By Markus Williams
Every victory comes in time work today to change tomorrow because to fulfill your life’s purpose you must answer when you’re called. On December 7, 1961 the voice of Franklyn Schaefer joined the symphony of voices on this earth. Decades later that voice would become a voice of change.
He was born in Wuppertal West Germany into a very religious family. Both his mother and father were conservative Baptist and the young Frank often wondered why they had to be the last to leave church. It was a loving and peaceful home and they live in a peaceful community, a community where just a few decades earlier World War II had left its mark on West Germany and the entire world. Wuppertal had been rebuilt and in school they talked extensively about the legacy of the Third Reich. As students they were encouraged to critically examine the history of their own country and as a result of that act of critical thinking, Frank could not understand how people, including many members of the religious community could buy into the ideology of Adolph Hitler. He even questioned himself, would he have spoken out on behalf of his Jewish brothers and sisters.
One day he learned that his grandfather was arrested because he refused to fly the flag promoting hate and he refused to allow his daughter to participate in the camp promoting such thinking. He had always known that his family was critical of their countries past but he now had a sense of pride knowing that someone in his family stood up when it mattered. Years later Frank would also find himself under fire on the wrong side of authority but the right side of history.
Frank studied and prepared for a career in engineering and as an interpreter but then he heard and answered a call into the ministry. In 1990 after spending the first 28 years of his life in Germany Frank and his young family immigrated to the United States where he would attend Valley Forge Christian College and the Princeton Theological Seminary. He had come a long way from his conservative fundamentalist beginnings and he now embraced a more progressive and inclusive spirituality. He found what he thought could be his religious home and voice in the United Methodist Church, a place that excited him because of their theology and their forward thinking with the ordination of women. But even in this church that he fell in love with, all was not embraced at the welcome table.
He settled in Lebanon Pennsylvania into a life of being a husband, father and pastor and all was well until the day his religion collided with his humanity. At the age of 17 his son Tim Schaefer came to Frank and his wife and shared with them that he was gay. Tim, through tears lamented about his efforts to pray his gay away, how he didn’t think he would go to heaven and how he thought suicide was his best option. They immediately embraced their son and through tears Frank was devastated as the full impact of his son’s ordeal moved him. At the time Frank was tolerant but he was not an advocate that would speak up and speak out. His silence was now hitting home in a hard way.
Seven years later in 2007, after growth and healing, Tim Schaefer was now in love and preparing to get married. He went to his father and asked if he would perform his marriage ceremony. Living in a conservative area he felt a moral conflict knowing that his church could be destroyed and that he could even lose his job, a job that he felt called to do. In spite of this, his decision was clear. The price of speaking out was indeed a high one but the price of silence was even higher. Choosing to stand on the side of love he informed his superiors that he would be performing the ceremony for his son’s wedding and he didn’t stop there. He was no longer interested in participating in a worship service that was not inclusive of all of Gods children, he welcomed people into his congregation that had been discouraged from attending.
Tensions and bitter feeling grew in his small church and in 2013 it all came to a full crescendo when an angry parishioner filled a formal complaint against the pastor for performing his son’s wedding. Initially most people spoke in favor of his actions but support would not last. People started turning away from him, other accusations were layered on him, hatred was revealed, friendships were ruined and families were broken. Fully aware of his actions six years earlier the bishop hoped to handle the problem by putting a letter of reprimand in his file. Feeling no shame for his actions Rev. Schaefer said he would take it as a mark of honor. The politics of the situation forced it to go to trial. On November 13th of that year his case went to trial with 13 jurors selected by his peers. He was found guilty on the first day of trial and he was pressured to say that he would not do it again. He instead spoke truth to power. He testified that we must stop preaching hate and he did not care if he was defrocked or if he was even stoned he had no fear as he knew he had done the work of God. A 30 day suspension followed after which he continued to stand his ground. On December 19, days before Christmas, his credentials were revoked and he was out of a job and income. Keeping the faith and undeterred he continued to persevere eventually appealing the decision and successfully being reinstated. Reverend Schaefer never expected to be a gay rights activist. He found himself in a situation where he could not look away and pretend that it was not there.
He has been in the center of a media storm ever since his trial made the news. His story is captured in the2014 book “Defrocked.” He believes there is unity and strength in diversity and that we are at our best when we accept that diversity in others because God delights in the beauty of His creation.
We celebrate you this evening Rev. Frank Schaefer for speaking up when it mattered even at a great cost to yourself. You have shown us that all people are created in the beautiful image of God and that when we speak on behalf of Gods children we are a voice of change.