Her Path to the Pulpit

Answering the call for the Reverend Eldonna Hazen first meant reconciling her sexuality with her faith. In her own words, First Congregational United Church of Christ's Associate Minister talks about why she's returned to the church.

Is it realistic to be a lesbian and want to be a minister? No… maybe… no… and yes! Those four answers, in that order, are exactly what I have experienced in my life.

I was raised in a small town in Nebraska, part of a family that not only attended worship regularly, but made the Lutheran church a cornerstone of their lives. My parents were both active in the church, and therefore I, as a youth, also became active. My church activities were as important to me as any of my school activities. I participated at the local, conference, and district levels in my denomination. I even had an interest in becoming a minister! I found God to be someone who seemed to love me in spite of all my inadequacies. But – and this is a big “but” – I had not yet found myself as a sexual being. I was too interested in my activities in sports, music, drama, and socializing during my high school years to deal with this all-important issue.

Then came college. Oh my, how my life changed. I found myself being attracted to a woman! How could this be? I was sure that God had made a huge mistake. Had God put the wrong body and mind together? Whatever the cause, I couldn’t get over the attraction to a particular woman. I wanted to spend every possible moment with her. She excited me in a way I had never experienced before.

So what kind of funny game was God playing with me? Remember, I came from a small town. I really wasn’t even sure what being gay or lesbian was. And the only things I could connect with those two words were jokes I had heard. I certainly had never heard anyone in my church talk about homosexuality, which I didn’t take to be a good sign. Even having all of these thoughts, I continued my relationship with this young woman. It felt good. It felt right. This was the love and passion I had never known. My freshman year at college held more new experiences than I ever could have imagined!

But the summer after my freshman year, things changed. Throughout that summer, I was again immersed in a church that not only didn’t talk about homosexuality, but didn’t talk about sexuality at all. I began to feel guilty. Anything I could get my hands on to read told me that I could not both love God and love another female. I had to make a choice. I had been so steeped in my religion that there seemed to be only one choice: I could not live my life as a lesbian.

Is it realistic to be a lesbian and want to be a minister? No! And having made that decision, I knew that I wanted to be a minister. I even told my family that I had made the decision to go to seminary after completing my undergraduate degree.

After breaking my own heart and the heart of the person I loved most, I attempted to live a life that would be acceptable to both God and society. I was closeted, so this struggle was very much internal. But that struggle continued and intensified. As much as I tried to live a life that society and the church approved of, it made my life empty. The relationships I found to be most fulfilling and meaningful to me were with women!

An important thing for me to mention at this point is that I never blamed God for any of these feelings. As I stated earlier, I thought God might have made a mistake in my creation, but I didn’t believe the God I loved would ever abandon me. What I did feel strongly were the voices of the institution of the church – either a total lack of conversation or the loud “You’re going to hell!” voice. Luckily, I rarely had to deal with anyone saying anything to my face, but I certainly heard and witnessed the powerful voices of the church.

One of the reasons I believe that I didn’t blame God is because I continued to be surrounded by people who loved and cared for me. I wasn’t out as a lesbian, but I now believe that there were people who knew my secret and still did not judge me. The most disappointing part of this reality was that I no longer felt comfortable in the the institution of the church. There was a disconnect for me. I didn’t believe the institution was representing God as I knew God. I stepped away from the church for ten years, believing that I could continue my relationship with God outside the religious community.

I entered another relationship with a female. Words cannot adequately express the difference between the relationships I had with women and those I tried with men. It was during this second major female relationship that I realized the nature of my sexuality,  that God not only loved me for who I was but had indeed molded and shaped me. I was starting to feel comfortable in “my skin,” but I continued to feel a longing to be connected to a faith community.

After nearly 16 years in this relationship, the relationship itself was becoming more challenging. I’m still not sure I can lay my finger on one cause for this, but it was eroding and I needed a community to support me for who I was. Through friends – straight friends, I might add – I found a Methodist minister who embraced me as a child of God and a church that, for the most part, welcomed me into the congregation. I again found a community in which to reconnect more wholly with God. This congregation nurtured me as a valued child of God, and I again felt the pull that God was calling me to the ministry.

I began a new, healthy relationship with Cathy, who is my lifelong partner. We found hope and strength in a religious community supported by our church family and our minister. I was given the strength, through this community and Cathy, to come out to my family and friends (at the age of 34!). It was my mother’s first words to me – “Well, we’re all God’s children” – that assured me of God’s love. It was my parents and friends who not only didn’t turn their backs on me, but loved me and assured me of God’s love, too. Despite this, coming out did come with challenges, for one member of my family vowed never to talk to me again and cut me off from his family. Unfortunately, he has held to his vow to this day.

The Methodist minister performed a union ceremony for Cathy and me in the church. We had been blessed and reunited with a God who loved us for how we had been molded and shaped. The blessings we received were overpowering. An enduring relationship with the church had been restored, and healing was in full swing. Cathy and my minister encouraged me to think again about the possibility of attending a seminary.  Is it realistic to be a lesbian and want to be a minister? The answer this time was – maybe. I lived in the hope of answering the call from God that I had heard so long ago.

I was attending a Methodist church. Could I be ordained as a lesbian? Well, yes, but I couldn’t be a “practicing lesbian,” the church said. We used to joke that we didn’t need practice, but the fact was that I wasn’t going to be “ordainable” by Methodists as a lesbian in an open relationship. I was raised in the Lutheran church. What was its stand? Could I be ordained? There had been a few such cases, but they had occurred under protest. This was yet another slap into reality. Is it realistic to be a lesbian and want to be a minister? The answer this time? No!

It was not until I talked with the wife of one of my former ministers that I again considered the possibility of answering a call to ministry. She encouraged me to visit a United Church of Christ seminary in the Twin Cities. When Cathy and I visited this seminary, we were embraced for what we were: an openly lesbian couple with a one-year-old son.

Is it realistic to be a lesbian and want to be a minister? This time, at last, YES! I was ordained into the ministry on July 29, 2006 by the United Church of Christ. My family and I have been embraced by the community of the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Madison. We are not merely tolerated here, we are affirmed.

Not only is it realistic for a lesbian to want to be a minister, it is imperative that I follow God’s call to model the behavior to love one another. LGBTQA all hear the loud voices of the institution of the church. The may not always be audible, but the messages can be loud and clear without anyone speaking.

Let me be honest in saying that I have not had to endure the pain and torture, physical or mental, that many LGBTQA people have encountered. I continually had people around me who did not judge me because of my sexuality. That is the very reason that I embrace the ministry today.

I see and hear of people who are mistreated by their fellow human beings. I want to make sure that we surround people in all walks of life to let them know that they are  God’s children, too. That even when someone abandons them, there are those, like us, who are willing to pick them up and show them God’s love. Thankfully, I had people in my life who showed God’s love to me. It is my goal not only to be one who shows love, but to be one of the loud voices that says, “Whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”