The Rev. Kevin Johnson was outed and forced out of First United Methodist Church in Kenosha when he affirmed his gay orientation in 1981.
Now more than 30 years later, the church, 919 60th St., will publicly apologize for its actions during its Weekend of Reconciliation.
Johnson, 63, and his husband, Michael Shear, will travel from Palm Springs, Calif., to Kenosha for the Feb. 4-5 festivities, which will include plenty of preaching, prayer and tears.
“The invitation to host my husband and me was a long time coming. It was welcome, though it will not be easy,” Johnson wrote in an opinion piece published in The Desert Sun, the Palm Springs newspaper.
“More years have passed since my dismissal than my age when I first entered the church’s doors,” Johnson said. “Their 1981 rejection devastated my career dreams. I had to build a new life in the business world.”
For 20 years, Johnson said he was separated from his professional calling.
“That hurt badly. But I was never separated from my faith. I always sensed God’s love,” he said.
That helped him co-found Bloom in the Desert Ministries in 2002.
He said this is the first time since 1972 — when the United Methodist Church said, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” — that a local church is reconciling publicly with a former pastor affected by the decree.
News of Johnson’s return has sparked warm headlines across the nation.
“Times have changed, and young gay men are more confident in themselves,” Johnson told the Kenosha News.
Official United Methodist Church law prohibits gay clergy, but the Kenosha church is one of a growing number of congregations now fighting it.
First United overwhelmingly voted last summer to identify as a Reconciling Ministries Congregation. It decided to welcome the LGBTQI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex) community, despite official restrictions still imposed by the church’s official disciple book.
“I’m thrilled to be able to come back and spend time with friends and meet new people having an influence on the congregation to be more inclusive,” Johnson said. “I am coming back with a full heart.”
Johnson said being outed and publicly forced out of a job in his late 20s devastated him.
He said a private conversation with a church member who questioned his sexuality was made public, which triggered the backlash against him.
“For years, it was very difficult for me to be a part of a church organization,” Johnson said.
“It was very difficult for the first decade after. I barely went to church at all. I had lost all confidence in human beings who claimed to be loving persons in the Christian church.”
Although Johnson made a career in business around the turn of the millennium, he felt called to launch his own ministry.
Bloom in the Desert Ministries in Palm Springs is designed to be a safe space and sanctuary for anyone experiencing spiritual abuse and religious discrimination related to gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnic heritage.
“I hope other churches who dismissed pastors for this very reason will do the same thing and decide that they want to be reconciled with the people they wronged in the past,” Johnson said.
Johnson left the Methodist Church and joined the United Church of Christ.
The Rev. Justin Elliott Lowe, pastor of First United, said he is proud of his congregation for its support of Johnson.
Lowe said homosexuality and Christianity are not incompatible, so reaching out to this community is honoring Christ.
“I think the whole idea of sexuality in the Bible and what kind of gets explained as the ‘Christian’ understanding of sexuality isn’t quite accurate and isn’t quite theologically grounded,” Lowe said, adding that the Bible fails to offer a clear-cut set of teachings regarding sexuality, gender and even marriage.
He said the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality are far more complex than a sound bite or single verse pulled out of context during Sunday service.
“People just say ‘(homosexuality) is in the Bible; here’s what it says,’ when there are so many layers and things are misinterpreted between Greek and Hebrew to English,” Lowe said. “You can be a Christian and be gay — and practice your sexuality.”
At the core of Christianity, Lowe said, is a spirit of radical reconciliation.
Jessica DeBoer, a member of the church's Reconciling Committee, said the church has made a commitment to welcome everyone as equals.
“It’s very exciting,” DeBoer said. “I think as more people know about it, it will help bring people in. It’s really important that we welcome everybody.”
DeBoer said few members of the church were around when Johnson was forced out, but the “wound” remains in the minds of many.
“This is absolutely a huge part of our past as a church family,” DeBoer said. “It was the elephant in the room, especially now that we have openly become this accepting congregation.”