Noe Valley Voice March 2008

Historic Church Ruling for Gay Noe Valley Deacon

By Lorraine Sanders

On Jan. 15, longtime Noe Valley resident Lisa Larges silently watched what she now half-jokingly describes as one of the fastest Presbytery meetings she's ever attended.

"They just ran through the business. You could have made a motion that we would worship Satan, and it would have been approved," she says wryly as she recalls the afternoon she spent at the First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif., earlier this year.

And while Larges was not allowed to say a word during the proceedings, the speed with which the meeting progressed had everything to do with her. After being denied in two previous attempts, Larges was once again asking the regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church to approve her as a candidate for ordination.

A deacon at the Noe Valley Ministry, Larges, 44, has been actively trying to gain approval to become a Presbyterian minister for over 20 years. Her failure to achieve her goal has nothing to do with lack of religiosity, dedication, education, or effort. Rather, it has to do with Larges herself.

Larges is a lesbian, and the Presbyterian Church has yet to officially sanction the ordination of openly gay people within the church.

It thus came as a surprise to many, including Larges, when later that afternoon, after arguments were heard from both sides, the San Francisco Presbytery voted 167 to 151 in her favor.

"It really shocked me that people were so invested in [the case]. I really am proud of what this Presbytery did and the way they did it. Even the debate was pretty respectful," Larges says of the vote.

The case is the first of its kind to win approval from a regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The win cleared Larges to take the next steps toward ordination, which include a lengthy oral examination.

But whether the decision will result in Larges' official ordination is unclear. Since her case won approval, opponents of her ordination have announced plans to appeal the ruling. At the same time, several recent rulings voted upon by presbyteries in other parts of the country have not supported the path to ordination for the LGBT community.

"We don't know yet how it will change things on a national level," says Larges.

At the heart of the issue is a pesky clause in the national church's constitution which states that ministers in order to qualify must be celibate or legally married to a member of the opposite sex. However, the document also allows the church to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, the church constitution does not explicitly condemn homosexuality. If Larges had lied to conceal her lesbian identity or publicly declared herself celibate, she might very well have gained the approval she sought years ago.

According to Larges, the church's constitution reflects a misguided view of homosexuality.

"It perpetuates the viewpoint from the 1950s that being gay is about sex, that it's about behavior and not identity," she says.

She also considers the church's stance a theological contradiction.

"It's a don't ask, don't tell [policy], and how does that make sense theologically? When teenagers think to themselves, '[The church] is hypocritical,' well, there you go," she muses.

The complicated issue of the LGBT community in the Presbyterian Church is one to which Larges is both personally and professionally devoted. As the regional partnership coordinator for That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS), an organization that advocates full membership within the Presbyterian Church for LGBT persons, Larges frequently travels around the country as a guest speaker, educator, and activist.

"I was kind of a pious, religious kid, so the idea of having my faith and my work connected was really important to me, maybe as far back as junior high," says Larges, who lives on Dolores Street.

Originally from Minnesota, Larges was born blind, as was her older sister, to sighted parents. The sisters were among the first blind students to go through the public school system after the federal government began requiring public schools to accommodate disabled children in regular classrooms.

It was not until she attended St. Olaf College that she came out as a lesbian. The experience, says Larges, shook up her faith a great deal. In many ways, coming to terms with her lesbian identity was a journey of faith itself.

"Coming out has a really spiritual component. I think a lot of people in the LGBT community either run from the church, for good reason, or embrace it because they have that sense of spirituality," she says.

After college, Larges attended San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was a seminary intern at the Noe Valley Ministry in 1987 and has worshipped there since 1993.

"Noe Valley Ministry is an amazing little church, and they don't give a damn about the church's standards. If I wasn't part of such a supportive community, then it would have been a lot harder," says Larges of her recent attempts at ordination.

As for what the future holds concerning her own ordination and the fate of gay and lesbian church members in general, Larges believes most signs are in their favor.

"The positive thing is that, even among evangelicals, people under 35 have already figured it out. For the next generation of church leaders, [being gay] is really not a problem.... I really think this is the final gasp of heterosexism."

Still, she is not yet ready to declare triumph.

Says Larges: "I have faith that the church will change, but that's different from optimism."

Larges will preach at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street, on Sunday, March 30.