Thursday, October 28, 2010
A Wichita man's extraordinary journey - not only through life - but through the Presbyterian Church. 'Thy Will Be Done' is a documentary about the life of Steve Herwig. It is gaining national attention at film festivals across the country, including Wichita's Tallgrass Film Festival. Herwig's dream of becoming a Presbyterian pastor led him to Boston, but his dream has been met with obstacles throughout his life that raise many questions about religion and sexuality.
From Wichita to the quiet Boston suburb of Waltham, Mass., Steve Herwig is on a journey. His journey brings him here to the First Presbyterian Church in Waltham. This calling has come with much controversy.
Constantly feeling out of place during his early life,, Steve Herwig found himself searching for his identity. Growing up a devout Christian in Wichita, Herwig graduated from Southeast high School.
"My father was very strict about trying to teach me about how to be masculine," Herwig said. "If I got picked on and I cried or something, he'd say 'toughen up.' Be a man like your brothers."
Herwig enrolled at Sterling College in Kansas, taking his girlfriend with him. He wanted to become a Presbyterian pastor.
"We used to sit on the front porch of my house," explained Billie Preston as she strummed a guitar. We would play guitar guitars and sing together. That's what we did a lot. That was our dating."
Preston is Herwig's ex-wife. Steve and Billie eventually married and had a daughter, but Steve had a secret.
"He had told me before we got married that he had trouble with cross dressing all through his life. It started when he was a little kid," Preston said. It was weird, but on the other hand, my world view was if I loved the lord enough and I loved him enough, then I didn't see what the problem would be."
"Not to say that there weren't good times, because there were," said Stephanie Herwig, Steve and Billie's daughter. "We laughed a lot. They were very supportive of me and everything I was interested in, but there was a disconnect because of all the sadness they were dealing with."
Herwig continued his theological studies outside Boston, but his struggle with cross-dressing continued and his marriage began to fall apart.
"Our first year, I came home early from work and the door was locked," Preston explained. "I thought 'oh my gosh,' he's having an affair, but that was not the case. He was in my clothes."
Steve and Billie eventually divorced. Herwig dropped out of seminary and walked away from the church. After years of counseling, Herwig eventually transitioned from Steve... to Sara.
"I just kept becoming more and more, feeling more guilty and ashamed," Sara Herwig said. "I was desperate that I couldn't overcome this. That was a real struggle for me. It was hard to walk away."
Sara continued to feel a strong calling to serve. Today, she is a candidate for ordination to become a Presbyterian pastor and currently worships at First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Mass.
"You can learn so much just from watching her, listening to her. She has this certain peace to her soul," said Melinda Taylor, who belongs to Herwig's congregation. "She's just a beautiful person and she can reach people in certain ways that other people cannot."
Larraine Wilson is another fellow parishioner.
"If you close your doors to people because of who they love or their physical presentation or mental illness or whatever it is," Wilson explained, "you're sort of missing out on a whole bunch of people with a lot of gifts."
But the story does not end here. Sara Herwig eventually re-married a woman in Boston, where same-sex unions are legal. The Presbyterian Church now considers her gay. That puts her dream of becoming a pastor in jeopardy.
The church's Book of Order, or constitution, forbids gays and lesbians from being ordained.
"Anybody to be ordained must be either in a married relationship between a man and woman or in chastity in singleness," said Jean Southard, who married Sara and Jen. "And so it never says gays and lesbians, but it was put in there in the mid-90's for the purpose of preventing gays and lesbians from being ordained."
Southard faced charges within the church that she illegally married Sara. She was acquitted at trial, but found guilty upon appeal. The church's supreme court will ultimately decide whether she should be reprimanded. Southard has since retired from the ministry.
Thy Will Be Done, a documentary about Sara's life, is gaining national attention. We traveled to Boston for the film's premiere. Herwig's hope is that her story... her journey... will help the countless other families who might be dealing with a similar situation.
"I think if, particularly, this film could be seen by the general public, not just those in the film documentary making industry or the LGBT community, that it could go a long way in helping people to begin considering different ways of being who we are as human beings," Herwig said outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Sara remains a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Both Sara and Reverend Southard say they think the church is close - nationally - to changing its Book of Order to allow for gays and lesbians to be ordained.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Herwig, Sara's daughter, said the extraordinary experience has altered her view of life... for the better.
"We have a tremendously honest relationship now, which this has facilitated," Stephanie Herwig said. "And I don't think a lot of parents and children really get to have the full benefit of real, true honesty. So I'm really grateful for that."
"Gender is more than body parts and DNA," Sara Herwig told me as we ended our interview. "Our minds, our psyches, our emotions, our personalities are very complex and you can't boil them down to what body parts you were or were not born with."
In order for Sara to become a minister in word and sacrament within the church, a congregation must choose her to be their pastor. Until that happens, she will remain simply a candidate for ordination.
If you would like to purchase a copy of the DVD documentary 'Thy Will Be Done,' visit Mineral King Productions.
Jared has also continued the discussion with some of his personal feelings on his blog.