From the city's first gay minister to flying pride, BLM flags, Ames' oldest church has a history of open-mindedness
Seventeen years passed between the day Pastor Paul Johnson was outed to his Lutheran congregation and his first sermon as an openly gay man.
Since age 13, Johnson — who would later become the first gay minister in Ames — felt a calling to ministry.
Despite being forced to resign from that Lutheran congregation, being outed turned out to be a relief. After years spent living in fear and experiencing suicidal thoughts, Johnson could be his authentic self. By 2008, Johnson stood in front of a congregation again, but this time it was different.
"The biggest difference was that I was able to be honest about who I was and not have that be an impediment and to be accepted," Johnson said. "And that was not possible in (1991)."
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Nearly two decades after he was outed, he married his late husband, David, in May 2009 in front of the same Ames pews and people who'd accepted him at the city's United Church of Christ.
Today, the chuch's third gay minister, the Rev. Eileen Gebbie, serves the congregation.
Discrimination continues for people in the LGBTQ+ community, and religious institutions can pose challenges for the queer people of faith. But in Ames, a rainbow flag on the historic United Church of Christ lets the LGBTQ+ community know that a space for them exists in Ames.
The oldest church in Ames' journey to acceptance
The Ames United Church of Christ is the city's oldest church, Gebbie boasts, getting its start in 1865, and 135 years later, it was the first in town to welcome all sexualities.
The UCC denomination has a history of progressiveness in religion, starting in 1972 when the first openly gay minister in a protestant denomination was ordained in California.
The church soon founded the UCC Gay Caucus — later called the Open and Affirming Coalition. UCC bodies that welcome all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions are considered open and affirming.
The 1,700 open and affirming churches represent 33% of UCC's congregations; 29 are in Iowa, according to the coalition.
The Iowa caucus of the United Church of Christ voted to become open and affirming a year ago, Gebbie said.
Division over a separate vote in 1985 — the "just peace" pronouncement — delayed the Ames congregation's joining the coalition.
"That vote was so divisive that they did not consider the open and affirming element until 2000," Gebbie said. "So it took 15 years to get to the point where they were going to consider another one of these identity votes."
A unanimous vote in 2000, with some abstentions, made Ames UCC an open and affirming church, eight years before its first openly gay minister, Johnson, led the congregation — albeit on an interim basis.
"I'm not sure they would've felt comfortable in calling a regular pastor who was gay at that point," Johnson said. "But I think they were willing to take a chance on an interim minister.”
But Johnson's tenure of three years, three months and three weeks surpassed that of a typical interim minister, his enthusiasm bringing a struggling congregation back to life, Gebbie said.
'Values of the church very much in line with my own'
The Ames United Church of Christ's congregation looks like others in town, at first glance. The classic brick building with vibrant stained glass windows is exactly what one would expect from the oldest church in Ames.
Nine-year congregant Amy Erica Smith said she hadn't been to a church in a long time before moving to Ames but wanted the church to be a part of her children's lives.
After three months in Ames, she found the United Church of Christ.
"I attended a few churches by then and hadn't found one that I really liked," Smith said. "The values of the church were very much in line with my own values — intellectual inquiry, honesty, justice, while also having a religious experience that seemed real and important."
Since before Gebbie became the church's minister in 2015, the building maintained a rotation of three different identity signs to complement the seasons, one of which was a pride flag. By 2018, Gebbie'd made the decision to keep the pride flag up full-time.
"The longer I was here, the more I realized the rainbow banner was the one that drew people in and ... it saved their lives," Gebbie said.
A brief absence came after a man stole and burned it in 2019. Adolfo Martinez, 30, was found guilty of a hate crime, the first to be prosecuted in Story County, and sentenced to more than 16 years in prison.
The news led many to send an influx of vitriol to the church, despite it having no part in the sentencing. Despite the events, Gebbie said she holds no hate toward Martinez.
Gebbie said at the time that the decision to forgive wasn't hard, and that she wanted to focus instead on "How can we help him in his suffering and how can we maybe find a bridge between our two understandings of God?"
More from December 2019: Ames pastor chooses forgiveness after LGBTQ flag-burning sentencing – and the hate that followed
Finding personal peace between faith and sexuality
For Gebbie, it was harder to "come out as Christian" than it was to come out as gay, she said.
Like Johnson, her sexuality and conflicting beliefs with the religion she had experienced led to a long gap of absence from the church in her adulthood.
Raised in Portland, Gebbie said she was one of few to attend a Christian school in the “unchurched belt.” Still, she became disillusioned with religion watching the treatment of gay people and the handling of the AIDS epidemic.
A dozen years passed and Gebbie found herself failing out of a doctoral program. Speaking with her mother about what she’d do next, she said, “Well, I’ll become a nurse or a pastor.” Gebbie said the words came from somewhere other than herself.
“(Coming out as Christian) was really embarrassing because it’s, like, ‘Yes, I am going to side with people who hate me the most. Let me sign up for more of that',” she said.
Gebbie eventually found peace in the conflict between her sexuality and her faith.
“There is a difference between the Christian institution and the holiness we have faith in,” she said. “So it’s the human institution that is problematic, as a whole — as all human institutions are — and there’s the holiness we are gathering around, which is as generous, expansive, loving, merciful as we can imagine.”
After realizing ministry was her path and graduating from the Chicago Theological Seminary, Gebbie struggled to find a position, as pastoral positions for both women and members of the LGBTQ+ community can be hard to find.
“But once you do, it is likely to be a church that is vivacious, diverse and wide open to becoming what it needs to be for God and for the community,” she said.
Johnson has felt that increasing acceptance in his own career in small-town congregations.
The last congregation he served was the Bethany UCC congregation in Baxter, a town of 1,000, which became an open and affirming congregation just a few months before welcoming Johnson to serve as their minister in August 2018.
Another small-town Iowa congregation refused to interview him in 2011 because of his sexuality but recently changed their stance to acceptance, he said.
“I think that’s increasing the acceptance in our culture — even in small towns in Iowa,” Johnson said. “I think that’s a development that’s fairly recent.
“All those small changes are really big. They seem small, but to happen in small-town Iowa, for families to be much more accepting of gay people in their families ... they certainly add up to a big distance.”
'Pushing for justice ... takes courage'
Along with the usual topics, sermons at Ames' United Church of Christ have tackled issues like racial justice, too. And while the church preaches social change, many congregants are part of that change.
The church is one of 35, along with a handful of social service agencies, that participate in AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy. The alliance responds to community needs, from mental health to housing.
The group helped to form the Story County Housing Trust Fund, a source to fund home rehabilitation, affordable housing projects and rent assistance.
The church also formed a Social Justice and Outreach Committee, in which Smith serves as chair. The committee aims to "promote justice in the Ames community," she said.
Last year, the committee decided to raise a Black Lives Matter flag outside the church, which caused a stir inside and outside the church, but Gebbie said signs like these hold the church accountable.
"Pushing for justice when the community isn't ready for it, it's hard; it takes courage," Smith said. "Sometimes, it seems like it can lead to backlash, and sometimes it seems like maybe the smart thing to do is to wait."