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By Megan Wadding
Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, in the Westbury-Meyerland area of Houston, welcomed Rev. Marvin Havard, 51, as the first openly gay pastor in the congregation’s history, in April. Salem is a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation that participates in the national Lutheran movement advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ people in all aspects of the life of the Lutheran Church. Havard spoke to OutSmart magazine about his background, his journey to becoming a pastor, and what it was like when he first came out to a previous congregation.
Megan Wadding: Tell me about your early years.
Marvin Havard: I grew up in the little town of Roxie, Mississippi, near Natchez, in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist family and church. I went to private “Christian” schools. Being gay was a certain ticket to hell in their teaching, and so when I began to realize that I liked boys, I spent years praying, hiding, trying to change, and repressing my feelings. Like so many LGBTQ people in these circumstances, I became severely depressed, suicidal, and finally shut down emotionally in order to survive.
I went to college at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, and received a music-education degree in choral music and piano. I married a woman while in college, still thinking that somehow God could “fix” me. We divorced after my coming out, and have managed to remain friends. I also attended the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and studied choral conducting there.
When did you realize you wanted to be a pastor?
I’ve been involved in church from childhood on. I left the Southern Baptist church after college and dabbled in Buddhism for a few years. While living in Kansas City and working as the organist for a Lutheran congregation, I was so impressed with their openness to all people and their acceptance of my questions and doubts that I began to realize that there was another way to be a Christian that wasn’t so judgmental and full of fear and anger.
Through the support of the pastors in that church, I began exploring other approaches to reading and interpreting the Bible, and different understandings of theology and of God. I became Lutheran during my time in that congregation, and went on to serve as a musician at a much larger church in northern Minnesota. It was there that I began to think about becoming a pastor.
With the support of that congregation, I decided to go to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, at the age of 40. This involved three years of full-time classes, one year of internship in congregations, and interviews and approval processes with the official structures of the national church—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Did you still struggle with your sexual orientation?
When I went to seminary, I was still married and had not begun to come to terms with my sexuality. I had pretty much resigned myself to remaining married and continuing to hide for the rest of my life. Many ELCA churches were open and affirming, but the official policy of the denomination was not. When the ELCA changed the policy in 2009 to allow clergy in same-gender relationships to be ordained, I was excited for the change but still didn’t think that I would ever come out, or that [the new policy] would apply to me.
I felt called to be a pastor, but struggled with guilt and shame from my upbringing. I wasn’t sure there was a way forward for me until I unintentionally outed myself during a conversation with a friend in 2014, and began working on accepting and loving my entire being.
Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries has worked for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in ministry for many years. I contacted them and was connected with an amazing mentor to counsel and advise me through the coming-out process. I am now a member of Proclaim, ELM’s professional community for Lutheran pastors and other church leaders who publicly identify as LGBTQ.
When did you first come out to a congregation, and what was the reaction?
I came out publicly in November of 2015 while serving in Plano, Texas. The leadership and staff of that congregation were amazing in their support of me. The majority of the members of the congregation were also supportive. Some of the best moments were the unexpected people who came to speak to me and confess that while they still weren’t comfortable with the idea of a gay pastor, knowing me and being part of my coming-out process had made them rethink their position.
A few members were upset [when I came out], and they left to go to more conservative churches. But my experience, as a whole, has been amazingly positive. Being publicly identified as a pastor who is gay has opened more opportunities for conversations with parents and family members who are trying to be supportive of their LGBTQ family members. [Many people are looking for] clear theological support for their welcome of all people, and both youth and adults are looking for ways to live into their sexual orientation and gender identity, and integrate their faith into that process.
What brought you to Houston?
I had been looking for a new position since November of 2015, and was incredibly excited about the possibility of serving at Salem. The Reconciling in Christ status of Salem and their stated welcome to all people interested me greatly, as well as the congregation’s commitment to serving the needs of the surrounding community.
I moved to Houston at the beginning of April from the Dallas area, and I have really enjoyed the incredible diversity of the city, the amazing restaurants, and the thriving arts scene. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the community and finding my own place to discover what it means to be a Houstonian. I am excited to be here, and can only imagine the incredible ways that this community will continue to share God’s love for all people—no exceptions.
Salem ELC is located at 4930 W. Bellfort Blvd. For info, call 713.723.3509.