It all began, as so many things can, with a Gideon Bible, the kind that await wayward souls in hotel nightstands, prison libraries and hospital rooms across the nation.
For Nori Rost, the abridged collection of New Testament scriptures brought with it a sense of divine providence. As a 17-year-old high school graduate, she had just enlisted in the Air Force; a year earlier, in 1978, she'd come out as a lesbian, a move that didn't sit well with her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.
"In basic training, they take away any books, any personal effects, anything that could be fun," says Rost. "But they couldn't take away religious things, which is why, I'm sure, the Gideons took advantage of this to give out their little Bibles. And so when they took away my Stephen King novels, all I had was this little green Gideon New Testament [plus] Psalms and Proverbs."
While the Old Testament — or, as Rost puts it, "the scary old Hebrew scriptures" — may be as unsettling as anything in Stephen King's imagination, she found the kinder, gentler New Testament approach to be more welcoming. Although, not entirely.
"I was taken by this image of Jesus as just this tender lover of people, but I also knew that I was a lesbian. So I began to read this little Bible like a Steven King novel. I was afraid to turn the page, because I just knew it would say, 'God loves everybody, EXCEPT Nori Rost.'"
While Rost was grappling with Gideon at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Ted Haggard had graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1989, Rost left the military to become a full-time minister in Long Beach, then relocated five years later to Colorado Springs. By that time, Haggard had already built up his New Life megachurch, while Rost would preside over the much more modest Metropolitan Community Church, which she describes as a queer Christian church in a town that had become ground zero for anti-gay sentiments.
Although she initially felt out of place in Colorado Springs, Rost soon fell in with a crowd of allies who remain prominent within the progressive community to this day. Among them are Rosemary Harris Lytle, a former newspaper columnist who co-founded the prisoner reentry program Positive Impact and is director of the tri-state NAACP; Mary Lou Makepeace, the city's first and only female mayor; and local progressive businessman Richard Skorman, the only candidate for whom Rost ever went door-to-door canvassing.
Rost soon went on to earn her Master's in Divinity from Denver's Iliff School of Theology. In 2008, she took on her current position as minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Colorado Springs.
Today, Rost continues to hold a leadership role in Colorado Springs' progressive communities, presiding over lesbian and gay marriages, leading demonstrations in defense of Planned Parenthood and in opposition to anti-homeless ordinances, and responding to media requests for comment after such events as the Planned Parenthood shooting last November. Earlier this week, she celebrated her 54th birthday by setting off on a 500-mile walking pilgrimage.
With irreverent wit and provocative candor, Rost speaks in the following interview about prophetic dreaming, Colorado Springs' history of homophobia, experiences with Ted Haggard, and the danger inherent in playing the Trump card.
Indy: Let's start off by talking about the distinction between Unitarians and Universalists. Are they essentially the same thing?
Reverend Nori Rost: No, Unitarians and Universalists are two different faith movements, although they both came out of the Congregational movement. The Universalists broke off first, in the 1700s, saying that they don't believe in hell. And then in the 1800s, the Unitarians broke off and said, "We believe God is one, we don't believe in the Trinity."
They were both still very Christian-based, but Unitarians were very much a white-collar faith tradition — you know, Boston is like our Mecca, we have a Unitarian Church on like every corner. And Universalists were much more rural and working class. But both of them were very involved in social justice activities: in the suffragette movement, and the abolitionist movement, and the civil rights movement.
I once visited a Unitarian Universalist church in Northern California where there was this ongoing tension between the two factions. During the service, they were actually seated on opposite sides of the church, like two families at a wedding. Was that just an aberrant situation?
There was actually a lot of tension when they decided to band together in 1961 and create one association. The Universalists were saying "Will they take away our God?" And the Unitarians were saying, "Will they shove God down our throats?"
And now, both have kind of shifted away from being predominantly Christian to being more inclusive. Universalists still have this deep reverence for God, but not necessarily the God depicted in the Christian scriptures so much as this divine being that welcomes all.
In terms of your own background, would you say your family was working class or white collar?
We were working poor. I was the youngest of five kids, and my parents were divorced. So my mom was a single mom, and we were on welfare.
I was in the inaugural Head Start program in Topeka, Kansas, and I credit that with my being able to go on to a doctorate in ministry. But we didn't have any religious upbringing. I think we went to Easter services a couple of times, because there are pictures of me dressed in those black patent shoes and pants. But otherwise, we never went to church.
I came out as a lesbian when I was 16, and then, when I was 17 in my senior year, I got kicked out of the house. So I joined the Air Force right after high school, with one of my sisters, basically just to get some stability in life.
This was before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," right?
Yes, it was. It was 1980, right around when Ronald Reagan was elected.
How risky did that feel?
It felt kind of risky. But it also felt like what I needed to do.
I remember one night, after I got to my permanent duty station, which was in Castle Air Force base in California, I had this dream where I was at the top of a river embankment, hiding behind a bush. And there at the river's edge was Jesus talking to a bunch of straight people. And I wanted to go down there and sit with them and listen to him, but I told myself, "You can't do that, you're a lesbian." And in my dream, Jesus looked right up at me and said, "It's OK, I made you that way, and I love you."
So I woke up and I got on a first-name basis with God, and I found out that very week that a Metropolitan Community Church had been started in a nearby city. So from the very beginning, I had a church to go to.
That was in 1981, and when I became an MCC minister in 1989, at that time the denomination was very loosely run. And so it was like, "I feel a call to ministry!" And they'd be like, "Here's a collar, go forth and preach!"
Then I moved here in January of '94 to be the minister of the Pikes Peak MCC, but it wasn't until January of '99 that I got my master's of divinity. And I was in a seminar at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and I remember that moment when I realized I don't believe in hell.
Was that liberating for you?
It was liberating, but it also caused consternation. Because I very sincerely believed that, as a queer Christian minister, my goal was to save people, particularly the GLBT community, from hell. These were people who had walked away from God because their churches had kicked them out. So my whole ministry was about saying, God still loves you, you're welcome here, you can still be part of the family of God. But since I no longer believed in hell, then what did it mean to be a Christian minister who doesn't need to save anybody from hell?
It was during that time that I was beginning to feel this tectonic shift, and that there's gotta be more than this. And being a queer minister in a queer church during the U.S. AIDS years, I lost 33 friends to AIDS, and did many, many funerals, as well as holding countless healing services, where we would pray for healing.
And nobody was healed. So it was like, "Oh," we would say, "well they got the ultimate healing, they're with God now." But that's not what we were praying for. And so that began to punch some holes in my Christian theology, that if there's this all-loving and all-powerful God, then why wasn't something being done about this?
Looking back, do you feel the same way about that contradiction? Does it make any more sense now?
Well, it doesn't make any more sense now, except that I don't believe in that God. I mean, I believe that all religion is metaphor. And that's why new religions are still being created. That's why we still have doomsday cults that say this is the end of the world, right? Or we have the Baha'i Faith, which is just over a hundred years old, or the MCC, which was just started in 1968. It's like every generation, every culture, every tribe, seeks to answer these questions: Why am I here? What happens when we die? What happens when somebody harms somebody? And so we create these metaphors that we call faith, or belief, or Truth with a capital "T." But you know, I don't think there is a capital-"T" Truth. Except for perhaps the truth of love, which is the only universally shared innate human longing and desire.
What about hate?
No, we have to be taught how to hate. People aren't born racist, they're not born making fun of other kids. They're taught that, by their culture, and society, and family, and peers. But love is innate, unless you're one of the 4 percent who happens to be a sociopath. And then you don't get to feel that love.
When you moved here and became the minister at the local MCC, how would you characterize Colorado Springs at that time?
Well, when I came here 22 years ago from Long Beach, California, Amendment 2 was still wending its way through the Supreme Court. And that was really when we began to get the reputation as a hate state. And Colorado Springs became known as the Ground Zero of that hate, because its authors were here.
And people would say to me, as a young 31-year-old lesbian, "Are you crazy? Why on earth would you go from Long Beach, California, to Colorado Springs, Colorado?" And I'd always say two things. I'd say, well, first of all, Dorothy Day said go to where you're least wanted, because that's where you're most needed. And second of all, if you're gonna combat Nazi fundamentalism, at least do it in a scenic place.
What were the worst things you went through during that period?
Well, I mean, it was just the whole culture of the city. It was like living in the shadow of Mordor. In fact, I still say that about up north. I never go to Briargate shops, because that's shopping in the shadow of Mordor. There was just this heavy presence over the town, everywhere you looked. It was very demoralizing. And at that time, a lot of the national GLBT groups were saying, "Let's boycott Colorado." Which I get. I understand the purpose behind that. But what it actually did was to make us feel more isolated.
So I had this little rainbow bumper sticker on my car, and also a little clergy sticker. And I'd get people going either, "Oh my God, look at that, it's a clergy who's on our side," or just derision and being flipped off and called names.
What kind of names?
You know, dyke, queer, faggot, you're burning in hell. Any time I was in the news speaking out as an out lesbian person of faith, I got hate mail and hate calls and, you know, really vitriolic stuff. We were like a lightning rod for this hatred.
So they would have preferred that you not believe in God at all.
Oh yeah, it was like, "How dare you co-opt my faith and say my God loves you." And when I'd do these panels and debates; it would always be me, and somebody who's an evangelical, and then, of course, some ex-gay. I finally got to the point where I said, I'm not doing this anymore. It would be like saying to an African slave, please come and debate why you think God doesn't like slavery.
And now, it's just fascinating to me, that I live in an era of marriage equality, where I can see that iconic photograph of a returning male sailor being swooped up and held and kissed by his male lover. I never in a million years would have thought that would happen in my lifetime. But now we also have these ridiculous laws about gender and who gets to use which bathroom. So there's always something. It seems that we'll come to this place of inclusivity and understanding in some areas, and then, guess what? It's like we'll never arrive. And once we get over our bathroom fear, there'll be somebody else that we want to pass laws against.
Isn't that just the nature of the human race?
Well, evidently it is. But Martin Luther King once quoted the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who was speaking about slavery in a sermon back in the 1800s. And he said, "I can't pretend to understand the universe and how it runs, but I do know that the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice." And that's what I just have to believe.
You were here in town during that whole period when Ted Haggard went through his fall and eventual resurrection. What kind of interactions did you have with him?
I actually interacted with Ted Haggard on many occasions prior to his fall, as you say. The biggest interaction I remember was around 2000 or 2001, back when they had those huge Easter sunrise services in Garden of the Gods. And New Life was in charge of it that year, and we got this mass-mailed postcard asking if our choir would like to participate. I can just imagine some retired woman going through the Yellow Pages and making out address labels to all of the Christian churches.
They're Christian, so they must be all right.
Yeah, exactly. So here we are, this queer Christian church that's accidentally invited to be part of the choir, so of course we said yes. And when our choir members showed up to the first practice, there was this big brouhaha from the other Christian churches saying we were not allowed. And Ted Haggard said, "You know, it's not up to you and me to say who can participate. God welcomes all." It was pretty amazing. So I mean, I think he's had a complicated life, clearly. He and I talked on several occasions about homosexuality, and we also talked about other things.
Based on your experiences with him, do you think he was treated unfairly?
Well, I think it's hard to separate the public persona from the private man. I actually have great sympathy for any public figure whose private indiscretions get put out there in a public way. It's not fair to that person. But it's difficult when you have someone who's the president of a national evangelical association and speaking very stridently against homosexuality. And then to be caught in a homosexual relationship, which went against everything he'd asserted. I'm not saying I don't get it. I understand that he was in this struggle for his soul, and he had these conflicting desires that went against what he believed to be true. And many people go through that, but they're not the president of the NAE, so they get to do that in private. But when you're a public figure, you don't.
I assume your congregation is more on the liberal side of the political spectrum...
Yes, but we do have some folks who are very politically and socially conservative. And they're drawn to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church because of this sense of community and all being welcome. They're not gonna be castigated for their political or social beliefs, any more than we would want to be castigated by others.
What's your take on the press claiming that Bernie Sanders supporters, if they become frustrated with the Democratic Party, are going to run off to Trump. Could you envision anyone in your congregation doing that?
I don't want to speak for anybody in my congregation, but I would hope that nobody of any party would act in such an immature way, to pick up your toys and go home because you don't think it's fair that your candidate didn't get the nomination. Well, guess what? That's democracy. And if you look at Bernie Sanders' and Hillary Clinton's voting records, they're 93 percent the same.
I think that whole Iraq War vote may have been a sticking point.
But my thing is: Which candidate that's running for president, and is actually on the ballot, is most closely aligned with my beliefs? I mean, to say, I'm not gonna vote, or I'm gonna vote for Trump, or I'm gonna write in whoever my candidate was that DIDN'T get nominated, that's like, what are you, in kindergarten? I mean, to me, that's the most asinine thing to do.
Well, just to play, um, devil's advocate, given that Hillary Clinton and so many others voted for the war, and Trump is at least pretending that he would never have done that, is there a logical concern there that Clinton may be more hawkish?
I think that's only a logical concern if you have only that one issue that is determining who you vote for. So if who voted for the war in 2003 — which is now 13 years ago — if that's the only determining factor on who you're going to vote for for president, then maybe so.
But to me, what democracy is about is looking at the larger picture. And so you say, "Well, what about health-care reform? What about reproductive choice? What about refugees? What about undocumented citizens? What about providing access to food and educational resources for those who are poor in this country?
Also, most of Congress capitulated and were completely misled about weapons of mass destruction. And we will never know what Trump would have done, because he was too busy creating his empire.
As a reverend, how does irreverence go over? You've put up Facebook posts about naked gardening and your iPhone emails always end with "Sent from my iPhone; I'll say it now: Damn auto-fill!!" Do you ever find yourself thinking there are lines you might not want to cross?
Yeah, I do kind of shock people sometimes with my irreverence. People will cuss in front of me and say, "Oh, I'm so sorry." And I'm like, "Oh, trust me, ministers cuss way the hell more than anybody else." So I will post things that might be irreverent, or are just in tune with what I'm feeling.
I mean, almost three years ago now, my brother killed himself. It happened on a Friday, and so I'm driving to Kansas the next morning, and I stop in Colby, Kansas, which is where I always stop for gas, And I go to check in on Facebook. I wanted to be authentically myself, and yet it was also a very private thing that happened to my family. And so I just posted, you know: Getting gas in Kansas, where my brother killed himself yesterday. Any prayers, thoughts, good energy, whatever, are appreciated.
And that was really hard, but it was also really important for me that people see that I am human, and that I have all these horrible things happen that I have to deal with, too. And to me, it's very important that I can just put up funny things or naked gardening things, but I also had to put up this really hard thing. And still today, on his birthday, I'll put up his picture or whatever. And I got this tattoo on the anniversary of his death [rolls up sleeve], and I posted a photo after I got it done.
I think it's a mistake — that many people make, in any kind of leadership position — to just lose sight of your own humanity.
You know, I am a human who happens to be a minister. I'm not a minister who happens to be a human.