Lake Street Church’s new senior minister, Stephen Van Kuiken, was once charged with heresy and defrocked by the Presbyterian Church for officiating same-sex marriages.
That unwavering commitment to marriage equality is one reason why the liberal congregation brought him to Evanston.
“I came here because of their vision, their perspective, which is very inclusive,” says Van Kuiken says. “I kind of say, this is a church for heretics.”
Earlier: Longtime Pastor of Lake Street Church Retires
The Michigan native gave his first sermon on Jan. 27, not long after moving to Evanston from Tucson, AZ. He joins the congregation after a multi-year search process following the retirement of Rev. Robert Thompson, who headed Lake Street Church for 30 years. In his long tenure, Thompson focused on issues of homelessness, race and LGBT rights, as part of a mission he described as “radical inclusivity.”
"There is a place at the table for everyone," Thompson told Patch when he retired in 2010. "No one is excluded for any reason because there is this innate and irrevocable divinity embedded in our humanity that is true across the board."
Van Kuiken hopes to bring that same spirit of inclusivity and activism to Lake Street Church, drawing on his own experience advocating for same sex marriage and other issues. As Van Kuiken defines it, he believes churches should both act with charity and strive for justice.
While he says many churches “act with charity” through homeless shelters and food pantries, including Lake Street Church, Van Kuiken believes a church and its minister should also address societal issues at large. Among those issues is that of same sex marriage.
“I think there’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about sexual orientation,” he says. “Love is love. I want to celebrate and affirm loving relationships.”
“It’s a matter of faith for me,” he adds. “It’s a matter of justice.”
Van Kuiken says he also hopes to focus on issues of environmentalism, economic inequality, affordable housing and immigration.
“The justice issues are much more controversial,” he notes.
But Van Kuiken is a veterany of controversy. In 1999, the progressive Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, recruited him in part to challenge the denomination’s doctrine forbidding same sex marriage. With roughly one-third of the congregation gay or lesbian, Mount Auburn took a position of open disobedience to the church as a whole, according to Van Kuiken.
“They asked me to come and be their minister because they were on a collision course with the denomination,” Van Kuiken says.
At the time, civil law in Ohio did not allow gay marriage. So Van Kuiken decided that he would stop signing the papers that granted couples a marriage license under the state, while performing the religious ceremony for straight and gay couples alike—in violation of church doctrine.
In 2002, “the whole thing blew up,” he says, when the Presbyterian Church put him on trial him for violating its doctrinal rules. The church’s internal court system found him guilty and rebuked him, asking him to stop performing same sex marriages. But he didn’t.
“That made them really angry,” he recalls. Members of Presbytery of Cincinnati, a council of church leaders, held a vote on whether or not to remove Van Kuiken as a minister. Supporters lined up outside the door to speak on his behalf, but they were only given 30 minutes to speak, he recalls. Ultimately, the Presbytery voted to remove him.
Van Kuiken hired a lawyer, and took the case to a higher level within the Presbyterian Church. He won the case on appeal, and was reinstated as a minster. Things had changed drastically, however, while the case dragged on.
After Van Kuiken was removed as a minister, he had started his own church called The Gathering, bringing many followers from Mount Auburn. The congregation could afford to pay him about half of his former pay, and he worked out of his home, without health insurance. With two kids in college, it was hard financially.
Once he was reinstated, however, the Presbyterian Church asked him to stop leading The Gathering—his only source of income.
“I really didn’t see myself leading another Presbyterian church,” Van Kuiken says. So he left the denomination and, one day later, became a United Church of Christ minister. He found an old storefront space in the roughest part of Cincinnati, and turned it into a worship house for The Gathering that doubled as an art gallery.
To pick up health insurance, he found a position as a social worker at a halfway house. With time, however, the drain of working two full-time jobs began to wear on him. In 2009, Van Kuiken began looking for a new position and ultimately settled on Rincon United Church of Christ in Tucson, AZ.
Now returned to the Midwest, Rincon says he’s glad to be back and enjoying getting to know the area. Lately, he’s been checking out the local music venues, including S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston and Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square. He's also taking advantage of his new downtown home, which gives him the ability to walk to the library, the grocery store and his pulpit at Lake Street Church.
"There's a radical freedom," he says of Lake Street Church. "It's not like you come here and people give you the answers. We're all encouraged to wrestle with the questions."