enable them to succeed.
Ray said Johnson was an agent for change in an age of strong identity politics, when one was either gay or Christian but not both.
“I see his gesture as, among many things, a rejection of that bipolarity,’’ Ray said. “He dared to say one could be both.’’
The America of the early 1970s was a very different and hostile country from what it is now for gays and lesbians. In 1971 homosexuality still was considered a mental disorder by the American Medical Association, Ray noted. Homosexuals were subject to criminal prosecution in 48 states. There were no gay or lesbian characters on television, or openly gay representatives in Congress.
Then, as now, bigots used the Bible as a weapon to keep people down instead of lifting them up, said Hunt, who also is professor of Hebrew Bible at Chicago Theological Seminary. “The Bible has been misused to abuse people for centuries,” she said. “It has been misused to execute women as witches. It has been misused to persecute Jews and other non-Christian persons of faith. It has been misused to oppose interracial marriage, to support the KKK, Hitler’s Third Reich, oppression of women, domestic violence, Apartheid, slavery and segregation.”
On the right side of history
And with regard to LGBTQ persons, the abuse continues in some circles. The Bible, she concluded, is “actually silent on homosexuality.’’ Yet Johnson has rarely been silent, and his booming voice for justice, Hunt said, has made her marvel.
“Bill Johnson’s life is a call to action,’’ she said. “Often the church has been on the wrong side of history. But the UCC, with the courage, integrity and action of Bill Johnson, got itself on the right side of history.’’
Still, there is much work to be done, even within the UCC, said Potterveld of the Pacific School of Religion.
“You may think of the United Church of Christ as a terribly progressive denomination,’’ he said, adding that out of the 5,500 UCC churches “only 20 percent approximately have become open and affirming’’ to the LGBT community. The other 80 percent of UCC churches, Potterveld said, have avoided the issue, been resistant to it or undermined it.
Ray called Johnson’s stance 40 years ago, “a creative, political and brave act of imagination to claim the right to exercise ecclesiastical power, to stand within a church community among other believers and to take up a leadership role.’’
Since then, Johnson, who founded and coordinates the work of the Elmhurst College Gay and Lesbian Alumni organization, has counseled thousands of gay and lesbian young people and closeted clergy, guiding them through the darkness of bigotry, urging them to keep the faith and to continue the fight.
“I didn’t know what the price would be’’ of coming out of the closet and fighting to be in the pulpit, Johnson told a group of Elmhurst students before the ceremony. “The price was I didn’t get a job in the church for 18 years.’’
Yet the high price and private pain was worth it, he said.
“I had to be true to myself,’’ he told the students, who included members of the student group EQUAL (Elmhurst Queers and Allies). “I don’t want to be as good as Jesus. But I can live my life as authentically as Jesus lived his.’’
Wherever he goes, Johnson spreads the good news about what pulled him up the mountaintop: “I was never abandoned by God.’’