A celebration of four decades of ministry was the centerpiece of Sunday’s send-off service for the Rev. William R. Johnson at a church he helped plant in Lakewood, Ohio. At Liberation United Church of Christ, there were smiles, tears and well-wishes for Johnson, the first openly gay person ordained by a mainstream denomination, and reflections on the strides in equality for LGBT people.
“I give thanks for the opportunity of providing ministry with tens of thousands of people and within the ecclesial structures of the United Church of Christ for 40 years. It should be remembered, though, that for nearly half of that time I served without pay, or sustained by the generosity of people who shared a vision of an inclusive United Church of Christ,” Johnson said.
Born in Houston in 1946, Johnson was one of the founding members of Liberation UCC in 1993. He is returning to California, where he was ordained by the UCC in 1972. Johnson has said that he never set out to make history, but wanted to fulfill a dream of becoming a minister.
Instead, Johnson was a catalyst in helping break barriers.
“Together we have made tremendous progress in ending biblical illiteracy with regard to same gender loving people,” he continued. “Together we have been a beacon of hope to people who felt shunned and separated from God’s love and grace because of prejudice taught in society and in the church. Together we have been an example to other denominations whose reticence to firmly stand for truth telling and justice has caused much suffering among LGBT people and our families.”
In June 1972, the same year Johnson was ordained by the UCC, he helped found what is now the Coalition for LGBT Concerns. He joined the UCC’s national staff in 1988, working on issues of education and advocacy about human sexuality and AIDS. He most recently was the vice president for the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries.
The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer and the Rev. Loey M. Powell, both colleagues at the UCC’s national offices, said the service honored Johnson for his ministry in a spirit of thanksgiving and celebration.
Schuenemeyer, the UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy, said Johnson’s courage, leadership and ministry helped open the UCC as “a place of welcome and inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. His prophetic witness not only advanced the cause of LGBT justice and equality, but was also instrumental in bringing Liberation UCC into being 19 years ago,” he added.
Powell, like Johnson, was ordained by the UCC’s Golden Gate Association of Northern California. “I know that his ground-breaking leadership made it possible for me and many others who followed,” said Powell, the UCC’s executive for administration and women’s justice. “I am grateful someone paved the way and I am grateful for the many LGBT pastors who provide outstanding leadership throughout the UCC.”
Johnson said there is more work needed for LGBT rights in the UCC. “In each generation, the struggle to understand one’s value and the power of one’s same-gender loving must be waged anew,” he said. “Together, we United Church people can help young people engage that struggle with courage so they will know that their love is good and that they have allies in overcoming the ignorance, fear and animus of those who oppose their rights. They need to know that they, too, are a gift of God to the world.”