Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Church pastor, gay man

Bellevue minister opens congregation's minds to homosexuality

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Keith Haithcock leads worship service at St. John United Church of Christ in Bellevue.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        When other kids played ball in the cul-de-sac, Keith M. Haithcock played minister in the basement, preaching to a congregation and choir of stuffed animals. He knew from the age of 4 he was called to be a minister. By his teen years, he also knew he was gay.

        For four decades, the Rev. Haithcock struggled to reconcile his faith and his sexuality. He was asked to leave churches because he was gay and kicked out of off-campus housing. He was ordained a Church of God minister — but on the condition he remain celibate.

        Today, after a lifetime of searching, the Rev. Haithcock is true to his calling as minister and to his sexual orientation as a gay man.

        He found sanctuary in an unlikely place: St. John United Church of Christ, a white, aging, straight congregation in tiny Bellevue.

        It isn't easy for the Rev. Haithcock to tell his story. Although he knows being gay has become more acceptable, he worries how people will react to him as a pastor. And he fears his congregation may be treated differently.

        He knows many faiths still are grappling with the issue of homosexuality — even the United Church of Christ, his own denomination.

        Although the United Church of Christ ordained its first gay minister in 1972, there are still only an estimated 100 openly gay or lesbian ministers serving among 1.4 million members and 6,000 churches nationwide. The Rev. Ralph Quellhorst, Ohio conference minister for the United Church of Christ, estimates 10 to 12 are behind the pulpit among the 443 churches in Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

        Some churches have left the denomination over the issue of homosexuality. And the majority of United Church of Christ congregations still wouldn't accept a gay or lesbian minister, says the Rev. Quellhorst.

        In the Tristate, the Rev. Haithcock knows of only two other openly homosexual ministers serving Tristate churches. One is at the Metropolitan Community Church, whose membership is predominantly gay and lesbian. The other also serves a United Church of Christ congregation, whose membership is primarily heterosexual.

        The United Church of Christ allows the ordination of gay or lesbian people and same-sex commitment services. But each congregation has the autonomy to determine whether or not to follow the national denomination's recommendations.

        Congregations decide how to run their services and choose their own ministers.

Vote for minister

        Last fall, the Rev. Haithcock sat in his office and waited. The congregation was voting on whether to call him — or offer a position as minister. He needed 75 percent of the vote.

        It could go either way.

        Carol Stitt is 67. She has sat on the wooden pews of St. John United Church of Christ for 45 years.

        The Rev. Haithcock was the first openly gay man she ever met.

        “I always thought, "Ooh, gay. Uck.' But I didn't know any,” says Mrs. Stitt of Bellevue. Meeting the Rev. Haithcock gave her a new perspective.

        “It changed me for the better,” she says. “Now I don't look down on them. They're just like everybody else. Their sexual preference is different from mine, and that's all.”

        Rick and Sharon Eaglin raised their two kids at St. John.

        Now the family attends a United Methodist church in Fort Thomas.

        “I can't have a minister who is gay,” says Mr. Eaglin, 52, of Bellevue. “I don't think a gay person is a responsible Christian.”

        The Rev. Haithcock knew it would take courage for the church to call its first openly gay minister. He had been told to leave other churches because of his sexuality. He prayed it wouldn't happen again.

        A colleague opened the door and said, “How's 83 percent sound?”

        Tears welled in the Rev. Haithcock's eyes.

        “It was overwhelming to think this little 112-year-old church in a little river town with what I call uptight white German heritage was going to call an openly gay pastor,” he says. “They love me, and I love them.”

Prayed to change

        By the time he reached college, the Rev. Haithcock discovered that most of the Christian world didn't think a person could be both a minister and gay. He grew up attending a grand, neo-gothic church in New Albany, Ind., outside of Louisville. He was a member of the Church of God, an evangelical, conservative denomination headquartered in Anderson, Ind.

        He never heard the church mention sexuality until he attended an international conference.

        “The Church of God doesn't have a Sunday School for homosexuals,” a speaker said. “We have an altar.”

        The Rev. Haithcock was ashamed. In a way, he agreed with the speaker. He questioned whether homosexuality was a sin. His own homophobia raged. He tried to hide his sexuality, pray it away and ignore it.

        But being gay was as much a part of him as the call to ministry.

        In 1982, at the first church he served, Ross Avenue Church of God in Hamilton, the Rev. Haithcock walked through the sanctuary in the dark hours of a winter morning. He laid on the floor by the altar. He cried, begged and screamed for God to change him, to make him not gay.

        Mr. Haithcock rolled over and stared at a sliver of light at the peak of the ceiling. He felt a sense of peace, as if God was lying next to him and saying, “I created you as you are. I love you as you are. And I will use you as you are.”

Struggling for acceptance

        At the Hamilton church, the Rev. Haithcock piled Kroger boxes in his car before coming out to the senior pastor. He figured he would be asked to leave.

        Instead, the senior pastor suggested they work on the problem and recommended the Rev. Haithcock see a counselor.

        He tried to be straight. Dated women. Prayed about his sexuality.

        “Then I'd say, "This is crazy. Why am I forcing myself to be something I'm not?' ”

        Two years later, the Rev. Haithcock was called to a Church of God congregation in Riverside, Calif. He fell in love with the state, liberated by its sense of tolerance and acceptance.

        Five months into serving this church, the Rev. Haithcock acknowledged he was gay. The senior pastor asked him to resign.

        For the next 2 1/2 years, the Rev. Haithcock painted houses and cut grass to earn a living.

        He worked as a janitor at a Church of God in Pasadena, Calif. When the members found out about his church background and musical ability, they made him minister of worship arts. Still convinced that ministry was his calling, the Rev. Haithcock began the ordination process. Normally it takes two years.

        The Rev. Haithcock was ordained nearly six years later. The delay, he says, was because of his sexuality. A condition of his ordination was celibacy. Although he's not dating anyone now, the Rev. Haithcock hopes to find a life partner.

        “I had believed my Sunday School teachers who told me church was a place where I could be honest,” he says. The ordination committee “asked me more about my sex life than my ministry. I don't remember a single theological question.”

        Four months after his ordination, the Rev. Haithcock left the church to attend seminary full-time for a master's of divinity. Next door to the seminary was a United Church of Christ congregation.

        Soon, he was serving as an interim associate pastor.

        The differences between the two denominations were astonishing, he says. The United Church of Christ believes it's more important for individuals to be in right relationship with themselves, others and God.

        It “was a safe place to search. All questions are honored,” he says. He left the Church of God.

        After graduation, the Rev. Haithcock accepted a call at a start-up United Church of Christ congregation in Dayton, Ohio. The congregation was 60 percent gay and lesbian, 40 percent straight. After 10 months, the church couldn't make ends meet, and the Rev. Haithcock was out of job.

        In February, 1999, he got a call asking if he would be interested in serving as a designated pastor at St. John.

Hard work more important

        Mrs. Stitt knew the new pastor was gay.

        “I thought, "Let's hear him. Let's see what he's like,' ” she says. “When I heard his sermons, I liked him. And when I met him, it was all over after that. I had no doubts.”

        Mrs. Stitt can remember when the church had to put extra chairs in the aisles for Easter and Christmas services. No more. In pews that could seat 210, average attendance is 63.

        Although there are a few young families, most of the members are older.

        The Rev. Haithcock set to work immediately to attract new members. He started concert series and Bible study groups and incorporated more music into the worship services. Mrs. Stitt suspects he's a better pastor because of his struggles with homosexuality. He can relate to people who are having their own problems, she says.

        And his sermons are great, says Mrs. Stitt. They're interesting and down-to-earth.

        “Sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're sad,” she says. “There's something for everybody. Young and old, man or woman, gay or whatever.”

        Ed Ulsas hasn't decided what he thinks about the Bible and homosexuality. The Bellevue man just knows the Rev. Haithcock is bringing life back into the church.

        “I thought he was a good minister,” says Mr. Ulsas, who is 56 and a lifelong member of St. John. “And that was more important.”

        The Rev. Haithcock was a designated pastor, which meant he would serve for two years while the church searched for a minister. They could select him — or offer the position to another pastor. The search committee looked at other candidates but recommended the Rev. Haithcock.

        “You would not have known he was an interim pastor,” says Greg Mathein, 52 of Dayton, Ky. “He worked with such zeal and dedication.”

        It was a risk to recommend a gay pastor, Mr. Mathein acknowledges. Nobody knew if it would cause deep divisions in the church or if the aging congregation would ever accept a gay minister. But the committee decided to base its recommendation on the individual — and the Rev. Haithcock's compassion and hard work — rather than make a judgment on homosexuality.

        A handful of people left, including the Eaglins, but new members have joined and attendance is increasing. In February, the pews were packed as the church celebrated an installation service, and the Rev. Haithcock officially became St. John's new minister.

        “I think some denominations probably are missing out on good pastors by not being open,” says Mr. Mathein, church council president.

        Denominations still struggling with whether to accept gay or lesbian ministers “have a lot to learn,” Mrs. Stitt says. “Just like we did. I think sooner or later, they're all going to come around. . . . I think maybe we've opened a door for others. It's scary, but it's worked out great for us.”


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