Gay black seminarian

Pastor Norene Smith and Gus Barnes.

During his pastoral internship at a church in Arcadia, Gus Barnes was approached by an older parishioner. She said he was the first African American she’d ever met, Barnes remembers.

But she didn’t say anything about his sexual orientation. In addition to being a rare black face in the town of 2,900, Barnes was likely one of the very few out gay men.

“I had to literally come out at this church,” he says. He did it during a forum with the congregation.

“There’s something you need to know about me,” he began. Then he paused. “I’m black,” he said.

After the laughter subsided, he announced that he’s gay.

“I’m not here to recruit anyone, and I’m not the representative for the entire black community either,” he added.

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They embraced me,” he says. “On Sundays after church, a group of us goes out to lunch. I go with them to these pubs. People will ask me who I work for, and I say, ‘Jesus.’ All of a sudden, people will have these wonderful conversations with me about their faith. I say, ‘Do you know where the church is?’ and I point to their hearts.

“I’m all about welcoming people back or welcoming them for the first time.”

Through sharing his faith, Barnes has connected with people who have never known a man like him before. He realized how far those experiences go toward creating a church that’s open to everyone, and he’s resolved to serve a church in rural Wisconsin once he’s ordained.

“I have two gifts: I’m black and I’m gay,” he says. “It’s a place to start a conversation and a dialogue. I’m kind of a package.”

Ripe for the calling

Barnes, 56, was reared mostly in Milwaukee. When he graduated from high school in 1979, his church — Epiphany Lutheran Church, which is now All Peoples Gathering Lutheran Church — wanted to send him to college and then to a seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. But he didn’t think the church was ready for a gay, black pastor.

Around the millennium, Barnes started a decade-long position as an administrative assistant at Reformation Lutheran in Milwaukee. After that, he became an active layperson at several churches, including Bay Shore Lutheran Church in Whitefish Bay, where he became friends with Pastor Norene Smith. She would become his mentor.

Six or seven years ago, while Barnes and Smith were planning worship for The Greater Milwaukee Synod, ELCA’s yearly meeting, she spontaneously asked him when he was going to attend seminary. “I hadn’t had any plans beforehand to have this conversation with him,” she says.

Barnes is only the fourth person Smith has urged to join the clergy, and she knew intuitively that he was right for the job and ripe for the calling, she says.

“He was ready,” she explains. “His first partner had just died. The time was right for him to take some kind of leap.”

In addition, Smith says Barnes has the qualities to become a successful pastor.

“He’s very compassionate,” she says. “He has tremendous gifts for worship leadership. He creates trust relationships quickly … partly because he’s vulnerable, and partly because he just really cares about all kind of people. He’s a tremendous singer. He’s really creative and a ton of fun. He’s got a great personality.”

ELCA acceptance and support

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the most inclusive mainstream Christian denominations. ELCA began ordaining women in 1970. In 2009, ELCA voted to allow individual congregations to hire gay and lesbian clergy if they are married or in monogamous relationships.

In August, Barnes will become a married man. His fiancé is Steven Obershaw, a retired state worker with a hobby farm near Platteville. Smith is officiating at the wedding.

The ELCA’s vote to allow gays and lesbians to serve as pastors caused a schism within the church. About 600 congregations left the organization between 2009 and 2011.

But the ELCA, like the world, continues to evolve on LGBT acceptance. In 2013, a gay man was elected bishop of the Southwest California Synod, and in 2015 the denomination ordained its first transgender pastor.

The church has been particularly supportive of Barnes. When Smith suggested he should enter the clergy, Barnes told her that he couldn’t afford it. To qualify for a pastorate would require four-and-a-half years of study and preparation. Barnes would need help with tuition and other expenses.

“Two weeks later Noreen found one benefactor who set up a fund,” Barnes says. “I will be the seventh person (Bay Shore Lutheran) has sent to seminary.”

After completing his internship in Arcadia, Barnes will return to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque for his final semester as a seminarian. He’ll graduate with a Master of Divinity degree. He’ll then be “open to a call” in January — a process Barnes compares to the NFL draft. His name will enter a pool of other ministerial candidates.

After joining a parish, he can be ordained. According to Smith, there are congregations that already are interested.

Rural life

Barnes has been surprised at the way he took to living so far from the city. In addition to being a place where he believes he can make a difference about perceptions of gay and African-American men, rural Wisconsin fit him like a glove.

Living in the country has also changed his perspective in positive ways.

After meeting Obershaw three years ago at a support group for people who’d lost their spouses or significant others, Barnes began spending time at his boyfriend’s farm. His enjoyment of life there reinforced his calling.

Barnes, who’s a cancer survivor, says he’s found rural life relaxing. He savors the near-silent times when all he hears is the whistling of wind through the trees. He loves looking at the stars, shining crisply in the dark sky.

Barnes plans to make his home at the farm near Platteville, surrounded by nature and his husband’s animals.

But Barnes knows that even in his idyllic new life, he’ll face challenges — including some within the church.

Although his experience with the ELCA has been positive, Barnes says the church still has a way to go. He wants to be a part of pushing it forward, but he knows that his mission isn’t going to be a cakewalk.

“As far as church politics, it’s still a boys’ club, and it’s still run by white men,” he says. “I’ll have to choose which battles to fight.”

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