As the church grew dark and the candles flickered, a group of people gathered in a circle, holding hands and reciting a prayer. They were young and old, homosexual and straight, religious and atheist; all were huddled inside the University Methodist Church in Isla Vista to support Pastor Frank Schaefer before he appears in his church’s highest court next week.
Schaefer was defrocked for officiating a wedding for his gay son in 2007. The next day, Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño invited him to join the California-Pacific Conference, publicly signaling she stood by him, although she did not have the power to restore his credentials. In June, Schaefer was reinstated just long enough for a church prosecutor to appeal the decision again.
Next Wednesday, Schaefer will face a nine-member judicial council, which will make the final decision on his future in ministry. “It’s not just an important decision in terms of my own career,” Schaefer said Wednesday. “This will signal that the church is willing to change.” Schaefer came from the small conservative town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania — much different than the student population of Isla Vista.
Among the supporters Wednesday evening was Anita Dutt, a Goleta resident and Methodist whose experience at the vigil reminded her of a demonstration she attended in 1964 in Pittsburgh. At the time, the issue of race divided the churches. “I can’t predict [the decision next week] any more than I could in 1964,” Dutt said.
When Schaefer arrived in Isla Vista in July, the church located at 892 Camino del Sur was almost entirely empty. Considering I.V.’s troubled past, Schaefer hopes to connect with people who are hurting by providing a safe space. He plans to keep the doors open during Halloween weekend for movies, karaoke, and food. “People told me ‘you are crazy,’” he said with a laugh. “You have to get out of here on Halloween. And we might not be able to leave. That’s okay. We can stay here.”
Schaefer said he loves the young people he has met in the community. “They are so talented and they have such big hearts. It’s amazing.” He added that young people today have a lot more wisdom than some older folks, especially in the church. “To them this is not an issue at all. They have a really good idea about what is right and about loving people and helping people being compassionate.”
Following a brief introduction, Schaefer and two students played guitars, singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Also in attendance were folks from the LGBTQ community, Live Oak Unitarian Universalist members, as well as Congressmember Lois Capps, Supervisor Salud Carbajal, and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.
When asked what he anticipates next week, Schaefer said he’s hopeful — especially because the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages in 11 more states just two weeks ago and because the Pope and the Vatican gave a message earlier this week in support of same-sex couples.