His Bethel congregation is hosting a retirement party on February 10
by Sally Huffer
At age 84, Rev. Ralph Lasher is finally settling down. He lives in a retirement community on Houston’s west side, and he has decided that, like many of his neighbors, it’s time to retire professionally. With a laugh, he says Houston’s heavy traffic is part of his motivation. He no longer wants to make the taxing 30-mile round-trip every Saturday and Sunday to Bethel United Church of Christ on Shepherd Drive, just north of Washington Avenue.
Lasher has felt a strong connection to his faith since he was a young boy serving as an acolyte in his church. At age twelve, the seed was planted that God was calling him to the ministry. But then he found a passion for politics. When he was in school he would run for various offices, and he always won. He was the president of his fraternity.
After Lasher graduated from college, he was riding the train one evening from Hartford, Connecticut, to visit New York’s Episcopal Seminary. The train stopped in New Haven, where senator Robert Taft got on board. They knew each other through family connections, and the senator asked him where he was headed. Lasher responded that he was on his way to the seminary, trying to decide if he should go into politics or the ministry. Taft, considered by many to be one of the most powerful U.S. senators in history, advised the young Lasher to go into the ministry. Pointing his finger at Lasher, he declared, “Don’t go into politics, Ralph. It’s the dirtiest business there is.”
And that was it. He continued to the seminary, was accepted, and spent the next three years there. He was ordained at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston sixty years ago.
Lasher spent some time crisscrossing North America in the secular world, mostly writing and working in publishing. He landed in Houston in 1968 to follow the love of his life, Harry Gibson. Actually, they were living in Chicago at the time and they had just had a terrible snowstorm. Gibson was from Louisiana originally, and the two decided to move to a warmer city. Lasher and Gibson were together from 1955 until Gibson’s passing in 2000.
Lasher and Gibson socialized in Houston as a couple and entertained a lot, volunteering their time for various nonprofit organizations and rubbing elbows with elected officials. It was the first time Lasher could be open about his relationship, and also around the time that many other gay men were falling ill. Lasher learned as much as he could about HIV and AIDS, and was frequently called upon to speak to groups through his involvement with United Way.
He was the director of Montrose Clinic for a period in the late 1980s, and started a support group at Metropolitan Community Church of the Resurrection for people who were HIV positive. The church, which was on Decatur Street at the time, was the first place Lasher had ever seen gay couples embracing and holding hands.
After he became the pastor of the church, he started the Saturday evening El Noche class and was instrumental in starting a bilingual service there. He is very proud that several thousand people have attended his Scripture and Sexuality courses through the years. He has provided guidance to people through the Colby Project and Amigos Volunteering for Education and Services, two programs that no longer exist. He has been the acting interim pastor at Bethel United Church of Christ for the last seven years.
On Sunday, February 10, the Bethel congregation is holding a retirement party for the Reverend with a spaghetti luncheon at noon after the 10:30 worship service.
Claire Vasilioy is organizing the party at the church. Like many people who worship at Bethel, she followed Rev. Lasher when he left Resurrection. “I left because he was my pastor.” She says that all are welcome to come celebrate Lasher’s retirement after six decades as a man of the cloth.
Lasher is enjoying his time at the retirement community, although he says his neighbors don’t know about his legacy in the LGBT and HIV communities. He says the community does offer three square meals, several programs, and religious activities—all of which he attends without wearing his clerical collar.