The Silliness of Prejudice

Update from John Shuck: The vote in Holston Presbytery was NOT to receive Don Steele by vote of 27 yes to 64 no. A lot of fear. That said, there were a lot of positive, gracious speeches in favor. That did my heart good.

Rev. Don Steele is a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery who has retired with his partner and son to Eastern Tennessee. Today Holston Presbytery will vote on whether or not to receive him as a member, and based on the process so far, they are unlikely to do so. Rev. John Shuck of First Presbyterian Elizabethton, TN, reflects on Don’s ministry, and calls the presbyters of Holston to do the right thing. Pray for Don, John, the good folks at FPE and the commissioners to Holston Presbytery today.

From Religion for Life

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Don Steele, will be examined Tuesday, December 4th, at the presbytery meeting.  Welcoming a minister with 42 years of experience should be automatic.  There should be no exam.  It should have been an easy decision by the Committee on Ministry.

But prejudice is irrational and silly.

Here is Don’s statement of faith and personal journey.

The Rev. Dr. Don Steele has been a Presbyterian minister for 42 years.

When he was ordained, I was eight.

He has a Ph. D. in Ethics and Spirituality. Somewhere along the line he learned the difference between right and wrong.

He has served as a minister of congregations across the United States from West Virginia to New Mexico. How many sermons do you suppose Don has preached in 42 years of ministry? How many weddings? How many Bible studies has he led? How many cups of coffee with parishioners struggling with issues and with confidences that he will take with him to his grave? How many prayers has he shared with parishioners in hospitals and in homes and in his study? How many funerals in 42 years? I know of one important one at least to me. This summer he held on to me while I held on to the corpse of my dead son. He was there with my family in my home. He was there as we sent Zach to his final rest at the crematorium. Don is still there for us. What does it take to be a minister? You tell me.

He was the dean of the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education Programs at McCormick Theological Seminary. In addition to administrative duties he taught master’s level and doctoral level courses.

He taught ministers how to be ministers. There is no one in this room who is more qualified to be a PCUSA minister than The Rev. Dr. Don Steele.

Already in this presbytery, he has been working. He was responsible for distributing a $10,000 grant on behalf of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to flood victims in Washington County. He serves on boards in Carter County for those suffering domestic violence and poverty. He serves with me in my congregation. I ask him for advice. He knows what to do. He has experience in the ministry. It would be silly not to welcome him with trumpets into our presbytery.

Prejudice is really a silly thing. When you prejudge people without knowing them you miss out. It’s a waste. We are not missing out in Elizabethton. Whether you decide to miss out or not, that is your call. It won’t affect us and it won’t affect Don.

But it will make the presbytery look kind of silly.

Even still, we will be here. We will welcome and celebrate and be blessed by the gifts and skills of those who land on our doorstep even if they drive from Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Morristown, and Meadowview, VA to be with us. The denomination is moving in the direction our congregation has been charting. If you would like to join with us in this bold adventure of following Jesus we would love to work with you.

Call us. We would love to help congregations get over this stifling and silly prejudice.

Faith Journey-Donald M. Steele

From Shuck and Jive

October 31, 2011

In the life of a 64 year- old, there are more stories than can be encompassed in one page, At the outset, I would simply note that for me as for most pilgrims, the journey is not so much the story of my growth in faith as in God’s faithfulness in the warp and woof of the weaving of my life. Along the way, I taught in a Catholic middle school related to the Schools of the Sacred Heart, whose founder, Saint Catherine Drexel, saw as the goal of education to see a student, “seriously begun.” I hope that at age 64, I am perhaps at last “Seriously begun” and trust that the “One who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6) Since there is so much to tell, I will try to describe the journey in strands for God’s weaving rather than chronological events.

Strand One- Illness
My earliest serious illness began during my first pastorate in Hinton, WV, where I was sent to the Mayo Clinic and hospitalized with my first severe bout with asthma. Other health challenges have included epilepsy, osteoporosis resulting in a broken back due to the seizures, and lymphoma. Later, a dangerous asthma attack in Chicago again hospitalized me and led to a prescription of a warmer, drier, less polluted climate, which opened a door to accepting a call to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gallup, NM adjacent to the Navajo and Zuni reservations. My service there was interrupted by a serious stroke, which left me unable to continue due to partial paralysis and partial blindness. In 2011, advanced arthritis led to a knee replacement with complications prolonging the recovery during rehab. Through it all, I have experienced God’s presence as healer, companion, and comforter.

Strand Two – Social Justice
In many ways my parents laid the groundwork for my growing involvement in issues of social justice. As staunch members of the rural Presbyterian Church in middle Tennessee where I grew up, with their influence and that of my Scottish immigrant grandfather, who lived with us until his death, our home was very Calvinist in its practices with no cooking, sewing or movies on Sundays. We did not eat out or do grocery shopping on Sundays, and so we didn’t participate in an economy that required others to work on the Sabbath. It was an early lesson in putting beliefs into action for justice. My parents also did not support the negative images, language, or actions that upheld segregation at the time.

It was not surprising then that when my college choice took me to Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College, I became very active in civil rights concerns and actions, especially in the garbage workers’ strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis and his death. This affected me profoundly as I viewed Dr. King as one who was “persecuted for righteousness sake.” During these years I experienced and began to follow my sense of call to ministry. At Union Seminary in Virginia, I became active in the peacemaking movement in response to the Viet Nam war. Following seminary, I understood my call to be to ministry in Appalachia, and I accepted the first of four calls in the region.

After Hinton, I served concurrently as pastor in Spencer, WV, as coordinator of CAM, the Coalition for Appalachian Ministry and as Special Presbyter for Appalachian Ministry for the Presbytery of Greenbrier. In these capacities I worked to address the social justice issues of the region including land use and abuse, mine and factory safety, and land ownership and control. With the blessing of my third WV parish in Charleston, I also participated in the WV Delegation of Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. Growing out of my regional work, I became increasingly involved in issues of national and world hunger, and after additional study at the Maryknoll School of Theology’s Institute for Justice and Peace, I accepted a call as Associate Director for International Relief and Development with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and made on-site visits in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the U.S., monitoring and encouraging programs to address root causes of hunger. Health concerns dictated that I decline the opportunity to move with the national staff to Louisville, and instead, went to Graduate Theological Union to pursue a Ph.D. In Berkeley, CA., in addition to teaching pastoral theology, ethics, and spirituality at two seminaries, a middle school and a graduate school, I participated in the support for migrant farm workers.

During these years, I also had to come to terms with the personal issue that tested most profoundly my trust in God’s faithfulness, as after listening in counseling to numerous students who were struggling with their sexual identity, I came belatedly to understand my own orientation and to self-identify as gay. I had long since known that gay, like other human conditions, is a gift, but 24 years into a committed marriage and ordination in a denomination that did not allow gay clergy, I pleaded with God. “Could it please not be my gift!” God, on the other hand, already knew me and was big enough to handle my shame and grief at hurting my wife, who had shared so much of the journey. With the help of excellent therapy and many courageous and faithful gay Christian friends, I “came out” first to myself, then to my wife, and eventually to others in the church and institutions where I worked.

That process has continued to this time, but I was committed that no employer would choose me without first knowing this aspect of my truth, so they would not hear after the fact and wish they might have made another decision. This included my service at the School of Applied Theology in Oakland, at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, at Children’s Hospital in Chicago, where I was chaplain, at three ”More Light” congregations, where I was Parish Associate, and at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gallup, NM., where I was solo pastor. A disabling stroke ended my service there due to partial paralysis and partial blindness. The Presbytery of Santa Fe granted me the status of Honorably Retired. Despite my disability, Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh allowed me to serve as Parish Associate. In Pittsburgh I was also able to volunteer as a teacher in a faith-based, non sectarian college prep school for low-income minority students, which has sent all of its graduates on to college – the first in their families to do so. If I am received, I hope to serve in some meaningful ways in the Presbytery of Holston.

I am thankful that First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton is a More Light congregation as well, to allow me to worship with my deeply spiritual partner of 17 years, Jeffrey Watkins, who is also my nurse. In all these matters, it has been God who was faithful to me on the journey. Thus I can say with hymn writer, John Newton,” Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come, ‘twas Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.” Thanks be to God!

Strand Three – Ecumenical Relationships in Education and Service
Though Presbyterians played the largest role in my formal education in college, seminary, and graduate school, I have also been equipped and expanded by institutions, and programs planned and led by Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, National Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Not surprisingly, then, I have found great joy in being a brother in the ecumenical Franciscan religious order, the Mercy of God Community, whose core commitment is to work to “overcome the scandalous divisions within Christianity.” With the current national climate of distrust of other faiths, that commitment is expanding to include overcoming the harm done to others (both Christian and non-) in the name of Christ.

Strand Four – Family and Friends
All along the way, God has blessed me with wonderful family and remarkable friends. My afore-mentioned parents and grandfather helped me to get started. Cynthia, my former wife of twenty-four years, who remains a special friend, my adult son, Davidson, my brother, Lewis, nieces, Li and Claire and their families, extended family members and particularly my partner and skilled caregiver of 17 years, Jeffrey Watkins, have all been incredibly supportive and loyal through many joys and sorrows. They have been multiplied by many parishioners and friends beyond any deserving, who have sustained my hope, courage and faith along the way and witnessed to God’s steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy. One Friend in particular, Baptist pastor and educator, the Rev. Dr. Brian Ammons of Durham, North Carolina, has accompanied me through many of the most difficult days.

Strand Five – The Future is open because of the Faithfulness of God
Just as “the past is prologue, “ So the future is God’s Finishing School to which I gratefully commit.

Statement of Faith – Donald M. Steele

October 31, 2011

In the beginning, GOD
Who created and continues to create the heavens and earth, the universe, all creatures and all humanity, including me. This God is revealed most clearly in the Scriptures, our unique and authoritative rule of faith and practice and entrusts to us the care and stewardship of the earth.

In the midst of life, (in the Fullness of time) GOD
Was incarnate in Jesus – Emmanuel, God -with- us – a Palestinian Jew, whom I have come to love and confess as the Christ or Messiah, who came as teacher, healer, reconciler, justice-seeker, prophet and Savior for all humankind. Jesus calls ordinary women and men into discipleship and the church catholic, eats with outcasts, teaches that all are children of God, heals the sick, and demonstrates the realm of God, and in his life, death on the cross and resurrection reveals the lengths to which God will go to in order to show mercy and bring life to all, to show that no one , absolutely no one is expendable. When Jesus returned to God, God sent the Holy Spirit as comforter and energizer who empowers the church to live as Christ’s body in the world today.

In the end, GOD,
Who like the prodigal Father runs to meet the children and welcome us home, and Who like a mother hen gathers us together and offers comfort and safety, and Who in Jesus goes before us to show us the way.