Conversation with a LGBT Trailblazer: The Rev. Alice O’Donovan

Alice

God says, “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…You are precious and honored in my sight, and…I love you.” (Isaiah 43)

Do you remember 1988? 

  • The L.A. Dodgers won the World Series.
  • Lloyd Bentson informed Dan Quayle, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
  • George Bush assured us, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
  • Nike told us to “Just do it.”
  • Lemon-flavored Snapple iced tea was introduced.
  • A plane was shot down over Lockerbie Scotland, killing 270 people.
  • Popular movies included Rain Man, Big, and Beetlejuice
  • Some top TV shows were The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Murder, She Wrote.

In 1988, our country was in the midst of the AIDS crisis, a still little-understood disease that was causing terror and panic across the land. By 1988 over 81,000 cases of AIDS had been reported; over 61, 000 people had died.1

In 1988 Alice O’Donovan made history in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ by being the first openly gay person to be ordained.   It isn’t easy being first. I admire the courage and tenacity that enabled Alice to be a trailblazer and to answer the call to ministry. She was a pioneer and that is never an easy task.

When she and I met recently at a local restaurant to share a delicious lunch of Pad Thai, she reflected on the challenges and blessings of her path to ordination. Even after all these years, the pain and the joy of those memories can bring tears to her eyes.  Along the way she encountered ignorance, intolerance, betrayal, and a myriad of hurtful comments and actions. She also experienced the grace, kindness, care, and encouragement of people who recognized her gifts and supported her calling.

Every time there was a roadblock or challenge to her vision to pursue ordination, God seemed to place a messenger who delivered enough encouragement and grace to enable her to continue.

I am amazed Alice didn’t give up; I am inspired by her faithfulness.  Her home church refused to write the required letter of recommendation for her. The board of deacons instructed the minister to dismiss Alice from their congregation because of her sexuality.  Without a home church, there is no path to ordination.  When the Conference Minister heard about the church’s refusal, he encouraged Alice to persevere because, he said, it was clear that “she had all the requisite gifts to be an excellent minister.”  The Congregational Church in Storrs welcomed her in and invited her to be part of their church family; they were proud to sponsor her as a candidate for ministry.

Then there were the logistical challenges – Alice had to commute over 170 miles each week to take classes at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Coming from a busy household with three young children, that seemed completely overwhelming.  A member of her new home church pulled her aside during coffee hour one Sunday. She offered to watch the children and prepare a meal for the time-stretched family every week. This kindly soul looked Alice in the eye and said, “You belong in seminary.” Thank God for people who have both the insight to discern the gifts of others and the practical wisdom to lend a helping hand.

After years of taking classes, writing papers, doing field work, completing requirements, and putting thousands of miles on her car, Alice was finally ready for her Ordination Council.  One minister informed her that he would be attending but planned to vote against her. “It’s too bad,” he said, “you’re so well-qualified and you have all your ducks in a row.  But  you’re gay.”     With that pronouncement on her mind, Alice presented to the Council her paper describing her thesis based on the Apostle’s Creed. The Dean of the Yale Divinity School would later request a copy of her paper to use as an example for future students who needed to clearly define their faith.

The Ordination Council was comprised of a series of questions and answers about Alice’s faith and theology. It also included some who objected to her candidacy and who asked her to declare her sexuality in front of the crowd gathered for that momentous meeting. Finally Alice was asked to go to another room so the community could vote. When she re-entered the sanctuary, the assembly rose to its feet to applaud and cheer as she walked down the long center aisle of the church. Her candidacy had been approved by the voting members, 21-7. Alice O’Donovan could be ordained.

Her first call was to a small, rural church with no running water in Peru, Vermont. In her typical self-deprecating way, Alice maintains that the “minister no one wanted got the church no one wanted to serve.” Yet together they shared the Good News of a God who cares, welcomes, heals, and renews.

In the years since 1988 Alice has served a number of churches.  She compares her different calls as a pastor to the experience of trying on a series of shoes; each successive one fit slightly better than the previous one. I wish her ministry was considered newsworthy simply because she is an excellent preacher and a compassionate caregiver.  Too often, however, it was her sexuality that drew people’s attention.  When she became the pastor of the South Windham (CT) Congregational Church in 1991, the New York Times covered the story and put her picture on the front section of the Connecticut Section.

Alice continues her ministry even as she enjoys semi-retirement. Later in October, she will be the guest preacher when the Westfield Congregational Church in Danielson CT marks its 300th anniversary. Every year she presents a workshop at the True Colors conference, a statewide gathering of LGBTQ youth held on the UConn Campus. She poses the question, “Is the Bible the word of death or the voice of hope for the LGBTQ community?”  She says that the answer to that question is “yes.”

Alice wisely observes that people can prove or disprove almost anything using Scripture; the problem is not God – it is how people misuse the Bible. The most important thing to remember, she says, is that God loves you.  Always.

That has been the ministry of Alice O’Donovan. She has lived out her conviction that all of us are called to serve God.  She says, “Conversion is my favorite game. I want everyone – really, everyone – to know they are loved by God.”   She has watched the world change since 1988 and she has been part of that change. The world – and the church – is a better place because of her compassionate ministry.

1 http://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/  Captured October 2, 2015

10 thoughts on “Conversation with a LGBT Trailblazer: The Rev. Alice O’Donovan

  1. Nancy Ducharme

    I met Alice for the first time when I played the organ at a wedding in Brooklyn, CT. Since then, she has filled in at our church a couple times and I’m always excited when I see her at the pulpit because I know I will be inspired and entertained. I felt then, and still do, that she is a gifted pastor and an outstanding human being. After reading her story, I admire her even more!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Name Withheld by Request

    Thank you for this story of an incredible human being who, more than once, has given me cause to feel that I am a witness to history. I have had the privilege of finding inspiration in the Reverence O’Donovan’s gentle and unassuming example and message over decades. As a gay woman, and a Christian, Alice’s message of God’s love and acceptance helped me to walk in the knowledge that God loves me-yes, me. And in the 1980’s and beyond, that was no easy task. I was witness to the Ordination Council when bigots arose and objected and was moved to tears by her example of God’s grace in the midst of what became at times a storm of ignorance. I gave thanks and celebrated with her and her family at the triumph that was her Ordination. She counseled my former partner and I as we prepared for a commitment ceremony and she preached a mighty sermon. When that partner left me for another, my heart and mind reeling with grief, I made a horrible mistake and attempted to take my own life. In that dark night of the soul when I awoke in the hospital, Alice was there, holding my hand with tears in her eyes. As I began to heal and to put the pieces of my life back together, all along the long walk back to strength and hope, Alice and her beloved Cass found ways to gently support and include me. Now, decades later, Alice’s message of God’s abiding love has been realized-and I am forever grateful for her shepherding, holding a lamp aloft and illuminating the way home. We may never know how many lives she has quietly touched as she has mine. And for that I say thanks be to God.

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  3. Nancy Freyberg

    I was married to a minister and had two small children. I met Alice in the beginning of her journey and the beginning of mine. Her strength gave me hope. Hope gave me courage. The minister is now married to the right woman and so am i. Thanks Alice.

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  4. Cynthia

    Thank you for this message I cried when I read it knowing the loss of community amd rejection. So wishing we had ministers of faith here in this country. It has come long way but the churches have made it clear that we don’t belong. So fostering faith is one way to have that connection with community of faith. To feed our souls. Thank you

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    1. Sue Foster

      Thank you, Cynthia. We will continue to pray for the people of Ireland and hope that equality reaches the churches soon. Peace to you.

      Like

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