Father and son had always been close, from the moment Tim Schaefer was born, six weeks premature, with blood poisoning, a weak heart and lungs, and a doctor who thought he would not make it through the night.
His father, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist minister, thought of his eldest son as a miracle child, saved by some combination of medicine and prayer, saved for something special.
“We couldn’t even touch him; he was in an incubator, and we had to reach in with latex gloves through those holes in the sides,” Schaefer said. “I begged God to please save his life.”
Their bond was such that, years later, facing a choice between upholding his church’s teaching and affirming his son’s sexual orientation, Frank chose to endanger his own career by officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding. The actions that followed - a rebellion in his congregation, a church trial, a defrocking and then, last month, a reinstatement - have made the Schaefers symbols of the conundrum facing much of American Christianity: How does religious doctrine on homosexuality respond to the longings for spirituality and community from congregants and family members who are gay?
“His own church was saying to him that, as a homosexual, you can’t go to heaven,” Frank Schaefer said. “That’s not necessarily what the church would officially say, but that’s what he heard, and it devastated him because faith had always been very important to him. I remember how I said to him: ‘It’s so obvious you did not choose this for yourself. This is who you are, and this is who God created you to be. You are created in the image of God, just like everybody else.’”
In a series of recent interviews, by telephone and in Washington, where they attended a gay pride event with President Barack Obama at the White House, father and son described their separate and shared crises of love and faith, which began in 2001 when Tim, then in high school, acknowledged to his parents that he was gay.
Frank, now 52, had grown up in a conservative Baptist church in West Germany, believing homosexuality was a sin, but had quietly become more accepting. Tim, now 30, had grown up in his father’s conservative United Methodist church in Pennsylvania, becoming depressed and contemplating throwing himself off the roof of a parsonage when he realized he was gay.
“I would pray at night, ‘God, get me through this phase, make me normal,’ but as time went on, it was not changing,” the younger Schaefer said. “I didn’t want to be gay, and I didn’t want to go to hell.”
Frank Schaefer recalls the moment Tim came out to his parents as “a stab through our heart,” not because Tim was gay, but because he had been unsure he could confide in them and had struggled in private. Aware that one of his friends had been kicked out of the house after coming out, Tim had hoped to delay his own declaration until he was safely off to college. He told his parents only after a friend’s mother called them to report that he might be suicidal.
Frank Schaefer and his wife, Brigitte, told their son that they loved him and accepted him as he was, but there were fears, too. Would he be bullied? Would he get AIDS? What about grandchildren? And had they done something wrong?
Six years later, Tim’s decision to marry, shortly after college, was to be the next crisis, and when the moment came, father and son knew it.
“Who wouldn’t want their own family member to perform the ceremony; it’s so much more special,” Tim Schaefer said, explaining his decision to ask his father to officiate, despite the risks. “My only pastor, ever, had been my dad.”
Frank Schaefer recalls immediately accepting the offer, knowing the likely consequences.
“When he said, ‘Dad, will you perform my wedding?’ it was a no-brainer for me,” he said. “I was honored and overjoyed that he had asked me. It was only after I had hung up that I said, ‘What does this mean for me as a United Methodist minister?’ Gay marriage is a punishable offense, by trial and defrocking, so I expected to be fired.”
Frank Schaefer told his supervisors that he was officiating at the wedding in 2007, and nothing happened. He did not tell his congregation, but on Father’s Day in 2008, he gave a sermon on unconditional love in which he acknowledged that his son was gay. In the ensuing years, a group of congregants accused him of sexual misconduct and financial misconduct. When neither of those complaints was substantiated, one was filed accusing him of violating church law by performing Tim’s same-sex marriage.
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