Gay pastor forced out of Lutheran Church in the '80s becomes 1st to be reinstated
Ralph Carl Wushke calls weekend ceremony 'the culmination of a lifelong dream'
Becoming the new pastor at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Toronto was like coming home for Ralph Carl Wushke.
The 66-year-old pastor was first ordained into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) in 1978, but was forced to leave in the '80s after coming out as a gay man.
But on Saturday, in front of a packed crowd of supportive congregates, he was officially reinstated.
"It was really the culmination of a lifelong dream for me," Wushke told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I was received back with great joy."
Wushke is the first pastor to be welcomed back to the church since it changed its rules to allow for LGBTQ clergy in 2011, the ELCIC says.
"I see it as an important step in our commitment to full inclusion of the LGBTQ2SIA+ community within our church and for equal rights and justice within the whole of society," Rev. Susan C. Johnson, the ELCIC's national bishop, said in an emailed statement.
David Berg, congregational council chairperson at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, where Wushke is now the presiding pastor, said the reinstatement was long overdue.
"While we cannot undo the damage and pain we have inflicted on our sisters and brothers, we can apologize, ask for forgiveness and welcome their generosity to us," he said in an email statement.
'This was something that I had to do'
Wushke says he's known since he was a boy that he wanted to be a Lutheran pastor.
"I think I've always known," he said. "As my mother would tell you, when I was six years old, I lined up my two younger brothers on the steps in our house and started preaching to them and insisting that they say, 'Amen' at the end of my prayers."
But as he went through his seminary studies, he says he became increasingly aware of his sexual orientation and worried how it would affect his career.
"Indeed, the night of my ordination was one of the biggest windstorms we've ever had," he said."I thought, 'Oh, this is just an omen for the storms to come.'"
In 1984, Wushke decided he could no longer hide who he was.
"This was something that I had to do, not only for the sake of theological integrity, but also because of my own mental and emotional and spiritual health," he said.
"What is the cost of discipleship? What is the cross that I'm supposed to bear? Is it to stay in the closet, or is it to come out and pay the price of being truthful honest and authentic? I chose the latter, and I've never regretted it."
Church enacts anti-LGBTQ policy
Wushke left his parish in Redvers, Sask., without giving a reason, he said, hoping to save the small Prairie community from scandal.
He moved to Ottawa and pursued other career paths. But he says he still felt the call.
A few years later, he reached out to ELCIC to ask if he could be placed in a new parish — one that would recognize and accept him as a gay man.
"One by one, the bishops just said, like, this is not possible really. I mean, unless you're going to commit to celibacy, you know, we couldn't even consider this."
The church then backed up its decision in writing. In 1988, the bishops issued a statement that "self-declared and practising homosexuals" could not be ordained as pastors, and those who were already ordained would not be permitted to head up a parish.
That statement was ratified the following year as official church policy at the national level.
"It was quite painful," Wushke said. "The Lutheran Church in Canada is quite small, and all of the bishops were also personal friends."
Coming back again
That policy remained in place until 2011. By then, Wushke had moved on, becoming a priest with the LGBTQ-inclusive United Church of Canada. He retired in 2018.
But a part of him always wanted to return to the Lutheran Church, he said.
"I imagined it a lot over the years," he said. "I never knew if it really would happen."
Just dispelling the perceptions of the church as a very negative, hostile institution is a big job in itself.- Pastor Ralph Carl Wushke
Last year, the Lutheran Church created a process specifically designed to fast-track the reinstatement of LGBTQ clergy who were forced out.
The timing was perfect for Wushke. He had just recovered from open-heart surgery and was feeling like he had a new lease on life. So when the opportunity to join First Evangelical Lutheran came up, he seized it.
"I feel like a young man again and had all this energy for ministry," he said.
The process of coming back has been emotional, he said, and an excellent first step. But he says there's more work to be done — and he's eager to do it.
"I'll try to serve faithfully. Our congregation is in the heart of the city, surrounded by Ryerson University. There are no end of possibilities. There is a safe-injection site around the corner. There's poverty," he said.
"The general public, I think, mostly associates the church with that kind of church that is rejecting, that is judgmental, that isn't warm and welcoming. So we have a task to say the church is a complex place ... and, I mean, just dispelling the perceptions of the church as a very negative, hostile institution is a big job in itself."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.