A Twist of Faith

From her small-town Baptist roots to her run for public office, Jeanette Mott Oxford has relied on her religious convictions to overcome fear and prejudice -- including her own.

Liberated by this realization, Jeanette soon left her partner. Being abused was no longer part of the plan. Neither was hiding out or worrying so much about other folks' salvation. Her purpose was now more clear -- she wanted to teach religion -- and she enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where she finished her bachelor's degree in religious studies. Unforgiving with regard to what had happened to her father in the mines, she got a job during the summers for the Southern Counties Action Committee, which, among other things, worked on issues concerning the lack of quality health care in rural areas.

After graduating from SIUC in 1986, Jeanette applied to Eden Theological Seminary near St. Louis and was accepted. In the meantime, she met a woman named Dorothy, who would provide her the kind of support in her new life that her parents had provided in her old one. She was also listening to different music now too, music written and performed by women like Holly Near who were like her. It was music that, like the gospel and civil-rights songs she had listened to before, calmed her, assured her, helped bring focus into her life.

Then, in 1987, while enrolled at Eden, she got a call from Elizabethtown saying her mother had leukemia. For the previous year, doctors had told Marie Oxford that the symptoms she complained about were those of sinus infections. But one month after the leukemia diagnosis, Marie was dead.

For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.
Jennifer Silverberg
For the nine years that she led the Reform Organization for Welfare (ROWEL), Jeanette Mott Oxford's battle against prejudice was as much against her own as it was against society's.

After the funeral, indignation at a system that wouldn't take care of the health of its poor churned through Jeanette like water through a paddlewheel. As she sat in her family's living room and thought about the senseless reasons her mother had died, she watched the townsmen in their overalls sit with her crippled father and cry.

During her two years at Eden, Jeanette wrestled with what she wanted to do with her eventual ministry. She knew she wanted to fight injustice, perhaps work on behalf of poor, rural folks or gays and lesbians, but nothing seemed all that clear. Not yet.

Then she took an internship at a local church, where she coordinated programming for children. During Black History Month, she hung pictures on the wall depicting various forms of traditional African-American worship. One morning, as she looked at them with a 5-year-old girl, the youngster pointed to a dark woman in one of the pictures: "She's ugly."

Jeanette looked up at the woman in the picture. "Why do you think she's so ugly?"

The girl shrugged: "Because she's too dark."

Jeanette looked down at the child, who was the darkest person in the room. She thought about her own father's warning that black men were dangerous, and here was a little African-American girl who had been taught that her own dark skin was ugly. What did that mean for this young girl's life? That she was always going to be comparing her own skin to that of other people. Jeanette felt her heart pierced in a million little places.

For most of the two years she was at Eden, Jeanette kept her strengthening relationship with Dorothy to herself. Although she accepted who she was, and though the United Church of Christ had allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers since 1971, each local conference made independent decisions about who could and could not be ordained.

As the time when she would approach the local Southern Illinois conference drew near, though, she couldn't stop thinking of the little black girl and what she would have to face throughout her life. She also thought a lot about her mother's death and about how bravely her mother had faced it. Jeanette herself was still living a lie.

She soon decided to tell the conference committee that she was a lesbian. She knew it jeopardized her chances of becoming an ordained minister, but she couldn't work for God living in a world of fear and deceit. As she prepared for her defense, some of the committee members told her in private that they felt gays and lesbians should be treated by the same standards as everyone else. Others told her that if it was up to them, she'd never be ordained.

When she formally stood before the 14-person panel, one member delivered the committee's general concern: Because she was a lesbian, no church would employ her, and because no church would employ her, she couldn't be ordained. Because being called by a church was a prerequisite for ordination, there wasn't much point in pursuing the matter, and the panel voted 8-6 to drop Jeanette. She, however, didn't have much time to absorb the consequences of her courage, because the news media picked up the story. Though she avoided interviews, the story got out anyway, and she realized she'd have to go home and tell her father before he saw it on the evening news.

The trip home was a hard one. The explanation to her father was harder still. She told him again that she was a lesbian and that because of it, her dream of becoming a pastor was dead. She also had to warn him that reporters would try to contact him and might even come to the house with an entire news crew. As she explained, as simply as she could, her father pulled her onto his lap as if she was 5 years old again.

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