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Agape Acceptance in the Pre-Stonewall Era

I was practicing up a storm to prepare for my senior organ recital in Boe Memorial Chapel at St. Olaf College, when I was summoned back to Chicago to see my mother for the last time, a few days before cancer took her fragile life. After her memorial service at our parish, Trinity Lutheran Church in Park Forest, I returned to the college campus, where I played my recital and graduated a month later.

After graduation, however, I was not ready to return to Chicago, so I joined a couple of my classmates in Minneapolis, where we found menial restaurant jobs. At night when I was not working, I began to discover Minneapolis’ gay night life, a lively scene if you had the connections to find out where the bars were located. This was three years before Stonewall, long before LGBT newspapers, rainbow flags and other public acknowledgements of the community.

On one of my Twin Cities’ bar forays I met Jay Richen, a community college teacher from San Diego who was in Minneapolis completing his doctoral course work at the University of Minnesota. We started dating, and by the end of the summer Jay had convinced me to come to San Diego with him. I had already checked out the possibility of enrolling in a Masters’ program at San Diego State, which I did once I was certain that I was San Diego bound.

Jay had been teaching in San Diego for a year, so he had a small circle of friends, but when I arrived in San Diego that September, he was the only person I knew in the city. On my daily walk to the campus I discovered the Lutheran Campus Center, the first incarnation of Agape House, and I eagerly checked it out. The Rev. Jim Nessheim, campus pastor at that time, welcomed me as he did all the students who ventured into the center on Hardy Ave., although I suppose it didn’t hurt that he was also a St. Olaf graduate.

The Lutheran Campus Center was a comfortable place to hang out, and not just because its living room couches were more comfortable than the wooden library chairs on campus. The atmosphere of the Center was one of acceptance; no one had to pretend they were someone or something they were not in order to fit in. I did not have to appear to be looking for a girlfriend, and when I introduced Jay to Jim Nessheim, I did not have to quickly add, “but we’re just roommates.”

While a graduate student I worked as organist for a couple of local Lutheran parishes, and although the church members were pleasant, sooner or later some well-intentioned parishioner would tell me, “You really need to get married and start a family.”

This kind of “advice” was never offered at the Lutheran Campus Center, and although it may sound like rather faint praise, believe me—it was a blessing. When I finished my M. A. at San Diego State, Pride had yet to be defined in the wider culture, and San Diego had to wait another five years for its first Pride Parade. But the Lutheran Campus Center offered the assurance of a bright rainbow flag—even though that welcoming banner had not been invented yet.

Author: Ken Herman; Agape Alumnus, and Agape Board President


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