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Katie Ricks: Presbyterians Ordain Their First Out Lesbian

Katie Ricks: Presbyterians Ordain Their First Out Lesbian

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When Katie Ricks became the first out lesbian ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA) Sunday, she was following tradition as well as breaking new ground.

Ricks was brought up in the denomination, and her mother is also a Presbyterian minister. Because the family moved around a great deal due to her father's military career, "church became home base," Ricks says.

Ricks, 41, has long known she wanted to be a minister. Clergy members often say they were "called" to the vocation, and Ricks means this literally. "Sitting in church one Sunday, I heard God's voice telling me, 'This is where I want you to be,'" she says. That was several years ago, and there was one problem: The Presbyterian Church did not ordain openly gay or lesbian clergy.

Ricks, however, was undaunted. "I just trusted that God was going to show me the way," she says. Some people thought her naive, she notes, but her faith didn't waver. "I was having these amazing encounters with God," she says. "I remember saying to God, 'You got me into this, so show me the way.'"

The way finally cleared in May of last year, when a majority of the denomination's presbyteries, or regional governing bodies, approved an amendment to church law allowing for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy, including those who are partnered. Ricks and her partner, retired police officer Paula Gibbs, were joined in a holy union ceremony 11 years ago, and they have a 5-year-old daughter, Jordan.

Scott Anderson of Wisconsin last fall became the first out gay man to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church. Several lesbians have been awaiting ordination, but Ricks was the one for whom the pieces fell into place first; these included oral and written exams and a vote of her local presbytery. Not that she hasn't been serving the church. She has been an associate in ministry at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., since 2002, when she graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

She will stay at the Church of Reconciliation after her ordination and perform some of the same duties, such as working with the children's and youth ministries. Being ordained, though, will mean she can expand her role; for instance, she will be able to perform sacraments, including baptisms and offering communion. "I love the sacraments," she says. "They mean a ton to me."

Since 1993 the Church of Reconciliation has been a More Light Presbyterian congregation, meaning it officially welcomes and affirms LGBT people. It is located in a liberal college town -- Chapel Hill is home to the main University of North Carolina campus. Still, Ricks has encountered some Presbyterians who don't think gays and lesbians should be ministers. When dealing with those people, Ricks has emphasized that the faith she has in common with them is more important than any differences they have.

"The more that you're working with people, the more that we can gather around the things that hold us together," she says. Also, she simply tries to be her authentic self. That's what lesbian Presbyterian minister Jane Spahr (who was not out at the time of her ordination, in the 1970s) called "personing the issue," Ricks says.

"Our responsibility as leaders is to continually live our faith the way we've been called to," she adds. "It's important for me to reach out and important for me to accept the reaching out of people from other sides." She has received much love from her fellow Presbyterians too, she says.

The time leading up to the ordination ceremony has been exciting and emotional for Ricks. At the Maundy Thursday service (the night before Good Friday) she was washing the feet of congregants, as Jesus did for his disciples, and "I just broke down," she recalls.

"This is bigger than Katie Ricks," she adds. "It's even bigger than the Presbyterian Church." But it's all part, she says, of the church's "witness to the greater world."

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