Preaching his truth
Sep 02, 2016 06:00AM ● Published by Samantha Sciarrotta
This summer is one of firsts for William Stell.
Stell is the new pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Bordentown. He gave his inaugural sermon at the church in July. It’s his first job as a pastor. He is also Bordentown’s first openly gay pastor.
“My hope is that my own experiences as a queer person, my own sensitivities over time and my social awareness will inform what I say from the pulpit, how I do ministry,” he said. “I absolutely want to be both a pastor and a LGBT advocate at the same time. The way that looks in terms of preaching as pastoral care, I’m a pastor who happens to be gay.”
It took time for those two identities to meet, though. Jan Ammon, a chaplain at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where Stell, 26, graduated from in May, helped him see and celebrate that dual identity. The message it sends to other queer people—and the world at large—is just as important as his ministry.
“So many people in the world still think of these two identities as being antithetical,” he said. “If these two can come together and thrive together in one person, and in many people today, what does that mean for other conflicts and differences? These are identities that we’ve been taught are conflicted. But they aren’t. They don’t have to be. They’re made to be conflicted. For me, I am really excited to be a gay pastor for that reason. It is a ministry to queer kids, but for anyone who sees conflict and division and difference dealing out more death than life.”
Stell’s own upbringing was a religious one from the start. He grew up in Sherman, Texas, a small town about an hour outside of Dallas, with his parents, Steve and Carrie, and sisters Alyssa and Sarah. Stell’s parents moved to Sherman the year he was born after Steve took a job at Austin College, a small, nominally Presbyterian liberal arts college. Steve was a professor of theology for the first 18 years of Stell’s life. Stell recalls running around the college campus as a five-year-old, knowing its ins and outs like the back of his hand.
At the college, Steve met Annabelle Wilson, at the time a 60-year-old Austin employee who worked in his building. She lived Sherman her whole life, and her home church was Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, an all-black Baptist church in the town. She often asked Steve to join her at mass after she learned he taught theology, and one day in 1990, he and Carrie, a teacher, obliged.
“They left church in silence, drove home in silence, and then got home and looked at each other and just burst into tears,” Stell said. “They knew this was where they were supposed to be.”
The Stells, Greater New Hope’s only white family, had a new home church, and it stuck—Steve was installed two years ago as the church’s first white pastor in its nearly 120-year history.
The experience was formative for Stell. The black worship space, he said, is more embodied—it’s something that the body does as well as the mind, the heart, the soul. It also gave him a sensitivity to and passion for inclusion from a young age.
“If I as this little white boy can learn not just to be accepted but be at home in this black space, what does that say about other forms of difference in this world, and the possibilities, hard though they may be, for coexisting?” he said. “And not just existing side-by-side, but collaboration, working together, becoming intimate friends and intimate partners in life. That’s a big part now of what I see, my calling as a pastor of this church—facilitating and seeing that, too, as being God’s work, in a way.”
That very sense of inclusion and open-mindedness is what drew Deb Branson and the other members of the First Presbyterian Church’s pastor selection committee to Stell in the first place.
The three church members interviewed around 10 candidates, and while the committee had a list of positives for each candidate, they always went back to Stell. There really wasn’t any doubt, Branson said.
“We were blessed,” she said. “We’d interview somebody and say, ‘She’s pretty good,’ and then just come back to William. He’s wise beyond his years, and he’s very comfortable with who he is, which spills over. He says it’s okay for me to be who I am. It’s a wonderful, positive energy that he brings.”
And it runs in the family, Branson said. She met Stell’s parents and one of his sisters when they came to town for the Princeton Theological Seminary graduation ceremony.
“When you meet them, you know where he came from,” she said. “They’re wonderful. I said I wished they were my next door neighbors. They’re inclusive and comfortable in their own skin. Beautiful human beings.”
Stell and his sisters were home schooled, and he made some friends in a local home schooling group who attended a nondenominational Evangelical church. He started going there, in addition to Greater New Hope, and being a part of that church’s youth group was the first step in discovering his aptitude for pastoral work.
Around that time, too, he became more and more aware of his sexual orientation. On one hand, he was thriving in a “religiously-motivated homophobic space,” and coming into his own both spiritually and socially. On the other hand, he grappled with a part of himself that, according to that same space, was wrong.
“In high school, these were just kind of existing simultaneously,” he said. “I’m coming to some sort of suppressed, distorted, frightened understanding of my sexual orientation, and, at the same time, growing in my general self and also in a sense of giftedness for ministerial work.”
The reconciliation—and coexistence—of those two aspects of Stell’s self did not begin until his college years. He attended Wheaton College, an Evangelical liberal arts school outside of Chicago. He thrived there, and fell in love with reading the Bible and thinking theologically about God again.
Wheaton, he said, was a relatively diverse space compared with his home in Sherman. He laughs about it now, but he was intrigued by the fact that many of his classmates, people who shared his faith, felt that women could be pastors—a liberal ideal for Stell at the time.
“That was a step toward more openness, however close-minded it might seem from this vantage point now,” he said. “It seemed open to me at the time. That kind of openness was a good thing. There was more diversity included and accepted than certainly in the communities I was coming from, but still this tension.”
Which led to Stell, who lives and is in a civil union with his partner Robert, internally accepting his sexual orientation, as well as reconciling that with his faith, to which he was more committed than ever before.
After graduating from Wheaton, Stell knew he wanted to go to seminary. He was advised, though, to take a year off before going back to school. He spent that year in Jordan with the Mennonite Central Committee, living at working at a boarding school for deaf and deaf-blind children. The school housed around 150 kids, about 140 of whom were deaf and 10 of whom were deaf-blind.
Stell was the only native English speaker at the school, and the students taught him Jordanian sign language—the only way to communicate with the students. To communicate with deaf-blind students, Stell and his colleagues pressed the signs into their palms.
They learn those signs by feeling—and so did Stell. Doing his job at the school meant using his whole body, not just his mouth or his ears. It was one of the final—and one of the most important—steps toward accepting his sexual orientation.
As a closeted teenager in his home space, he was taught that his body and his desires were bad. He grew up with a narrative that told him the “disordered, dirty body” he lived in would be redeemed only if it was suppressed, that Jesus saving his soul was the only thing that could redeem that “badness.”
“Long after I had dismissed that, I found that this was still lingering in my mind and heart,” he said. “It substantially was processed using my body in just undeniably good ways…This body is working salvation right now, and this body is good. This body’s desires are good. Exegetically and theologically, I was at peace. I can be a person who is in a loving, same-gender relationship and be a Christian. It took more than just thinking through that and saying it. There’s a lot of lingering internalized homophobia that had to be picked at. Working with these deaf-blind kids through my body was one really important way for that.”
That experience in Jordan also instilled, on a subconscious level, a confidence and readiness for ministry. There were times when his work was messy, he said, and times when it was beautiful and enlightening. Ministerial work often follows that same path.
He worked with a 12-year-old deaf-blind boy in particular. The student was prone to epileptic seizures, but because he could not verbally communicate, asking a simple question like “How are you feeling?” was complicated.
“The messiness made the beauty all the more profound, and the beauty made the messiness more bearable,” he said. “You have all these people coming from lots of different backgrounds, generations, demographics, and yet, here they are seeking God and trying to better understand what God has for them, what God has for their city and their world. For me, church just seems like an ideal space to do that same sort of messy, beautiful daily and weekly work of life together.”
Stell has done internships and worked with other churches, but this year is his first as a pastor. It’s one of a number of firsts that he and the church are ready to work through together.
“We’re all kind of learning as we go,” he said. “The church has never had an openly gay pastor before. The philosophy is going to emerge in tandem. Each Sunday, we can step into the ring together and create something new. That philosophy is in process. That process is exciting to me.”
It’s exciting for Branson, too, who can’t help but see good things in Stell’s future.
“I just have a feeling that at some point in life, maybe when we’re in the nursing home, we are going to be able to say, ‘We knew him,’” Branson said. “We hired him to come to this church. I see him doing great things. I see him being a peacemaker. He has qualities that could definitely go there, to be a unifier. Nobody that’s met him has said anything different.”