Reverend Lois Van Leer (aka Rev. Lo)
UUCE Start Date: September 2018
I like to say that I am made of “spare parts” or the “left overs” of my parents’ genetic material. I was the “Whoops!” baby born many years after my three siblings. Consequently, I had the experience of being the youngest and an only in my family’s system. I am told you can see traits of both in my personality. At times that is not necessarily a compliment.
I was raised in a suburb outside of New York City in Westchester County. The neighborhood kids and I walked to our elementary school together as a pack. In 3rd grade, the schools in the area were integrated. I went from a basically all white school to a school which was a mix of white, Black, and Puerto Rican. And that was the pecking order that I tried to navigate every day with a great deal of discomfort and angst. Though the church I was raised in was the first integrated church in my city and I worshipped and learned side by side with African Americans, I had no idea that ethnicities, cultures, and races were so “other” to one another. I found myself unable to focus on schoolwork.
In the early weeks of my 6th grade year I was yanked out of public education and sent to a private school. There, “class” was suddenly thrown into the mix. Students were called by their last names both by faculty and one another. There was a dress code and students were unrelenting in their judgments of what you wore. This was all new to me. Far behind academically, I was put back into the 5th grade three months into the school year. What saved me in that environment was my athletic ability which held a high social capital in that school.
I was able to move between various social clicks while belonging exclusively to none of them. Though not much of a student, I poured myself into sports and extracurricular activities from editor of the poetry magazine and yearbook to glee club, the octet, and band to student government.
It was a librarian who saved my life. I loved to read fiction. He would watch for me and tell me that he had just gotten some new books in and that he wanted me to “review” them for him. Though my school grades were so-so, I was learning about life and the big world that lay before me. He and I are still in contact today.
I went to the only college that accepted me: Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. Ripon is home to “Rippin’ Good Cookies,” Speed Queen, and the supposedly left wing of the Republican Party. Like all small liberal arts schools in the Midwest, it referred to itself as the Harvard of the Midwest. Not true. It had 12 bars, 1000 residents when the students were not there and a population of 2000 when we were. The farmlands and culture of the Midwest were a foreign country to me. But it was there that I discovered that I had a brain thanks to an AP English class that bumped me up into sophomore level English classes as a freshman. I would continue to compete in three sports a year, become a resident assistant, and see my first A’s in something other than gym class.
I had wanted to be a physical education teacher with an English minor. But a class taken to fulfill a Humanities credit in college shifted all of that. It was taught by the chaplain at the college who had become a radical social activist. The P.E. major was dropped and the English minor became a major as did Religious Studies. The radical chaplain went on sabbatical and was replaced by an even more radical chaplain in my senior year who steered me to seminary. The decision to become a minister was not sudden or accompanied by a particular event or experience. It was years in the making; slow and steady that culminated in me saying “yes” to a whispered calling.
Being from the East Coast, I thought that there were only two seminaries worth considering. So I visited both Harvard and Yale and fell in love with Yale Divinity School. There I would go from someone who was fairly unconscious to being a radical separatist lesbian with all the obnoxiousness that accompanies such fervor. The lesbian part had been a constant since my late teens but deeply hidden. The radical phase lasted about six months. But I was fortunate in that I cut my teeth there on Liberation Theology where it was just beginning to be taught in North America. At the same time, the Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, took me under his wing and helped me access a spirituality I had never known before.
I was in seminary from 1979-1983 with a one-year internship in campus ministry in Eugene, Oregon. At that time lesbians and gay men had two options if they wanted to be clergy: lie about who they were and be fired when their true selves came out or be honest from the beginning and never be hired. I was not the first out lesbian to be ordained in the United Church of Christ but I was among the first. Just when it looked like I would not find a position, an opening at a campus ministry center at Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon, came to my attention. It was not just an ecumenical campus ministry but a social justice center. What was to be a two-year internship kept getting renewed for several years.
When a mission trip to Jamaica with the Senior High Youth at the UCC church found itself needing a leader at the last minute, I said “yes.” That volunteering would morph into a youth ministry position and then into an associate minister position.
From 1987 into the 2000’s, anti-gay ballot measures were put before voters every year. The gay community and its allies gathered, became politically fluent, and worked year after year to defeat such measures with varying degrees of success. Many of us came flying out of the closet in an extremely hostile environment. I found that being so public actually acted as a sort of protection from the violence that was perpetrated against so many others. The church was supportive of my work on these campaigns and declared itself a sanctuary for those feeling threatened by the violence surrounding the campaigns. I balanced political action with the regular work of ministry.
Part of my responsibility at the UCC church was to teach confirmation class to 9th graders. Most of these youth had been baptized as infants. The class was taught to help them explore faith and to “confirm” or take on the vows that were made for them at their baptism. I realized that because the youth loved me, they were becoming confirmed even though I am not sure the 15-year-old mind really knows enough to fully embrace a religious tradition. And I was finding myself less and less able to locate my theological self in the Christian tradition.
It was on a partnership exchange to Transylvania in 2000 with UCC and UU youth from Corvallis as well as with Transylvania youth that I realized I needed to leave the UCC and seek standing with the UUA. I needed integrity in every aspect of my life: personal, professional, spiritual, and religious. Unitarian Universalism allowed me to not only have integrity but discover my authentic religious voice. And so began the journey and the hoop jumping that has led me to this point in my life.
People who knew me in high school and college are shocked that I am a minister. People who know me as a minister are unaware of my former identity as a “jock.” But a sense of the holy or sacred came to me when I was a 10-year-old sitting by a river in the mountains and has never let me go. Today, I still embrace what I have come to call Mystery. I have long made peace with being lesbian and frankly, find it to be the least interesting thing about me. I have been fortunate enough to raft many rivers in the West, travel internationally, backpack, hike, and kayak. I have picked up an appreciation of birds, in particular, raptors, and the snow geese and tundra swans that migrate through the valley where I live. My seven years in Montana allowed me to spend time in Yellowstone Park through every season, learning to watch for and locate wolf, coyote, bear, fox, moose, porcupine and a variety of birds. Like Wendell Berry, “when despair for the world grows in me…” I go to the wild places to seek solace and renewal. Gardening is my meditation. I read fiction to relax. My non-fiction reading is focused on issues of racism and spirituality.
My partner, Lori, and I have been married three times: once in the UU church in Corvallis before same-sex marriage was legal in this country; once in Canada before same-sex marriage was legal in this country; and at City Hall in Seattle the first day it was legal to be married as a same-sex couple in Washington. This past fall, upon his request, I adopted Lori’s 31-year-old son, Ryan. It was one of the most meaningful events of my life. Lori and I have been together for 18 years. We have two grandboys, 8 nieces and nephews and 14 great nieces and nephews. We share our life with a young mini-AussieDoodle named Oso.