The Rev. Frank Schaefer was no different than many other Methodist pastors with a conservative upbringing. His slight German accent would punctuate his gregarious Sunday morning masses in Lebanon, Penn., for years.
He believed strongly that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teachings. That is until 2000, when he received a phone call from a woman who wanted to remain anonymous.
"This lady said, 'I need you to know that your son is considering suicide. And it's because he's gay,'" Schaefer said. "I remember thinking, 'My son is not gay, she must have the wrong number.'"
When confronted, his 17-year-old son Tim came out to Schaefer and his wife, Brigitte. He said he cried himself to sleep. He said he prayed to God to make him "normal." He said when that didn’t happen, he thought of suicide.
"When he came out sharing this with us, we just couldn't hold back our tears," Schaefer said. "My wife and I just embraced him and told him, 'We love you, son. You know it doesn't matter to us. You still are our son. We love you, no matter what."
He adds: "We realized that this was not something he chose. He did not choose to be homosexual."
His son's coming out led the reverend to accept the LGBT community with open arms. It also brought about his defrocking from the United Methodist Church.
Faith on trial
Four years after he came out to his family, Tim fell in love with a college classmate. After dating that man for two and a half years, they got engaged.
"I was ecstatic," Schaefer said. "I was just overjoyed and I congratulated him. And the next thing out of his mouth was, 'Dad, would you do the wedding?'”
“You just feel honored that your child would ask you,” he explains. “And so I immediately reacted from my heart and said, 'Absolutely, son.' And it was almost simultaneously after I had given the answer that I thought, 'Uh, oh, what is this going to do in my role in the Church?'"
The Book of Discipline forbids United Methodist ministers from presiding over gay marriages. Schaefer informed his bishop that he would be officiating the wedding. There was no controversy at the time.
Tim and his fiancé were married in Cohasset, a tiny coastal town in eastern Massachusetts. The reverend and his wife went back to Lebanon, Penn., where they lived peacefully for six years.
Then last April, Schaefer received a call from his bishop. One of his congregants had obtained the license from Tim’s wedding and was filing a complaint. In the United Methodist Church, a complaint might lead to a trial very similar to a civil court – with a judge, jury and a prosecutor.
"I was totally shocked," Schaefer said. "I did not expect this. I didn't even think about this ever becoming an issue because it was so long ago."
In fact, if the complainant had waited 26 more days, the issue would have exceeded the Methodist Church’s statute of limitations.
"I don't remember anger as much as I felt embarrassed," Schaefer said. "It was like an invasion into my privacy, into our private family affair… I felt like this is going to be known by everybody in the Church now. And I knew it was in a conservative area and many people are conservative in my Church and I just dreaded having this become an issue."
What Schaefer didn’t realize, however, was that he was about to become a prominent face of the LGBT movement.