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Journey of Faith Sermon – Rev. Fred Plumer – IUCC on the 25th Anniversary of Open and Affirming


View Video of Fred’s Sermon at IUCC on June 12th, 2016

My story starts 35 years ago when I entered seminary. Pacific School of Religion is the oldest seminary on the west coast and has always tried to be cutting edge. When I arrived “bright eyed and bushy tailed” in 1981 I learned that PSR had decided two years before to become the first seminary in the country to openly admit gay and lesbian students. They even accepted spouses for gay or lesbian students and provided housing. So naturally there was a significant number of gay students who took advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Of my class of 75 students, I am guessing that roughly a third were lesbian or gay, as was the entire school by the time I graduated.

No let me be clear, I was OK with that. After all I had a gay friend… once in high school. And I knew a young singer who once told me he was gay and I did not freak out. Well I didn’t punch him. But now I was a forty year old man, kind of macho guy. I was OK with the gay thing, if they gathered alone and kept to themselves.

I wish I had the time to share all of the experiences I had those three years. Most of them… were painful… a few were funny. I was kicked out of a class on feminine theology that I had signed up for; I was told by a professor that I should not be taking her class on “unlearning racism” because I had never experienced prejudice nor had I been shunned. I was challenged in class by a lesbian woman who accused me of “just not getting it.” And I was lectured by a black professor who yelled at me in class that I was the epitome of “white privilege.”

Three years later was a different story. I was comfortable with just about everyone in the school. My wife and I had become close friends with Judith and Kathy, who lived across the hall from us. They took care of our daughter Deshna, who was four when we arrived. We played with them whenever we could. Frankly, I think most of the students felt pretty comfortable with me by the second and certainly the third year. It was a learning experience for all of us… but I still saw the prejudice thing as their problem.

Then there was John Sam. In my second year of school, I had a class with John Sam. One day after class I could tell something was bothering him. When I asked him if he was OK he told me “not really.” In the next twenty minutes I got a lesson that I could not have imagined. John Sam told me that he had spent time in a British prison. The authorities had given him a choice of three years in prison or to be put in a mental institution so they could reassign his sexual orientation. He chose the latter and apparently went through unspeakable “treatment.” After 8months of torture, they finally let him go. That was within only 10 months of his being accepted into PSR. John Sam’s story touched me. We became close friends and we still are… Facebook friends.

Let’s fast forward to my third or fourth year with (Irvine United Christian Church (IUCC). I had become acquainted with Larry Agran, who had recently become Mayor of Irvine for the first time. He called me one day and asked me if I would mind coming to a council meeting to add support to the new law the Irvine City was considering that would protect gays and lesbians in the work place and public housing. I told him sure. I had lived in Berkeley after all. I had been in a graduate school that offered housing to gay couples. I thought it would be a cake walk. I also thought there would be several other clergy there to support the law. We were all Christians, right?

When I got there I was shocked. Approximately twelve clergy on the agenda, and I was the only one who was scheduled to speak in favor of the law. I have never felt afraid to speak in public. But there was an overflow crowd in a room that was supposed to seat two hundred and fifty that was totally full with another hundred in and outside. And all but a few were opposed to the law. It was a hostile environment. By the time it was my turn to speak, I really thought I was going to be sick. I have never been in a room so full of hate and anger… a bad combination. I stumbled through my comments when I was called on and then went outside with people calling me unbelievable dirty names. I actually did vomit in the bushes.

Happily the council ignored these people and passed the law. However, I actually felt it would be challenged, and it was. A group of evangelical citizens formed a political group and in a few months they managed to get enough signatures to force it into a city wide vote. Measure N. It wasn’t long before I got another call from Larry the mayor. This time he wanted to have lunch… I should have known. Larry explained that there was going to be group formed to fight those in favor of measure N. But they needed a spoke person. Would I be willing to take on that responsibility?

Well, this was a whole new ball game. I knew I would be quoted in the papers. I would be investigated by people who thought I was evil, and every mistake I made would be blown out of proportion. But I knew I had to do it. So the following Sunday, I let the congregation know. I explained why I was going to take the position and what my responsibilities would be. I asked anyone who wanted to talk to me about it to make an appointment so we could talk.

With the wonderful support of this fantastic and brave congregation, I ended up on the front page of the Orange County Register, the LA Times, Daily Pilot and there were a several articles in the Newport Beach paper. Orange County Register ran an editorial making me out like some kind of a Hollywood playboy. But the good news was that every time they posted an article in the paper, another ten or twenty visitors would show up. Many of them stayed. It was a wonderful time in our history.

A large percentage of this congregation really got behind the anti-Measure N debate. We painted and marched with signs in the Gay Parade. We tried to get out the vote with people we knew were supportive. We did everything right … accept it was not enough. We were defeated. I was devastated. I noticed most of the gay community took it as something normal. Many consoled me.

The main reason I share these stories is to try and explain how different the world was only twenty five years ago. There was true hatred/fear for the LGBT community in our city and frankly across much of our country, particularly among the evangelical churches folks. I received mail and email that would shock most people today. Our church had graffiti painted on it with filthy words. One day I came into my office and there were close to a hundred little yellow stickys all over the walls and furniture with nasty language directed at me. It got so bad, for several months the Irvine police had a patrol car coming through our parking lot four or five times during the afternoons and nights. We had a couple of bomb threats. Several times when things seemed particularly heated, as I approached my car, I would drop my keys on the ground, so I could look under it check for bombs.

About this time I was invited to speak at the annual Gay Pride festival. I really had a wonderful time. My talk went well and as I walked around the games and events, it seemed like everyone there knew me. I was heading home and when I walked out of the fenced area, I suddenly realized that there was a group of men, from ages of 25-40, standing around with signs in the direction I wanted to go.

“That’s him,” one of them shouted. And suddenly, I was surrounded by a group of protestors. At first they were all shouting Bible verses at me but as they moved in, they slowly started chanting, “heretic, heretic, heretic.” One very large man was holding a large sign with a painting of Jesus who seemed to be looking down at me. It was on a long pole, and this guy had a pocket to hold the base of the pole. Every time he would yell heretic, he would come closer to me, with this picture of Jesus waving over my head. I cannot tell you how sorry I was feeling for Jesus in the middle of the fray. I sincerely did not know if I was going to get out of there unharmed or even alive.

And suddenly there were about 10 or 11 men from the festival who showed up. Without any fanfare, words or ugliness, they surrounded me. We slowly starting moving this ball of men toward the parking lot. When we reached my car, I got a couple of long, genuine hugs. And then they were gone. I got in my car and sat there for a few minutes shaking. I was pondering what had just happened. And then it hit me. This is what gay men have to go through every day. I was so sad. At that point I started weeping and that turned into sobbing. I have no idea how long I sat there in my car crying but when I was done there was a peace that came over me that I will never forget. I realized I had gone from being a good pastor, doing the right thing to a zealot activist. I made a promise then that I would never pass up an opportunity to speak or act on behalf of the LBGT community again. And I’m pretty sure I have kept my promise.

It was about that time that Barbara Luckett, who was our moderator at the time, came in to talk to me. She asked a simple question. “Isn’t it about time we become an Open and Affirming church?” I told Barbara I thought that was a great idea. We had a lengthy discussion about timing but finally agreed it was now. Why don’t you bring it up at a council meeting and I will support you. And that is what we did.

We had no idea what the process was but our council decided we should move forward. It turns out there was not much of a process set up back then. Although there were several churches on the east coast that had gone through some process, there were very few on the west coast and few people recorded what they had done. The more we dug, the more we discovered that there was not much out there except that we needed a vote, the vote needed to be posted in our by-laws and it had to be 51%.

Well, I knew after the measure N debacle, we could get 51%. In fact I was pretty confident that it would be closer to 100%. But I wanted our people to understand the issues. I wanted them to become advocates, not just accepting, but people who really knew what was going on. I wanted them to become partners with the entire community. So we decided to make it a two year process and we were going to create it.

And that is when Susan Sherman came to see me. “Why don’t we record the congregation going through the process so other churches can use it if they want a model?” Well that is a story in itself. Our congregation funded the beginning seed money and we started creating a process. We discovered very quickly that there were two sister churches also going through something similar so we invited them to become part of the process and asked them if we could record some video during some of their sensitive conversations. They were Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, when Jerry Stinson was the pastor. And First Congregational in Long Beach when the late Mary Ellen Kelsby was their pastor. It was a wonderful and very creative group.

At IUCC, we had gay, lesbian, transgender speakers over a period of months. We got together in what is referred to now as Plumer Hall, and broke into small groups to discuss our fears, our hopes and our dreams. And yes we even talked about our sex lives. I remember one potent moment. The hall was full, and there were lively conversations going on all over. But Marge Cunningham, who was in her late 70s at the time, suddenly jumped up as I walked by and blurted out, “Fred! This is wonderful. If we can talk about our sex lives with each other, we are going to be able to talk about anything.” She laughed and sat back down. It was a funny, and wonderful moment.

After we had raised enough, I believe over $14,000, to record all of the video material we thought we needed, Susan and I went through tons of material and picked out the most interesting things. She managed to turn that into a rough video. But when she finished that stage, we knew two things. One: What we had was important. And Two: we were not going to be able to afford to finish it. So I called Rev. Bill Johnson at our national office and talked to him about our dilemma. He called me back and said he would fly out. After he viewed what we had done so far, he told us that he had one $15,000 grant and he was working on a another smaller one. We knew then we were going to make it.

And make it we did. That video has been shown in literally tens of thousands of churches and virtually every mainline denomination along with the workbook that comes with it. It has been purchased in at least four countries. The accompanying book that provides vital information and the process and things everyone needs to know. And it is my sincere prayer that it has been helpful to people who have suffered from our ignorance and fears for too long.

And by the way, we became an O&A church with only four people voting against it. It may be no surprise that they did not attend any of our workshops or lectures.

I have been asked many times, what was my motivation. I think I can honestly say I always tried to do what I thought Jesus would do today. I know that takes lots of interpretation and removing of boundaries that would have hindered him in those days. But, I believe he would have worked it out. Whatever it was, it always felt right and I am certain it felt right for everyone involved.

So congratulations IUCC on 25 years of becoming an Open & Affirming Church. It is clear to me that not only have you inherited a rich tradition but you continue to live out the Journey of Faith. I salute you.

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