SAN BERNARDINO - The Rev. Jenny Mason ends her one-year stint as an openly gay associate pastor at Central City Lutheran Mission today.
It was her hiring 365 days ago that caused the mission to be removed from the official roster of Lutheran churches. Its pastor, the Rev. David Kalke, also was pulled.
Mason said she is departing for personal reasons. Her partner lives in St. Paul, Minn., and the distance has been draining.
Her resignation comes at a time when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is torn over the issue of ordaining gay men and women.
Church rules say only celibate homosexuals may be part of the priesthood. But the Church Council on Monday recommended that non-celibate gay ministers be allowed in ministry as long as they are "in life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships.'
"It's amazing that this tiny place called San Bernardino, and the even smaller mission, has become the focus for what has become a national debate, which is: What are the rights of gay and lesbian ministers?' Kalke said.
Kalke said the mission still supports the ordination of gays. But he is in talks with the Orange County-based Pacifica Synod which has authority over churches from the San Gabriel Valley to San Diego and in Hawaii and would like Central City to again be listed as a Lutheran congregation.
In late March, the synod reinstated the mission as a site to train seminarians for urban ministry.
Bishop Murray D. Finck of the Pacifica Synod did not return repeated calls for comment.
Central City Lutheran Mission, at 1354 N. G St., provides shelter, food and clothing to the poor and people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS. The mission is owned by its board of directors, not the synod.
Mason was popular with the men and women who stayed there. Some knew she was gay.
"We've got to start learning to live with each other,' said Gary Ryan, a 55-year-old homeless man from Tillamook, Ore. "I don't care if you are gray, pink, purple or black. She does her job well.'
Mason doesn't like the scrutiny. In 2001, 10 years after she was ordained, her name was pulled from the Lutheran roster while she was working in Chile. Someone outed her.
Mason disagrees with the Lutheran Church's requirement that gay ministers remain celibate. She argues the Bible says very little about homosexuality.
She has been in the same relationship for a year. The six-year relationship she had in Chile dissolved when she moved back to the United States.
"There are a lot of fabulous pastors out there who are gay and lesbian, and they are being wiped out,' Mason said.
Homosexuality has become one of the most divisive, and certainly the most public, debates in U.S. Protestant churches.
Each summer at its general assembly, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. considers its opinion that sexual relationships must only be between a married man and woman.
The United States Episcopal Church was asked this week by the international Anglican Communion not to send a voting representative to its June meeting because of the 2003 consecration of a gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
In December, Irene Elizabeth Stroud was expelled from the clergy by a jury of United Methodist ministers who found that her lesbian relationship violated church policy.
"The mainline churches are really struggling with this. It is a real rift, and it threatens to tear denominations apart,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.
The Lutheran Church has been more "graceful,' Amerson said.
In May, the Rev. Dan Hooper was installed as pastor of Hollywood Lutheran Church, where about a quarter of the 100 members are gay. About 82percent of the congregation voted to hire Hooper. The church was not punished.
Hooper attributes this to the more liberal Southwest California Synod, which oversees churches in Los Angeles and along California's Central Coast. A letter of reprimand was sent from the synod's Bishop Dean Nelson.
"The letter was quite amusing,' Hooper said. "It said, 'You shouldn't have done this ... blah, blah, blah.' But it went on to say, 'We fully support you in your outreach to the gay and lesbian community.''
Nelson did not return calls for comment.
Frank Imhoff, a spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would not comment on why bishops Finck and Nelson responded to the gay ministers differently.
Standing outside the San Bernardino mission, Todd Davis was dismayed when he learned Mason is leaving.
"She's a good pastor,' the 38-year-old man said. "I believe she will be missed by all of us not just me but all the homies. And I've got guys who will back me up.'
Two guys nodded their heads and muttered affirmations.