Seminary blows its chance to show us what Christianity could look like | Ronnie Polaneczky

Dr. Theresa Latini was fired just seven months into her presidency of United Lutheran Seminary.

There’s nothing godly about the wild mess that’s rocking United Lutheran Seminary. It hit a frenzied nadir with Wednesday’s firing of its president, Theresa Latini.

The awful accusations, cruel assumptions, and jarring reactions fueling the school’s crisis are behaviors we’ve come to expect from turf-protecting politicians and corporate overlords.

In America, a country so polarized by meanness, it looks like business as usual.

What it doesn’t look like is Christianity, which is supposed to bravely and compassionately zig when humanity’s more base instincts, like fear or survival, make others zag.

The zagging at United Lutheran started in December. That’s when word got out that Latini, 47, who became president in July, once worked for a group called OneByOne.

OneByOne has been accused of promoting “conversion therapy,” a cruel practice that attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identities.

Many LGBTQ people have been subjected to it. UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute, which conducts independent research on sexual orientation and gender-identity law and public policy, estimates that nearly 700,000 U.S. adults have received conversion therapy at some point in their lives — 350,000 of them while in adolescence.

It’s often foisted upon them by their Christian fundamentalist families, who hope to save their non-straight children from an eternity in hell.

Instead, the practice – which employs a sick combo of aversion therapy, threats, shame, and worse – brings hell right into the kids’ here-and-now. 

“The therapist ordered me bound to a table to have ice, heat, and electricity applied to my body,” wrote Sam Brinton, who is bisexual, in a recent New York Times essay about his family’s attempt to convert him to heterosexuality when he was in middle school.

“I was forced to watch clips on a television of gay men holding hands, hugging and having sex. I was supposed to associate those images with the pain I was feeling to once and for all turn into a straight boy. In the end it didn’t work. I would say that it did, just to make the pain go away.”

Outrageously, only nine states ban the use of this brainwashing method on minors.

Latini was a college undergrad when she worked 10 hours a week for OneByOne, a small operation overseen by the evangelical arm of the Presbyterian church in which she was raised. Its stated mission is to “minister to those who are in conflict with their sexuality.”

Her job, as director, was to help out administratively and to represent the group at gatherings of the local Presbyterian General Assembly

“I was raised in an ultraconservative church,” Latini explained to me, and had attended a Bible school before college. “I didn’t question its teachings.”

But her views took a one-eighty while at Princeton Theological Seminary,  where she studied alongside students from backgrounds different than hers and developed a more expansive and inclusive notion of Christianity. Well before she earned her multiple degrees (a master’s and doctorate in divinity, a Ph.D. in practical theology), she’d solidified her new belief in a loving God’s pride in all his children, including those who identify as non-straight.

“I changed,” she says simply.

The way many of us do in our 20s. We sift through what we were taught in childhood, hang on to what we agree with, and jettison what doesn’t jibe with who we’re becoming.

(If I’d hung on to all of my own cultural upbringing, I’d be – no joke – a foot soldier today in the John Birch Society, whose fringe-right tenets I learned at the society’s overnight camp, which I attended in my teens.)

In the two decades since, Latini’s career has been impressive in its advocacy and compassion for those on society’s margins. Before heading east with her husband and toddler to take the helm at United Lutheran, she was even associate dean for diversity and cultural inclusion at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan.

She says she discussed her OneByOne days with United Lutheran board chair Elise Brown and says they both marveled at the miraculous ways that God can change hearts and minds.

“She called my experience a ‘transformation,’ ” says Latini.

Brown, though, allegedly never shared this part of Latini’s background with her board, whose members ultimately offered Latini the presidency. When word leaked out about it, just months into Latini’s tenure, the reaction was horror.

It’s easy to understand why.

Some LGBTQ members of the seminary community, especially those who’d suffered through conversion therapy, felt violated. They wondered, rightfully, did Latini still hold these views? And if not, didn’t her past make a mockery of their present?

Board members who voted for Latini’s presidency were angry that a critical part of her Christian formation was withheld from them. Maybe they’d have elected her anyway, but an uninformed choice is not a real choice. Where else, they wondered, were they being manipulated?

The way the school allowed the pain to fester for weeks, without a formal acknowledgment to students and staff that mistakes were made, only poured gas on the fire. Latini took the brunt of the burns, culminating in her termination.

“I have been accused of being a Nazi, of being in the KKK,” Latini says of the whisper-down-the-lane slurs that led to her ouster.

“OneByOne didn’t have therapists or counselors, but people are saying I helped run conversion centers and camps. The accusations are outlandish.”

Where was God in all of this? Where was grace, understanding, and forgiveness? Where was plain old Christian decency? What an opportunity United Lutheran has squandered to show the rest of the world how God’s love can heal our wounded world — one tender, humble, transparent, and courageous conversation at a time.

“This has been heartbreaking,” Latini says, “especially for the students, who I love.”

And it’s heartbreaking for Latini, who was strong enough to turn her back on the narrow culture in which she was raised in order to create a new one that Jesus would, verily, recognize as his own.