Gay Berkeley pastor discusses church’s role in love, sexuality

Pastor Jeff Johnson stands at the pulpit in the University Lutheran Church.
Simone Anne Lang/Staff
Pastor Jeff Johnson stands at the pulpit in the University Lutheran Church.

A tall man in his 40s with a booming laugh and a silver earring, Pastor Jeff Johnson has a lot to say about the role of the Christian church in the love lives of Christians and non-Christians alike.

It is Taco Thursday at the University Lutheran Chapel, and Johnson is addressing a table full of members of his congregation over dinner in the activity room of his church, a few blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus.

“If you let the church into your bedroom, that’s kind of a mistake,” Johnson says as he lifts another forkful of cranberry salsa to his mouth. “People have the right to say ‘the church can sit in my living room and have tea but they can’t follow me into the bedroom.’”

Perhaps better than most members of the clergy, Pastor Johnson knows the impact the church can have when it comes to issues of sexuality and society.

Pastor Johnson is gay and, up until 2009, was not recognized as an ordained pastor by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Because of a church rule requiring clergy to remain celibate unless married — thus excluding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy due to the California ban on gay marriage — Johnson was not admitted to the official clergy roster until the rule was revised in 2009 to state that LGBT clergy would be admitted if they were in a committed relationship.

Today he wears a silver engagement ring that he says is worn with the hope that California law will soon allow him to marry his partner of five years.

In the wake of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision Tuesday to rule Proposition 8 unconstitutional, he may be a little closer to achieving that reality.

“It is a very good day to have the Court reaffirm what we all know to be true about (the) United States and the Constitution under which we all live,” Johnson said. “All people enjoy the same protections and guarantees.  All of us are equal under the law.  A narrow-minded moral agenda cannot change that.”

However, Johnson has had a rocky path as an LGBT pastor, and his position at University Lutheran initially engendered controversy. When called to the chapel in 1999, Johnson had not been admitted to the ELCA roster as a result of the celibacy rule, so the local bishop issued a letter of censure against the chapel for its decision.

Since the change in policy in 2009, the letter has been rescinded. However, Johnson says that the memory of the controversy still lingers within the denomination.

“It’s been a complicated, almost 20-year process and the church had not been at its best during that process,” Johnson said. “It tried for almost a decade to sweep the issue away. It was 20 years of endless argument and the suppression of debate and the disciplining of churches and congregations that wanted to have this reality.”

Raised in a Lutheran household by Dutch parents who presented religion to him as a way to affect the world, Johnson decided to enter the ministry and graduated from California Lutheran University in 1984 and the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1988 and was called to University Lutheran in 1990 after his ordination in the same year.

Johnson sees the sometimes volatile relationship between religion and sexuality as one that has its roots in a lack of recognition of a changing society on the part of the church, as well as a too literal interpretation of the Bible. However, he also sees his identity as both a gay man and a Christian as a valuable part of himself which allows him to better appreciate the Bible’s message.

“The gospel message is primarily first and foremost to the least, the lost and the left out,” Johnson said. “I would have had a harder time getting that had I not experienced the oppression you experience in our culture as an LGBT person.”

Back in the University Lutheran Chapel, everyone finishes their tacos and Pastor Johnson begins to conduct the night’s service. While a few members of the congregation gather around the center of the chapel, he picks up a small Bible and begins to read.

Tonight’s reading is from the Book of Matthew.

“The God we worship is not a God who casts people into the darkness or casts out the marginalized,” Johnson says as he gingerly turns the pages.

After he finishes the service, Johnson puts away the Bible as light from the few candles flickering in the chapel bounces off his engagement ring.