Showers of Stoles exhibit reflects faith journeys of LGBT clergy


The Chautauqua United Church of Christ is hosting a Shower of Stoles Project exhibit July 6–19. The Stoles represent the lives of LGBT religious leaders. Photo by Greg Funka.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

While the Rev. Dr. Ruth Snyder was a pastor at a Lutheran church, she fell in love with another woman.

But the church had a policy that did not allow gay and lesbian people in a relationship to be pastors. When the national assembly met in August 2005 to vote on whether to change the policy, the vote did not meet the two-thirds majority it needed.

The day after the vote, Snyder decided she no longer wanted to live a double life.

“I said to my partner at the time, I said, ‘I don’t think I can keep doing this. I’ve got to get out,’ ” Snyder said.

After serving the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 23 years, Snyder met her bishop a week after the vote with a letter of resignation in hand.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender religious leaders throughout the country have faced fates similar to Snyder’s because of their sexual orientations or gender identities and some churches’ policies. In 1996, Martha Juillerat founded the Showers of Stole Project, which serves to end religious discrimination against LGBT people.

From July 6–19, the Showers of Stole collection will be exhibited in the Chautauqua United Church of Christ headquarters. Fifty stoles will be displayed, said Linda Tomsen, the project coordinator. Snyder will also share her story at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in UCC headquarters. Tomsen will speak about why she made the stole.

The project is a collection of more than 1,000 donated stoles that represent the lives of LGBT people who serve God and have had to leave their churches due to their sexuality. The stoles stand for leaders from 32 denominations and faith traditions in six countries and three continents, according to the project’s website.

Before creating the project, Juillerat was a Presbyterian minister in Missouri. But when she came out in 1995, the church threatened to defrock her and she chose to set aside her ordination, according to the website. Both she and her partner wanted the presbytery to know there were others in that same situation.

Juillerat and her partner asked friends to donate stoles to hang at Juillerat’s last presbytery meeting, which was the day she set aside her ordination. The two received 80 stoles almost overnight, according to the website, and people continued to send them afterward.

Tomsen discovered the project when Snyder was an interim pastor at the Church of the Nativity UCC. When she heard Snyder’s story, she decided to create a stole for her to donate to the Shower of Stoles collection.

“When she told me her story about what it was like for her to go through leaving the Lutheran church, it broke my heart,” Tomsen said. “I just made me feel so bad about what she had been through because I saw what a skilled and gifted minister she was.”

The stole — which was made into a duplicate to give to Snyder at her installation — depicted Snyder’s faith journey. Each section of the stole was decorated to represent a part of her life, such as baptism, the Lutheran church, leaving the church and starting a new life at UCC. Her journey is told through the colors of the church year.

Snyder had been born and raised Lutheran. When she decided to leave the Lutheran church, she originally planned to find a secular occupation. But her bishop convinced her to go on leave from call rather than resigning. She told Snyder that she might want to consider going to UCC, which allows LGBT pastors in a relationship to serve, Snyder said.

A UCC representative who had talked to Snyder’s bishop looked into what it would take to transfer to the church, Snyder said. Her former bishop had mentioned Snyder and told the representative to pay attention to her because she would make a good pastor.

“So she actually had kind of opened the doors for me with the United Church of Christ,” Snyder said.

Since leaving the ECLA, Snyder has served as a pastor at two UCC congregations. She served the first in May 2006 at the St. Stephens-Bethlehem UCC as an interim pastor for 18 months. The second and current congregation is at the Church of the Nativity UCC in the Town of Tonawanda, she said.

There are six places in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality, Snyder said, and churches have different views about sexuality depending on their interpretations of the Bible. Those who take the Bible seriously but not literally can make a judgment based on its historical context. The way people understand homosexuality now is different than how it used to be understood, she said.

“When you read it from a historical perspective and in the context of everything else and in the context of love, you just have a different attitude and feeling about it,” Snyder said.

The hardest part of leaving the Lutheran church was leaving her dual life, Snyder said. As a pastor at ECLA, she was able to love someone who loved her in return, but she also loved the parish ministry and could not be honest about whom she was in love with.

“Being in the closet was hard, and when I finally made the decision to come out, it was actually a big relief,” Snyder said. “And I was really prepared spiritually, so I just knew it was the right decision.”