Gay minister for SF Unitarian Church
by Rob Akers
San Francisco's Unitarian Universalist Church, a church with a predominately-straight congregation, has announced the selection of its first openly gay senior minister â€“ who is also an adoptive parent.
The Reverend Gregory L. Stewart began his ministry at the church on August 1 and is scheduled to give his first sermon in the pulpit at the 11 a.m. service, Sunday, September 10. He is the 19th senior minister of the 156-year-old congregation.
Stewart, 48, said his personal passion derives from his belief that the "Unitarian Universalism offers an accessible conduit to fully realize human lives and fully functioning societies in our world today."
"We are poised to lead a religious movement which reinvigorates stale rituals and reinvents sacred trusts with an integrity that has stood the test of time," he said.
Stewart and his partner of 26 years, Stillman White, are the adoptive parents of five children, ages 6 through 13. His children were adopted from the Los Angeles area where four of the boys had been in the foster family system. Their youngest son, David, was adopted six years ago.
The Stewarts all have one thing in common â€“ they have had to overcome the challenges of bigotry shown same-sex parents.
While serving a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Stewart said he and his partner were told by area law enforcement officials that the men should carry the adoption papers for the children in their car glove box. Failure to comply would result in the police taking the children for safekeeping as the officers would not understand that two white gay men could be parents to children of color.
"We have had run-ins with the law in red states that find our family configuration unbelievable and we have learned to carry adoption papers whenever we travel," he said.
Through his family's experience, Stewart said he has deepened his commitment to ministry with children and families. He has a conviction that youth are among the most effective agents of social change.
"My partner and I are registered domestic partners in California and have been active in the 'Freedom to Marry' movement," he said. "My partner is a former social worker who first exposed me to the lives of children in need of permanent, loving homes. We know so many LGBT parents who adopt children that would otherwise be forever caught in the American foster care crisis."
Stewart said he believes in the "inherent worth and dignity" of every person. The Unitarians are one of the most liberal religious groups.
"I possess an enthusiasm for liberal religion that is contagious and an urgency to let people off the hook of religious righteousness that says some of us just don't measure up to antiquated, dogmatic standards," he said. "I desire to explore the power of human love on a path with those who value the journey more than the destination. I share perspectives that derive from everyday life as well as the wisdom of historical seers and sages. If we are life's meaning makers we had better get to it and not let the power elite in this country make it for us."
Stewart said he first came out while in high school, in 1975. His Baptist parents â€“ his father also was a minister â€“ were unusually accepting and often supportive of him, he said.
"They were much more concerned that I became a Unitarian Universalist in college than about my sexuality as the fires of hell are turned up few degrees higher for the former," he said. "Their primary concern for all their children is that they be happy and never lonely. Once [I was] partnered, one fear, at least, was relieved. I shed my Baptist heritage â€“ or perhaps it shed me â€“ and was in process to become a minister in another liberal Christian denomination. At the same time I began to work for a Unitarian Universalist church. It was like a homecoming."
The Unitarians, he said, have the zeal of the Baptists and a message of integrity that's grounded in the real world.
"LGBT folk played prominent roles at all levels of institutional life, which meant I might actually land a job after three years of graduate school. Many of my gay colleagues in seminary had little hope of actually fulfilling their calling as ministers," he noted. "Upon graduation I applied for ministerial positions in both denominations. The Unitarian Universalist doors swung wide open; the others sealed tight."
Stewart earned a bachelor's degree in music at the University of Illinois; a master's degree in musicology from Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University, and his master's in divinity in urban ministry at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.
He has served churches in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Reno, and now San Francisco, plus a one-year interim position in Grand Rapids.
Stewart is also the creator of the critically acclaimed intergenerational program, "Way Cool Sunday School," an "outside of the box," experientially based approach to liberal religious education. He is a published author, and remains a regular columnist.