By Rev. Richenda Fairhurst
I serve a church in Ashland, Oregon. We are on the very southern edge of the Oregon/Idaho border, yet in one incident in our local church life, we were brought into the very center of one of the most important global conversations the greater church has had in the last 50 years—whether or not to ordain and fully include LGBTQIA people in the church.
This past All Saints Day, we had a chance to remember two of our most precious Ashland saints.
The scripture I chose for this last All Saints Sunday was not a traditional ‘all saints’ scripture. I had been walking the congregation through weeks of parables, digging into these stories ‘set in the real world’ that ‘tell something about humanity’ and ‘something about God.’[i]Months earlier, I had chosen Luke 12:13-21 for that Sunday, a parable about a rich fool who tried to keep all of God’s blessings to himself. I had lined this up with Thomas 72, which parallels two of the verses:
A man said to him: Speak to my brothers that they might divide my father’s possessions with me. He said to him: O man, who made me a divider? He turned to his disciples and said to them: I am not a divider, am I?[ii]
You can map out worship for weeks at a time and plan ahead, but parish life will always bring you something that interrupts. The interruption was a parishioner with a newspaper article. He shared a story that day with me that I knew had to be told for All Saints. This interruption pulled me simultaneously out of sequence and deeper into the parable than I could have ever imagined
Entertaining angels unaware
It started about 1991. Ashland Methodist had visitors to the church service, a lesbian couple, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill. When it was the time for the welcome, they stood up, as was the custom at the church then, and introduced themselves. They explained that they were lesbians, they were married, and they were looking for a church home.
“We are hoping we will be welcomed,” they said.
Rev. Sue Owen was serving the Ashland church as the pastor in 1991. I called and asked her what things were like at Ashland Methodist then. She shared that like a number of churches, Ashland Methodist had already had a number of conversations about inclusiveness of all people in church life. But the congregation was far from decided then about whether or not LGBT people should be welcomed and included in congregational life. In fact, in 1991, the conversation was a very divisive one.
Even so, Roxy and Michelle, as they were known, joined the church. Roxy was nominated to serve as a Trustee, but one of the leaders of that team, “Barry,” was angry and tried to block her inclusion on the committee. From this difficult starting place, relationships slowly began to form. Rev. Owen shared that Roxanne was a hard worker and good at repairs, maintenance, and building things. She showed up when there was work to do. She was faithful, open and caring. As for Michelle, she was “sweet, warm, bubbly,” the kind of person who would “share openly and who loved life.” Barry began to come around, and within the year, not only Roxy, but Michelle also, had found a place to serve on Trustees.
Rev. Owen continued to teach about the need to include all people in the life of the church. Though there had been Bible studies about the subject, another year–long study was undertaken from 1992-1993. Some attitudes in the congregation shifted toward inclusion, but other people doubled down on exclusion, or outright left the church. One congregant who threatened to leave angrily worried that his son might become gay if he were to come to church in such a setting.
Michelle and Roxy stayed despite the anger and fear that swirled in the church. They offered themselves and their life experience as ambassadors to facilitate conversations. They were open and were willing to answer questions about what it meant to be gay or lesbian.
Despite such kind and generous women as examples, the Ashland church council was divided right down the middle when, in 1993, they brought the question of inclusion of gay and lesbian people to a vote. The chair of the council was faced with casting the deciding vote, but in doing so his vote would have been contrary to the wishes of his spouse. Rev. Owen declared at the time that this was simply too divisive and too close. The church decided to wait.
Meanwhile, Michelle and Roxy simply were part of the life of the church. They became Lay Delegates to Annual Conference for the Oregon-Idaho Conference and took up the role of ambassadors there, as well. They endured many fraught conversations—or rather shouting matches—at Annual Conference as delegates from local churches across Oregon and Idaho debated about the salvation and humanity of its LGBTQIA siblings. Michelle and Roxy bore these rancorous debates with grace, love, and openness.
Rev. Owen remembers “They never got angry, no matter what horrible things were said. They believed love was the way, and that was how the world would change.”
A couple goes missing and a community shows up
Rev. Owen left Ashland Methodist to serve as District Superintendent in Bend, OR. But on December 5, 1995, she got a phone call from someone at the church telling her that Roxanne and Michelle had gone missing. The caller wanted to know, had they by chance come to visit her in Bend?
That ominous call came from Ashland Methodist. News that the women were missing sparked fear for their wellbeing and a panicked effort to find the missing women. Rev. Michael Powell who was then serving the church shared that when news broke that the women were missing, “it was pretty obvious that there was something really, really wrong.”
An all–out search was undertaken to find them in Ashland and Southern Oregon. Five thousand flyers were distributed across Jackson and Josephine Counties.
And no one looked harder than Barry, the Trustee who had come to know and care about Roxy just a few years earlier. Rev. Owen said that Barry “was beside himself, he was out driving around all hours looking for them.”
Over the next few days the story broke across Oregon and then became national news. Rev. Powell and the Ashland Church were suddenly in a media spotlight. In Ashland and across the country, church people, LGBT advocacy groups, and regular folks tuned in to the story. A police presence was visible outside the church, and the neighboring elementary school was locked down for a short time during the crisis.
And everywhere, there were vigils where people prayed for the women’s return. Rev. Owen attended vigils in Bend and in Portland with then Bishop William Dew. These vigils broke out widely across faith traditions, around the country, and among the burgeoning LGBT community.
Rev. Powell fielded many questions from media and others about the relationship of this lesbian couple to the church. He says, “I minced no words. Yes, they were lesbian, yes, they were good Christian women, and yes, we loved them.” His words drew some hate mail, but by far, more than 90% of cards and letters spoke words of love, encouragement, and fear at what might have happened.
A terrible discovery
On December 7, Roxanne’s pickup truck was found in a parking spot at a Medford Apartment complex. In the back of the truck, police found the bodies of the two women. They had been murdered. They had been bound and shot execution-style in the head. The murderer had then covered their bodies with empty boxes and left.
With such a horrific murder, but a motive and the perpetrator unknown and at large, anxiety locally and nationally increased. Robert Bray, then part of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was quoted in the local Ashland Daily Tidings as saying, “Gays and lesbians around the country are following this case and are concerned and fearful about the motive behind it.”
An arrest was made on December 13th at a motel in Stockton, California. Robert Acremant, then 27, had bragged to his family about committing the murders, and his mother had turned him in. Acremant had an attention-seeking personality and reveled in the media attention so much that the Jackson County Sheriff restricted his media visitors. He was tried and convicted in 1996, and died on death row in Oregon of unknown causes at age 50, on October 26th of this year, right before All Saints Day. May God have mercy on him.
For LGBT people locally and nationally, the murder of the life partners Michelle and Roxy struck a chord of fear and deep sorrow. LGBT people know only too well the vulnerability that exists for them in an unwelcoming society that condemns homosexuality. Acremant knew this, too. It is believed that Michelle and Roxy were targeted because they were lesbians. A leader at Ashland Methodist at the time shared with me that “The villain here thought that because they were lesbians in his twisted mind no one would care if they were murdered. This attitude came out when he was first arrested, but his lawyers pushed the ‘robbery gone wrong’ motive and that is what was published. [But] Ellis’s purse was found with nothing missing from it.”
Rev. Powell described the experience of learning the news about the murders as devastating. He says “it was devastating because they were so loved. It was heartbreaking. To have been murdered, how could this happen?”
Change, however, is hard. Really hard. Even for really good people. Even following horrific events.
When I first heard this story, I thought this must certainly had been the incident that had moved the church to become a reconciling congregation and fully inclusive. But it was not. The trauma and introspection that followed the murders pushed the needle further toward reconciling for the church, but not far enough. Up to 85% of church–goers at Ashland Methodist were now in favor of becoming a fully reconciling church. But among the 15% who were against it were leaders who were powerful influencers of the church. Their few voices were enough to prevent the church, even after all that had happened, from declaring itself fully reconciling to all people. Ashland Methodist did not become a Reconciling Congregation until 2008.
Still, even so, even as late as 2008, Ashland Methodist is ahead of the curve. The Oregon-Idaho Conference, also, is ahead of many of its sister conferences around the country and globally in inclusion and openness to all people. Rev. Owen believes it was the willingness of Michelle and Roxy to witness to their lives, andthe reality of the tragedy that befell them simply because they were gay, that helped the Oregon-Idaho Conference become more welcoming.
Love can change a person. Can it change a Church?
Because of Michelle and Roxy, our saints, many, many hearts were changed.
Barry, the trustee, was such a person. The week before the women disappeared, the church had engaged in a regular advent prayer practice. Congregants drew names from a hat, then spent the week praying for the person named on the card. When the week was over, the person praying let the other person know they had been praying for them. During the time that the women were missing, Barry received a card in the mail from Michelle with an angel pin attached. The card had a short personal message, including the information that she had drawn his name from the hat and had been praying for him.
Barry’s relationship with Roxy and Michelle transformed his understanding of gay and lesbian people and impacted his own family. Barry had spent years estranged from his son, who was gay. Barry vowed to find his son and reconcile with him, and he did.
Roxy and Michelle are with us still and inseparably part of our church family and history. There is a small garden on our campus and not many know that it is a cemetery. There are benches and a walkway and greenery with arches to enter and leave. The cemetery was put in place shortly after Roxy and Michelle were killed. They were the first to be buried there, and their ashes rest at the foot of the cross. It is holy ground.
This story is and was so big and so painful that when I shared the story in Ashland this last All Saints Sunday it was the first time it had been shared in more than a decade. If it had not been for Rev. Powell’s diligence in saving key clippings and notes, this story may have been forgotten or become lore. But like every parable, this story is about real life, right here. It reveals something about our humanity, and it reveals something about God. I believe this is a story that must be remembered and told. Michelle Abdill and Roxanne Ellis are deeply part of the story of who we are at Ashland Methodist, in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, and in our denomination.
Ashland Methodist voted to become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network in 2008. There are almost a thousand reconciling communities in Methodism, but this is far too few. The divisiveness of the General Conference has stymied the efforts for inclusion of all people in our church. This rancor is but a mirror of our own local churches as we struggle to live Jesus’s words to love each other, love our neighbor, and understand Christian persons as radically equal siblings in Christ, with one baptism and one Spirit, where all things are held in common, where there is no Judean nor Greek, male or female, slave or free. We are holy because Jesus is holy—all of us.
We cannot keep God’s blessings for our own, boarding it up in barns or erecting gates to hold the Spirit in. For Jesus has shared his love with the whole world.
Or as Jesus himself declares, I am not a divider, am I?
In a few short weeks United Methodist delegates from around the world will meet yet again to vote on whether or not The United Methodist Church will acknowledge God’s love for all people. This vote is a divisive one. In this vote will also be the decision as to whether United Methodists will stay United, or if the denomination will splinter, or split.
We at Ashland Methodist are in prayer for our denomination. We have actually walked this walk. And we at Ashland Methodist know that our saints walk ahead of us.
Richenda Fairhurst is an elder from the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as Senior Pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church in Ashland, Oregon.
[i]“Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus”by Klyne R. Snodgrass.
[ii]Adapted from Stephen J Patterson, James M Robinson and Hans-Gebhard Bethge, The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), pp. 7–32. (LINK)