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Fair Wisconsin Education Fund


Rev. Jamie Washam, Deon Young, and Corinne Rosen
Photo courtesy of Ray Ng

The Rev. Jamie Washam found the response from her fellow clergy extraordinary. Within a month after Fair Wisconsin Education Fund put out a call to faith leaders to join in opposing a ban on marriage and civil unions for gay people, 50 clergy members from Milwaukee alone had signed on.

Jamie, a pastor at Milwaukee's Underwood Memorial Baptist Church, says most were willing to be very public in articulating their views in theological terms. "In the most basic sense, it was a justice issue,'' she says. "Our God is a God of justice and love--and that was a foundation for many of us in the faith coalition."

Wisconsin's effort to defeat the anti-gay rights marriage amendment failed in November's election. "It was disappointing, but I keep taking hope," Jamie says. "In the words of Dr. King, 'The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.' I have no doubt that in another generation or two our children will scratch their heads and wonder why we had this conversation."

Her views are echoed by others who poured years of effort into building Fair Wisconsin as a collaborative effort of two major lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations--Action Wisconsin Education Fund and the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. "We will be stronger because of the work we did, and it increased our capacity in a variety of different ways," says Chris Ott, former executive director of Action Wisconsin Education Fund. Lists of volunteers and donors, identified voters and non-gay supporters--all have expanded greatly. So has the ability of different groups to work together.

"There hadn't been much of an opportunity to collaborate in the past because we focused more on our own areas and had different missions," said Deon Young, a community organizer for the LGBT Community Center. "For the campaign, it made us stronger because we had one message, one staff team, and one funnel for the development of the campaign."

"We were able to contact a lot of people around the state and we started a lot of conversations about the rights LGBT families have and the protections they need,'' said Corinne Rosen, another community organizer.

Some of the most lasting inroads may have been in religious communities, where faith organizations representing more than 500,000 members passed resolutions against the measure. Among Chris's favorite stories is one from a training session in the conservative central Wisconsin city of La Crosse. One of the women who came to learn about marriage equality was an active member of her Lutheran congregation. She pushed the issue in her church and took the lead in bringing a resolution to the Lutheran Synod, which voted to oppose the amendment.

James Pennington, who was executive director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, even found new spiritual purpose out of the two years he poured into the effort. An ordained Lutheran minister, he left the church a decade ago after coming out and hearing from his superiors that it was not acceptable to be an openly gay pastor.

Through his recent work he "realized one institution really keeping us from having complete equality is the religious right of the Christian church," James says. "I have made a commitment to go back to the ministry with the United Church of Christ and try to work from the inside. That has been a very interesting journey for me."

James's realization that his "call" to the ministry hasn't gone away is informed by his conviction that the church needs to be on the forefront of the struggle for equality for all people, just as it was in the civil rights and anti-slavery movements.

"Some of the moderate-to-liberal churches have not had a very strong voice and the religious right has had the voice," he says. "I want to give voice to the progressive movement."

In January 2007, James re-entered the ministry as Pastor of Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "It is a brilliant community with vision and a conviction to speak on behalf of progressive Christians assuring the battle for equality for all marginalized people continues to be heard," James says.

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