Home Social Justice Lesbian reverend speaks about life fighting for social justice issues

Lesbian reverend speaks about life fighting for social justice issues

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To call her an inspiration would be an understatement. Rev. Jan Griesinger has spent her entire life doing exactly what she believes in, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

As a lesbian reverend, Griesinger worked 28 years for Athens United Campus Ministries and has dedicated her life to fighting for causes like peace and social justice.

Griesinger was born in 1942 during World War II. Because her father was stationed in the war, her, her mother and her four other siblings lived with her grandparents in Lincoln, Neb. for the first three years of her life.

The family then moved to a Chicago suburb, a mostly white and middle class neighborhood. Her mother didn’t work, and her father was a lawyer and was involved in the baking industry.

Griesinger grew up with protestant traditions, primarily. She was baptized Presbyterian, and United Methodist, and the church her family belonged to was American Baptist United Methodist.

“My parents had met at a young Republicans convention, so they had some interest in politics. It didn’t seem to me it showed up all that much as I was growing up, but maybe there was conversation that sort of got me interested in the world out in the big picture,” Griesinger said.

She obtained her undergraduate degree at DePauw University, a United Methodist affiliated school in Greencastle, Ind., in 1964. She majored in philosophy and religion, a major no other women were in at that time.

Some of the professors she took classes with and some of the groups that she was in were oriented towards justice issues. The first civil rights action that she was ever a part of was a rally and a march in 1963 to speak out about the Birmingham Church Bombing.

Unsure of her next steps after graduation, she saw attending seminary school as an inspiring option. However, she instead followed the lead of other women of her time.

“I did what women were supposed to do. I got married and worked as a Director of Christian Education for a local United Church of Christ,” she said.

With birth control becoming available right at the time of her marriage, Griesinger was relieved that creating a family was up to her. “I didn’t want to have children. I was the oldest of five children and I spent a lot of time caring for my younger brothers and sisters; and either for mental, genetic, or that reason, I just didn’t want to have children,” she said.

By 1968, it was obvious her marriage was over. She said, after having another male partner for eight years or so, that “it became clear, the person I wanted in my life was the woman who had also helped start Dayton Women’s Liberation and was the first woman ever to run for public office in Dayton in 1969, her name is Mary Morgan.”

It was the time in her life when she began to learn about feminism and that there was even such a thing as lesbians.

“I never met one; I didn’t know anything about it until the early ‘70s,” she said.

“A lot of people maybe think this is all about sexual attraction, but no, I think it’s about friendship, love, caring for the person. Not because you want to be in bed all the time, but because this is a person you want to spend time with and go out to dinner with.”

Griesinger was beginning to find her self-identity and decided she wanted to go a step further by enriching the lives of those around her.

Working in education for three years, she eventually commuted to United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, an United Methodist school. She was the only woman in her class when she graduated in 1970, and by that point, she decided to pursue getting ordained.

“The thing that had influenced me most in college was campus ministry because they tended to be protestant, sort of progressive, thinkers, so that’s sort of the field that attracted me,” Griesinger said.

After the first year and a half, the reverend was on the staff of the campus ministry at Wright State University, but she involved herself primarily with a group called Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. Here, she worked with women and educated women about legal abortion options and where they could get them.

“At that time [the only place to get them] was Mexico, Japan — far far far away. So I organized a group of clergy to be a part of the national organization that got information on where women could go to get abortions,” she said.

Soon after they started, some state laws were changed and women could get abortions in New York.

“But still, if you’re a woman in Dayton, Ohio, by yourself, facing getting on a plane and getting to New York, trying to get off the plane and figure out how to get to this abortion clinic was very scary. It was a hard choice for women to make in a not so easy situation.”

When the Supreme Court changed things in 1973, she helped start the abortion clinic in Dayton, which still exists and still has protesters outside everyday.

Griesinger worked from about 1971 to 1975 for the World Student Christian Federation. She was hired specifically to deal with women’s issues. The job was to work with women in campus ministry all over the country and try to provide support and encouragement.

She also created a publication in 1974 written by women all over the world. Not Americans going to countries and writing about them, but women from those countries writing about their experiences as women. It was the first — as far as she knows — book of its kind, coming from an international perspective written by women about women.

When funding ran out for the project, she began applying for jobs, and the one in Athens caught her attention. She already knew some of the people associated with United Campus Ministries from her work with the nation organization Women in Campus Ministry.

“I’m convinced that sometimes you get hired because you’re wonderful, but mostly you get hired because you know somebody who knows somebody,” Griesinger said.

She worked at UCM for 28 years and felt very fortunate to work at a place where they expected you to do work for justice.

“To have a paid job where they expect you to do good things is rare,” she said.

The reverend organized and participated in protests and rallies for many different causes. She worked diligently to get the word out about gender, race, class and many other social justice issues.

She took groups of students on trips for spring break, visiting places like sites of the civil rights movement in the south, Puerto Rico and even Cuba.

Griesinger did work with many groups over her career and still is highly involved in working with organizations. Her early work includes starting several women’s and LGBT groups in Athens.

She helped start My Sister’s Place, the battered women’s shelter in Athens. She helped to start the first Take Back the Night March in 1979. She worked with The United Church Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Concerns as well.

“There were peace groups and justice groups, I’d have to go back and look to even see all the different groups,” she said.

Even though Griesinger stopped working for UCM in 2004, she continues working with various groups and organizations.

A big part of her life and work now is the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home Womyn’s Land Trust, which she helped found in 1979. This is a section of land in Athens County dedicated to women. The land is home to a few permanent residents, including Griesinger, but serves as a place for women to camp, visit and learn.

“Yes, I am an out-of-doors person and like to be outside, as you can tell it’s beautiful here; there’s a huge amount of work to do, whether it’s raking leaves, mowing, gardening or splitting firewood,” she said.

The local activist serves on the board of an organization called the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network, which does a lot of bully prevention work in the school systems and houses a sexual assault and prevention program. They even hold a weekly vigil for peace, because one of their strong beliefs is having no more war and violence.

In addition to this, she sings in the Calliope Feminist Choir, which she also helped start in the mid-1980’s, and does a lot of work with a group called Old Lesbians Organizing for Change.

While she felt like her church was the kind that was most out and visible, she feels maybe she would have been invited to speak at more churches if it wasn’t for the “L-word.”

“If I would have tried to get ordained as an open lesbian in 1970, I don’t know if it would have worked, that’s not how I identified myself then,” she said.

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