From Missouri to the Emerald City
By Pr. Martin Billmeier, St. Lucas Lutheran Church, Toledo, Ohio
From Concord, the newsletter of Lutherans Concerned/North America, Vol. 29, No.1, pages 16-17
It was a long journey out of the closet for the Rev. Robert Barker. A fifty-nine-year-old Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor (now on “emeritus” status with his district), Barker was forced to resign from his call at Prince of Peace Lutheran in Clare, Michigan, in July of 2004 after proposing he teach a congregational Bible study on the topic of homosexuality and the Bible. After his resignation, his explanatory letter to his congregation noted, “I was ‘invited’ and strongly urged to resign as your pastor because some of the leaders of your congregation did not want to have a Bible study on what the Bible says and does not say on the issue of homosexuality and how it applies to the Christian faith.”
Barker grew up in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. His parents were Dutch Reformed in background, but he attended Sunday school only occasionally and was never baptized. What complicated his story was his burgeoning awareness of being different because of his sexual and romantic attraction to members of the same sex. After serving in the United States Army during the Vietnam War (he was stationed in Berlin), Barker attended Western Michigan University beginning in 1970. There he was active in the Lutheran campus chapel where WMU history professor and LCMS clergyperson, The Rev. Dr. Paul L. Maier, was pastor. Barker also attended a local American Lutheran Church, Prince of Peace Lutheran in Portage, Michigan, where Rev. Dr. Rex Heidman was pastor. He decided to become a Lutheran Christian and was baptized at the ALC church and confirmed by Dr. Maier at the campus chapel. He joined the ALC congregation, but finding himself drawn to a conservative theology – which he confesses he used to hide behind as a gay man – he later transferred to a local LCMS congregation. “Of course, I continued to be closeted and in self-denial and conflict about my true sexual orientation,” he notes.
“It was about this time I came to believe that if I were a good Christian, God would eventually cure me of homosexuality. I also came to believe that by committing myself to the Christian ministry this would also move God to heal me,” says Barker, “At this time I also began praying for this ‘healing’ and for God’s forgiveness for what I was. Outwardly I presented myself as a confident, faith-filled Christian. Yet, inside I was very conflicted and didn’t see myself as either confident or faith-filled. In reality, I was in spiritual turmoil and confusion. But in addition to repressing and denying my true sexual feelings, I was also repressing and denying my true spiritual state of being.”
Barker finished college, attended seminary and received his first call as a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. “My studies during college and seminary served as a convenient excuse for not dating,” he says, “And when I entered the pastorate, I excused my lack of dating and pursuing a wife with the pious excuse that I was too busy with my work and did not want to divide my time between a family my church obligations. How convenient and pious an excuse it was. I portrayed myself as a voluntary celibate who was sacrificing having a wife and family for the sake of Christ and his Church. This, of course, did not prevent the matchmakers in the congregations I served as pastor trying to find the perfect wife for me. I had to devise strategies to put them off. I tell you, it takes a lot of work and effort to be a closeted gay man in the ministry!”
As one hears Rob Barker’s story, one gets the impressions that he, as many closeted LGBT people do, turned to conservative and homophobic institutions as a way to avoid the truth about himself. At one point he returned to the army as an officer in the Reserve Chaplain Corps. “I found out I didn’t like army life any more as an officer than I liked it as an enlisted man. Of course, there was the stress of being a closeted gay man in the military.” After five years, he chose to resign his commission and received his second honorable discharge from the army.
Over twenty-five years, he served three LCMS congregations. But while he lived in the closet during those years, the Holy Spirit was at work. “No amount of fervent prayer, repentance, or fasting for God’s healing was going to change me into a heterosexual person,” he says, “God was not cooperating at all in changing me because he already accepted me the way he made me.” Like Jonah running to Tarshish, Barker was running hard away from God’s design for him. In his early years at his last call in Clare, Michigan he even turned to reparative psychotherapy. “For a year I had weekly long-distance phone therapy sessions with a psychologist with the Joseph Nicolosi Reparative Therapy Clinic in California. It didn’t change me into a heterosexual, but it did help me deal with a lot of hostility that I had accumulated in twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, so it wasn’t a total waste of time and money.” Robert was coming out to himself and as he turned to the writings of the Rev. Mel White (Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America) and Metropolitan Community Church founder Troy Perry (The Lord is My Shepherd and he Knows I’m Gay) he came to the wonderful realization that he could be both gay and Christian. “Their books and the books of others became my real therapy to a road of self-acceptance, and self-integration, and the end to my self-denial and self-loathing,” he says.
At the same time, he began to move from an inerrant view of Scripture to a progressive interpretation where the “lively voice of Christ,” as Luther would say, sprang from the pages of Scripture to set him free. He began to challenge his tradition’s literalistic interpretation. Barker notes with a wry sense of humor, “I began rocking the boat and eventually rocked myself right out of it. This happened when I suggested to my former congregation that we ought to do an objective study of what the Bible says about homosexuality by looking up the most up-to-date exegetical scholarship of those scripture passages which fundamentalist Christians have been using to clobber LGBT people because they have been mistranslated, misinterpreted and misapplied to homosexuality as we know and understand it today.”
Today Robert continues to live in Clare with his partner of nine years, Steven Egler, whom he describes as “the joy of my life” and who with his doctorate in music, is teaching pipe organ in the keyboard department of the School of Music at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. The couple enjoys visiting and photographing lighthouses of the Great Lakes. Barker’s forced resignation in 2004 from his congregation has been a professional and economic disruption in his life, and he continues looking for full-time employment. He hopes to find a position with some organization that advocates for the rights of the LGBT community.
Sadly, Barker reports that following the rejection of his previous congregation, he has not found a spiritual community to call his own. He feels emotionally severed from his denomination and has “no fond feelings” for the LCMS. He reports that neither his colleagues in ministry nor his district president offered him pastoral care as he went through the trauma of separation from his faith community. He did briefly participate at an ELCA congregation, but conflict in that community turned him off to the organized Christian community as he has found himself “disillusioned with Christian congregations and the way Christians treat people.” He describes himself as “spiritual but not connected.” He is involved in a new online secure chat forum (see “Lutherans Freed in Christ” on page 18) that LC/NA is creating for LGBT members and clergy of the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods to have and outlet for support and information.
As for many of us who began our LGBT journeys in the more theologically conservative Missouri or Wisconsin Synods, it has not been an easy road out of the closet for Robert Barker, but it is a journey he treasures for it has brought him to a place where he may be who God created him to be, a place where he lives in the freedom of God’s grace as an openly gay man.
Gary: I was recently contacted by the former LCMS pastor mentioned in this article regarding the loss of his Christian faith. He was kind enough to share his story with me which was published a number of years ago in the above mentioned publication. He has given me permission to repost it here. He currently describes himself as a non-religious, spiritual humanist. I find his story very interesting. I am sure that many ex-Christians/turned non-theists can relate to his experience of not understanding why God does not answer prayer. We now know why: He does not exist.