Gay Pastor in the Bronx Could Lose Her Collar

In 1994, when the Rev. Katrina D. Foster became pastor of Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, she threw herself into ministering to her small, mostly Caribbean-born congregation. She not only preached to them on Sundays but lived in the neighborhood and showed up to support them in everything from surgeries to legal matters.

But Pastor Foster was keeping a secret from her congregation. She held onto it even after a woman came to live with her in the parsonage, then joined the church choir.

“Some people would say, ‘It’s so nice you have someone to live with you in that 11-room house,’ ” said Pastor Foster, 39.

But in 2002, when the woman, Pamela Kallimanis, became pregnant, they knew the time had come. So Pastor Foster sat her congregants down one by one and told them that she and Ms. Kallimanis were partners and were expecting a child.

Not one person openly criticized her, she said. Instead, “they threw us the most wonderfully outrageous baby shower in the side yard next to the church,” she said. “The woman I was most anxious about telling” — the church president — “I thought she was going to leap across the table and hug me.”

The response, however, was not all positive. A small number of families trickled away. Pastor Foster said only one member told her outright why she had stopped coming. “I got her on the phone one day and she said she couldn’t sit under a pastor who was a homosexual,” she said.

Now Pastor Foster and her roughly 100 congregants face a new challenge: the possibility that she, along with four other pastors in the New York area and 81 nationwide, could be defrocked in 2009 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The country’s largest Lutheran denomination, it allows openly gay pastors but forbids them from being in same-sex relationships, according to the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the denomination’s New York-area synod.

In August, Pastor Foster was among the clerics who disclosed that they were in such relationships at the church’s biennial national assembly in Chicago, where church policy was decided. The assembly voted to urge synod leaders not to discipline those pastors until the issue of pastors in same-sex relationships could be voted on at the next meeting, in 2009.

Bishop Bouman said he would not have disciplined Pastor Foster anyway. “She is someone whose faith is genuine and she lives it in a very bold and inclusive way,” he said. “She’s not afraid to tell people that she loves God and that God loves them.” When Bishop Bouman leaves to take a national church position in Chicago in March, however, whoever succeeds him in New York may aim to defrock Pastor Foster before the 2009 assembly.

Another pastor in the synod, the Rev. Paul Hagen, of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the Bronx, isn’t supportive. He said that the “the Bible clearly defines homosexuality as a sin.”

He would not say whether he wanted Pastor Foster defrocked, but asked: “Can she honestly say she is a follower of Jesus? Does she teach what Jesus teaches or what she teaches?”

And a few members of Pastor Foster’s church say they still are struggling with the passage in the Bible that many consider a prohibition on homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Pastor Foster has not preached directly about that passage. Charlotte Sapp, a church member who runs a local H.I.V. prevention and support group, said she was hoping for more guidance on the issue. “If it’s wrong concerning the Bible, show us this, why it’s wrong,” she said.

Pastor Foster said she felt that other passages were worthier of analysis, and that the one in question was one of many Old Testament passages that are no longer taken literally.

The Fordham church is uncommon for reasons other than its lesbian pastor. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is overwhelmingly white, the Fordham congregation is primarily black and Hispanic, reflecting changes in the neighborhood, which was a German enclave when the church began in 1915.

The congregation is also mostly female. Many members are nannies, home-care attendants or cleaners, and were raised in cultures strongly opposed to homosexuality. The Lutheran church has attracted many Caribbean natives with missionary work in the region.

“I think we’ve all grown because of her,” said the church president, Emilie Ramdhanie, 61, a Virgin Islands-born social worker. “She’s made us a lot more aware of what it means to be gay and have a full life like anyone else.”

Pastor Foster, who is white, says she has longed since childhood to be a pastor in the denomination in which she grew up.

On a recent Sunday, she delivered a typically energetic sermon to a group of about 40, exhorting those with children to turn off the TV and make sure homework was done.

“Everything I gave up to follow Jesus made my life better,” she said in a classic preacherly cadence, a slight drawl signaling her upbringing in northern Florida. Pastor Foster, who wears rectangle-shaped eyeglasses a no-nonsense brown ponytail, declared, “You have to be a little bit odd to follow Jesus.”

A chorus of “Amens” and “That’s right!” rippled through the congregation.

Pastor Foster and Ms. Kallimanis, a poet and professor, bought a co-op in the Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood in 1999 and moved out of the parsonage, which was turned into a home for unwed mothers. Their daughter, Zoya, is now 5, and often plays with other children in the church. The women say they love the congregation and don’t want to leave it but that they have been saving money in the event they must. “Katrina was looking for a fight when she went to Chicago in August,” said Ms. Kallimanis, adding that for now, “I’m just glad that the church has agreed to disagree” on the issue.

Meanwhile, Pastor Foster has the support of her congregants. One, Pat Jewett, 51, a subway custodian, said she would write a protest letter if the pastor were disciplined or defrocked. “When they explain how she’s living in sin, it’s hard for me to fathom that,” she said.

The Sunday before she went to Chicago to disclose her relationship, Pastor Foster explained to her congregation that she was about to put her collar on the line.

“She said she needed everyone to keep her in prayer because it was very heavy in her heart,” said Mrs. Ramdhanie, who instructed the other congregants to gather closely around the pastor. Mrs. Ramdhanie had one 71-year-old woman, whom the pastor had seen through a mastectomy the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, improvise a prayer.

“She prayed a prayer that was so comforting, the pastor started to cry,” Mrs. Ramdhanie said. “Everyone just hugged her and held her, several praying very loudly for her.”

And how did all that attention make the pastor feel? “Wonderfully overwhelmed,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I have the best congregation ever.’ “

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday November 25, 2007.
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