Seattle's Best Christians
They're Not All Homophobic, Science-Denying, Uterus-Controlling, Government-Dismantling Jerks—Praise the Lord!
Here at The Stranger, we regularly push back against Christians who use their religion as a weapon to bludgeon women, children, the LGBT community, science teachers, progressive politicians, and anyone whose brain hasn't been thoroughly washed. But we know not all Christians are like that—some are admirable people who fight for just causes and express their Christianity through their lives instead of yapping about it on TV and YouTube. Let us introduce you to some of Seattle's best Christians.
Sister Kathleen Pruitt was just about to become a flying nun. The doors of her airplane were closing any moment, she said, and our conversation had to be quick. So I started with the most important question.
"No," she replied, "I am not wearing a habit."
The unchurched public has plenty of misconceptions about sisters: They live strange lives, they wear strange clothes, they're mean to schoolkids. But, besides the celibacy thing, their lives aren't that different from yours or mine. Neither are their politics.
And that's the problem.
Pruitt is one of thousands of US sisters who are under attack by the Vatican, which has demanded a national crackdown against them for espousing "radical feminist themes." According to the church, radical feminism means placing priorities on helping the poor while being "silent" on opposing contraceptive rights and gay marriage. If the pope gets his way, the sisters will have five years to adopt their church's right-wing politics.
"Sisters have placed their energies and personal capitals around issues relating to the poor, people who are sick, people who are in need of medical and social services," she said. Pruitt's flight, in fact, was taking her to Orange County, to a board meeting of St. Joseph Health, which oversees 14 major medical facilities. She serves on four other boards—mostly hospitals—and points out that the Sisters of Providence opened the first permanent hospital in the Northwest in 1858. Pruitt is proud that her hospitals don't turn away the poor, don't turn away heathens, don't turn away anyone.
Where is Pruitt on same-sex marriage? "I don't oppose it," she said resolutely (most Americans agree with her). "I know a number of sisters who don't." And Pruitt rejects contraception as a political wedge. "Contraception is not the only issue in the world," she said. "We don't need to fight battles on every hill."
But Pruitt needs to fight a battle on this hill. The man appointed to lead the national crackdown against the sisters? Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.
Fortunately, Pruitt isn't just any sister. From 2001 to 2003, she was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest national council of sisters. She will attend the general assembly in St. Louis to help respond to what she calls the Vatican's "unsubstantiated" allegations. She said we need more dialogue: "If there was more of that in our world, there would be less war and less people who find themselves in the margins of our society, including our gay brothers and sisters."
She'll take that message to St. Louis—and she'll get there on a plane, being a flying nun. DOMINIC HOLDEN
Riz Rollins is the beloved DJ behind KEXP's Expansions program and countless killer club nights. He's also a gay man, a black man, and a lifelong man of faith. When I pitched profiling him for "Seattle's best Christians," Rollins responded with a Bible passage: "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." "This is a paradox of evangelicals," Rollins told me. "On one hand, they want you to proclaim and evangelize. On the other, Jesus himself says to keep your trap shut."
Such statements suggest a deep relationship with the Bible, but unlike fundamentalists, Rollins can't see the book as the unerring word of God. "It's a series of books, writings that span a couple thousand years. To say that someone sat down and wrote it does it a disservice. I don't worship the book." Rollins loves what the book can inspire: "I grew up during the civil rights movement. To hear Bible passages applied to social-justice issues excited me and provoked me. It still does. And as I struggled with my sexuality, I found gray areas in the book, like David and Jonathan, whose love was greater than the love of women. That really struck me."
But his own feelings for men eventually drove him from the church. "For me, as a Christian, I needed to have my relationship respected by people of my faith," said Rollins, who lives with his husband of four years. "I personally would not settle for anything less than being part of a Christian body that not just tolerates my relationship but welcomes and supports it. I want the full meal deal." Joining a more welcoming faith wouldn't cut it: "Culturally, I'm a Baptist," Rollins said. "I grew up falling out, speaking in tongues, experiencing ecstasy as part of a community. I need the threat of hellfire. That's why I can't be Episcopalian or Unitarian. I need a culture that actively wrestles with the sacred and the profane."
Until then, Rollins has his husband, his faith, and his Bible. "Love, grace, and mercy. Those are really big words for me. I have to apply my words to my relationship to other people. I also have to apply these words to myself. That's how I get to be gay." DAVID SCHMADER
Three years ago, when he was a freshman at Seattle University, Jim Mezzera took an English class where one of the requirements was to do 18 hours of "service learning." Community Lunch on Capitol Hill, a meal program housed at Central Lutheran Church, was close to campus, so he went there to volunteer. It was easy work: setting up chairs, chopping vegetables, making sandwiches, slicing pies, serving coffee, busing tables, washing dishes. But what Jim really liked was talking with some of the 200 or so guests who show up to eat every Tuesday and Friday. After completing the 18 hours required for class, Jim kept volunteering; three years later, he's still there. He now supervises the dozen-plus people like me who make the meals and coordinates student volunteers from Seattle University, University of Washington, and Seattle Central Community College.
"I... really enjoy interacting with the guests," Jim said. "Since I have been there for a while now, I have developed close relationships with many guests. I have heard so many great life stories..." One of the big events in Jim's life story was when he began to work at Community Lunch. "It opened my eyes to an invisible population who deserve respect and care like everyone else," he said. Having attended Jesuit schools his entire life where "they make a big deal about being socially conscious," Jim sees that part of his desire to serve has a basis in religion, but he's not going to hit you over the head with that. He is very aware that "some guests are turned off by any religious component," so he's glad "we can just be there for others without trying to impose a message on them."
Actually, there is a message Jim is trying to impose. It's this: "Come in. Sit down. You're welcome at this table. Let's all eat." REBECCA BROWN
"Oh, God," said state senator Ed Murray when I tell him I'm calling to learn about how he puts his Catholicism into practice. He thought, when I'd said I wanted to talk about "Seattle's best Christians," that I was going to ask him for recommendations. He's not one to assume he'd make such a list, nor is he very interested in giving an interview about how he enacts his faith.
"We're just not raised to go on about that," Murray said of Catholics like himself. He follows the advice attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi—"Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words"—and grew up in Seattle at a time when the local church hierarchy took activist stands for social justice. "When I was a kid, the archbishop was Archbishop Connolly, who stood up for integrated housing, and then Archbishop Hunthausen, who protested the submarine base and refused to pay his taxes because they went to the military."
Murray, who chairs the senate's powerful Ways & Means Committee and helped push through this year's gay marriage bill, is an admirer of the writings and interfaith work of the monk Thomas Merton. He also admires the activism of Dorothy Day, who in the 1930s helped establish the Catholic Worker Movement, devoted to helping the poor. Beyond that, he really doesn't want to talk about it.
"You are the first person in 17 years of office who has ever asked me about my Catholicism for the record," he told me. He said he knew this day would come, and he hadn't been looking forward to it.
"I am not out there as a Catholic politician," Murray said, and then referred me to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, in which he assured them: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."
Murray did say he regrets that today's Catholic leadership, even in Seattle, seems to want "a single-issue church that cares only about sexuality." He said it's "hurtful" to be told by some that he's not a good Christian simply because he's gay. He said that he doesn't consider himself a good Christian, either, but for a different reason: "I consider myself as someone with many faults who constantly needs to seek redemption." (The important distinction: Murray, unlike the people who criticize him, doesn't see his faith and his homosexuality as mutually exclusive.)
But really, for Murray it's about his initial, instinctual answer when I first asked him how he lives his faith: "By not talking about it." ELI SANDERS
Imagine your stereotypical Bible- wielding, gay-bashing, fire-and-brimstone-breathing Christian evangelist. Now imagine the opposite. Meet Alice Woldt.
Gray haired and slightly built, two or three Woldts could fit inside the ample frame of just one blubbering Ken Hutcherson, but don't let that deceive you. The 72-year-old Woldt—a scrappy throwback to an era when "social-justice Christians" manned the front lines of the civil rights, anti-nuke, pro-peace, and other protest movements—is a lifelong political activist with a Machiavellian instinct too often lacking in the modern Christian left.
"The easy thing to do is to support food banks and make sandwiches for tent cities, the kind of work that doesn't ruffle congregations," Woldt said bluntly. "But a lot of the problems that we have are caused by systemic problems. And if you're not working on those issues, you aren't going to create a whole lot of change."
This philosophy and passion has guided Woldt through a career in progressive activism, from her 17 years on the executive staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, to her upstart campaign against a powerful (and more conservative) Democratic legislator, to her leadership of the Faith Action Network, which grew out of a recent merger of the Washington Association of Churches and the Lutheran Public Policy Office. She just retired this May. If there was a church-based rally or lobbying campaign to protect the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill, or the oppressed, Woldt was likely there behind the scenes and often out in front.
Woldt sees her and her colleagues' work as crucial to countering the influence of the Christian right. "We have tended to be the progressive voice of the faith community," Woldt said. "And electeds have paid attention."
"We can mobilize people in the church to contact legislators," Woldt explained, and when legislators sense that constituents are acting out of moral consciousness rather than self-interest, "it can change minds."
As for her conservative counterparts and their relative success at dominating the image of Christian politics, Woldt has got a theory: "Most of the conservative churches are against something, not for something... and maybe the media listens to people who are railing against something?"
Blaming the media for getting played by the Christian right? Yet another thing that makes Woldt one of Seattle's best Christians. GOLDY
Pat Thenell was born in Seattle in 1937. She grew up on Capitol Hill and taught religion at Blanchet High School for 30 years, serving as department chair for about a decade; her late husband was also on the faculty of Blanchet, teaching history, coaching cross country and track, and serving as assistant principal. He died at 37 years old in 1972, and Pat raised their family of five children. Pat has been an active member of St. Joseph Church since 1945, and has most recently worked on issues such as roles for women in the liturgy and the I Stand with the Sisters project. I was lucky enough to grow up next door to Pat and her family; they are living proof that Catholicism is a community of people with loving, generous hearts, not a set of dictates from a man with expensive shoes and a big hat in Rome. I e-mailed Pat to ask her why she remains a Catholic even though she disagrees with many of the church's recent decisions, and this is what she said:
"Catholic is what I am and I am proud to be that. I love the Catholic view of the world as good and graced by God. The message of Jesus tells me that we are called by our baptism to practice love, respect, kindness, justice, and hope every day. This message helps me to understand that the marginalized have a special claim to our care. I am angry that the leadership of the church seems to want to move the church back. Some of my friends say to just leave and join a different Christian community, but the Catholic Church is my church and I will not be driven out. So I add my 'I Stand with the Sisters' button and my 'Catholics for Marriage Equality' button to my collection that began with my 'I Love Hunthausen' button. Church history shows that contentious issues have always been there. Jesus came to help us understand that God's love is not limited to the well-behaved or those who fit certain criteria. I do not believe orthodoxy is a virtue, but believe justice is." BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
The job of Seattle's most powerful Catholic hasn't always been held by a frothing bigot. Our most distinguished archbishop was a pro-gay, anti-war liberal whose legacy has defined this unusually progressive archdiocese.
Raymond G. Hunthausen was appointed in 1975 and, two years later, published a controversial letter defending gays and lesbians. "To discriminate against this group of men and women is not only contrary to sound religious principles but in conflict with protection of basic rights in our American civic life," he wrote. Five years later, Hunthausen withheld his federal taxes to protest nuclear militarization. In the mid-1980s, he really taunted Rome by inviting DignityUSA to hold an LGBT mass in the cathedral. That was the final straw.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was tasked with unseating him and appointed Bishop Donald Wuerl to undermine Hunthausen. Seattle's progressive Catholics pushed back, Wuerl left, and Hunthausen triumphed by serving out his term until 1991. Ratzinger had failed.
Now Ratzinger is pope, and his vendetta against Seattle has given us a right-wing lapdog named Archbishop Sartain. Hunthausen is 90 years old, retired, and living with his brother in Helena, Montana. DOMINIC HOLDEN
You know who basically wrote the book on being Christian? Jesus Christ. His followers were society's marginalized populations—the sick, homeless, and outcast. In 33 short years, Jesus cleansed countless lepers, healed passels of paralytics, restored the senses of the blind and the deaf-mute, cured headaches and miscellaneous boils, and did other great stuff. Sure, most of his feats can be attributed to his magical Son o' God status, but that's not the point. Every noble gesture simply underscored his greatest triumph: not being a judgmental dick.
"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus said while curing fevers and patting house pets. "Love your enemies. Do unto others whatever you would like them to do to you. Don't gossip. Tip well. Stop mocking that legless man in the corner."
It all eloquently boils down to the same thing: Don't be a dick (except maybe to fig trees and money lenders). That's a message today's rabidly pro-Christian GOP would benefit from repeating, instead of misusing their religion to justify taking away women's rights, gay rights, and the rights of immigrants.
We can't all cure leprosy with our bare hands, but we can all strive not to be judgmental dicks. CIENNA MADRID
This article has been updated since its original publication.