Fresno church becomes Reconciling in Christ congregation
A month before pastor Bill Knezovich told his congregation that he is gay, he had plans to end his life.
Battling colon cancer last year, he thought he’d go to the grave with his secret – a realization that took him half a century to fully understand and accept. As his last hurrah, he started talking about making Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in central Fresno a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation, a mark given to Lutheran churches that publicly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
This is just another step in becoming a more perfect reflection of the body of Christ and the kingdom of God.
pastor Bill Knezovich
But as time neared for his congregation of around 200 members to vote on becoming reconciling, Knezovich found, much to his surprise, that cancer had not killed him. He decided a vote shouldn’t happen until he could be more transparent.
But the thought of telling his congregation and his wife of 31 years, Jennie, that he is gay was horrifying. Memories of a childhood and adolescence in Wyoming filled with physical, sexual and emotional abuse came flooding back.
“The feelings from childhood came back – how I was treated then by being perceived as a gay person, although I didn’t use that term – and then the abuse things.”
Post-traumatic stress was very clear one day while shopping with Jennie. He saw a bedspread that looked like one in the room of a priest in Wyoming who he says molested him as a child. He nearly vomited.
It didn’t just bring up bad memories.
“It’s like you are there – you feel the pain, you feel your heart racing, and you feel exactly how you felt. The smells and everything. Just the terror.”
Knezovich also thought it would be too hard on people if he came out as gay, and he feared rejection and ridicule. He decided it would be easier to end his life.
Knezovich planned his suicide to look like an accident. But in the moments before he tried to kill himself in March, he thought of Jennie: “You owe your wife of 30 years an explanation.”
And then a Bible verse: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
It wasn’t much comfort at first. He thought, “once I tell the truth, it will be more miserable.”
But what he found was something different. Jennie and her family still love and support him. And when he told his congregation, they gave him a standing ovation.
Several months later, on Aug. 9, the church voted to welcome all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as “full members of our congregation entitled to the same pastoral care (including baptism, Communion, marriage, hearing the proclamation of the Gospel, counseling, and burial).”
Our Saviour’s is the first Lutheran church in the central San Joaquin Valley to be given a Reconciling in Christ designation.
Member Chris Hart says Knezovich was the “guiding principle” behind his decision to vote yes.
“I think you can argue about scripture – and people do – but one thing that’s not debatable is the integrity and the goodness of this man,” Hart says of Knezovich. “He’s helped bury our family members, marry our loved ones, and I think he’s been an example to all of us of being inclusive.”
Pain and purpose
Knezovich became a pastor to help others and create a more just world – a world he was deprived of as a child.
Knezovich’s earliest memories are pain from sexual and physical abuse by family and a neighbor.
He says one of them was “trying to beat the gay out of me.” Knezovich shared some of the abuse with his congregation during a moving sermon.
“I had a gun held to my head,” he said, “and I don’t know how many times I was choked unconscious.”
As a young boy, Knezovich was once beaten and knocked unconscious for wearing his mother’s red robe. He woke up hours later outside, stripped naked with a sunburn, his body covered in red ants and dried blood. When he came to consciousness, he was told to never wear the robe again.
As a child, he also heard of two men found dead in Wyoming, believed to have been murdered for being gay.
He can still recall one family member saying, “That’s what happens to fags.”
Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. … Not all scripture is equal in value.
pastor Bill Knezovich
At age 8, he tried to hang himself from a bedpost but the knot on the noose didn’t hold.
Two Catholic priests also molested him. He left his church in junior high when the second priest started to touch him.
Knezovich would later ask therapists if he did something wrong to attract the abuse. A therapist told him it wasn’t his fault and described what happened as the “sitting duck syndrome.”
“Predators can identify very quickly those who are not wanted and who come from dysfunction.”
When high school ended, Knezovich was terrified to go to college. He prayed to God to let him stay home.
“I thought, ‘If your family treats you this way, what’s the rest of the world going to do?’ It’s a good thing God doesn’t answer all your prayers.”
Knezovich would go on to earn a master’s degree in music therapy at the University of Denver. And after marrying Jennie, the couple moved to California to be closer to her family. She got him involved with the Lutheran Church and when he was about 30, he went to seminary school.
He went on to become a Lutheran pastor in San Francisco before moving to Fresno in 1997 to lead Our Saviour’s. He was very involved in social justice work and is a past president of Faith in Community in Fresno. He had to rein back his volunteering after a bad car accident and a bout with cancer.
I have deep regards for his ministry in terms of social justice.
Bishop Mark Holmerud of pastor Bill Knezovich
“I wanted to really live out the message of Jesus,” he says of why he become a pastor. “To work toward a more just and compassionate world in which everyone is respected, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe.”
First in the Valley
Encouraging Our Saviour’s to become a Reconciling in Christ church fell in the vein of that work.
The vote to become more publicly welcoming to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender was set to happen in April, a month after Knezovich came out as gay, but he pushed it off.
“I didn’t want it to be: ‘We’re doing this for Pastor Bill.’”
Church members had more discussions, regrouped and held the vote Aug. 9. The proposal to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation passed with 86% of those present voting in support. That made Our Saviour’s the first Lutheran church in the Valley to be deemed reconciling.
About 30 of 193 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Sierra Pacific Synod – which extends from Central California to the Oregon border and includes northern Nevada – voted to become Reconciling in Christ congregations, says Bishop Mark Holmerud.
His synod’s leadership voted to become a Reconciling in Christ synod in 2013, further affirming a “statement of welcome” that was drafted by the synod more than a decade earlier.
“I think it is a justice issue but I think it’s more than that – it’s a scriptural issue,” Holmerud says.
Jesus Christ, he says, was very interested in helping “the least, the last and the lost.”
Richard Smith, a past president at Our Saviour’s, says Christians are called to love everyone.
“Jesus didn’t ask us to judge people, he asked us to love them,” Smith says. “It’s that simple.”
The church has always been a place for us. Why not for all?
Allan “Bert” Bertelsen
Knezovich says the welcome to the LGBT community goes beyond what many churches preach on this subject, things like, “Love the sinner but hate the sin” and “We will love you but not like what you do.”
“What we’re saying is we are going to love you and accept you as the way God created you.”
Our Saviour’s board member Allan “Bert” Bertelsen says the world has changed an “awful lot” since he was born in 1932.
The retired teacher says there have always been people considered on the “outside of society” and that shouldn’t be.
“They are people, just like us,” Bertelsen said. “And the older I get – which is a continuing process I hope – that’s more true than ever. Values change but certain values do not change: our feeling towards each other as people and our willingness to see people as people by themselves and not as ‘them.’
“Part of that has become partly true because of my membership here in this congregation. I know there are families here who have children that are gay and it didn’t bother me. … But then my grandniece I find out is also gay – and she’s not a ‘them.’ She’s a she. She’s my niece. And I’m not supposed to love her just because she’s different? Well, I’m different, too.”
In a pew at Our Saviour’s, Jo Ann Hayhurst made it clear Knezovich isn’t a “them,” either.
“Bill is the most incredible man and he has been such a leader for me,” she says teary-eyed. “I feel that I’m a better Christian because I know him and because I’ve sat here in his church.”