A pastor who speaks out for gay rights amid outspoken critics

With her rainbow bracelet and nose ring, Sarah Halverson doesn't look the part of cleric. But her activist heart takes her to the streets to speak up for living wages and affordable healthcare.

Sarah Halverson suspects that no one would look at her and guess her profession, and I'd say that's a safe bet. She's kind of young for the job, at 36, and she wears a rainbow bracelet and a tiny nose ring.

But the Rev. Dr. Halverson has been pastor of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa since 2006, taking to the streets as a religious leader to speak up for living wages and affordable healthcare, and raising a fist against discrimination of every type. She's long had an activist's heart, but she didn't originally plan on a career that came with a collar.

"I had so long thought pastors were hypocrites," said Halverson, who attended Chapman University and then moved on to the Claremont School of Theology. "They had an academic education about the Bible, and knew about the historical setting in which it was set, but they didn't preach that from the pulpit."

She ended up deciding that despite her issues with organized religion, as a believing Christian, she had a duty to justice.

I met Halverson on Wednesday at her church, which sits across the street from the Orange County Fairgrounds and only a few miles from where she grew up. She couldn't have been busier that day, with a national conference of the United Church of Christ, with which her church is affiliated, set to begin in Long Beach. And Wednesday night, she was officiating at a ceremonial gay wedding in Santa Ana to celebrate that day's Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

But I had managed to worm my way into her schedule. As I explained to Halverson, I could have gone to West Hollywood or some other liberal enclave for a story. But I thought it would be interesting to hear a cleric speak out for gay marriage in a county where religious leaders have been among its most ferocious opponents.

Nationally, many mainstream religions took issue with Wednesday's high court rulings, too. A statement from the Church of Latter-day Saints said, "The church remains irrevocably committed to strengthening traditional marriage between a man and a woman." And the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called Wednesday "a tragic day for marriage and our nation."

No surprises there. But attitudes vary among religious groups and their members. The national leadership of the United Church of Christ declared its support for gay marriage in 2005, and Halverson — whose congregation is also affiliated with American Baptist Churches — considers it her responsibility as a Christian to campaign for social and economic justice. So what was tragic for some people of faith was cause for celebration among others.

"I do need to hug you," Halverson said when her church moderator, Libby Cowan, walked into her office Wednesday. "This is a great day."

"It's a validation of our lives," said Cowan, a former Costa Mesa mayor, who said she was the first openly lesbian council member in Orange County. Cowan said that she and her partner, Rebecca Chadwick, have been together 21 years.

I asked Halverson how it could be that people of faith interpret the Bible so differently, with opponents of gay marriage citing Leviticus, Romans or Corinthians to back up their views.

"I don't think you can be an honest literalist, because we all know the Bible contradicts itself on a regular basis," said Halverson. "The four gospels are four different people's stories.... If you just look at Matthew and Luke, you have different stories regarding the birth story, and the resurrection accounts are different."

OK, but if so much is open to interpretation, how does she know she's got it right?

"That was part of my frustration in college," she said, and in graduate school she began studying the historical Jesus.

"When you peel off the layers and figure out what he really said, rather than seeing the hand of the writer or the community he was writing for, it looks like Jesus was a pretty radical Jew" who spoke for those "who nobody accepted in society." His parables were about the oppressed, the unclean, the unwanted, and his message was one of inclusion, said Halverson.

Halverson has been identified for so long with the gay rights movement, referring to "us" and "we" in her calls for equality, many people assumed she was gay. At a meeting to plan Wednesday night's celebration and wedding, one person asked if they should include only gay people as speakers. Halverson, already on the speakers' list, raised her hand.

"I'm straight," she said to the surprise of some, one of whom later asked why she was so committed to the cause of same-sex marriage.

"I did it not just for gay people," Halverson told me. "This is a huge victory for gay rights, but this is a human right. That's why MLK got it so right. None of us can be happy if there's an injustice anywhere."

Wednesday night, on the steps of the old Orange County Courthouse, Halverson officiated at the ceremonial wedding of two of her friends, Jan Mabie and Beth Syverson.

Halverson told me she doesn't have all the answers in interpreting the meaning of Jesus' life in today's society.

"There's a lot of mystery," she said.

But in the absence of certainty, she has chosen inclusion over exclusion, compassion over contempt, understanding over fear.


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