The Reverend Lindi Ramsden, the former senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of San José, was raised in Orinda in the 1950s at a time when it was still considered “cow country” by her grandmother. There were acres of cow pastures to run around in, slopes of grass to slide down on cardboard sleds, and quiet streets to play catch or go skateboarding. She remembers it as a relaxed and outdoors-oriented childhood.
By the time she got to junior high, there was pressure to conform to more traditional feminine activities, which she admits she bought into that at the time. However, she was always “an outdoors kid and a tomboy at heart.”
She began her faith journey in the ninth grade at the Orinda Community Church (UCC). “I had a sense of wanting to be part of something that was larger than oneself, part of a community, part of a larger value system.”
Lindi remembers in high school, during the early 1970s, a controversy surrounding whether Bill Johnson, a young gay seminarian, could be ordained by the United Church of Christ. She recalls being supportive of him, even writing a paper for a high school social issues class. While not considering herself a lesbian at the time, she felt “it was crazy that the church wouldn’t just automatically include him.”
Lindi’s high school church experience led her to the religious studies program at Stanford in 1972. However, she soon realized her own beliefs and identity were out of alignment with the theology she was studying. She just didn’t view Jesus in the same way Protestantism asked her to. “I didn’t actually understand the role of Jesus as one of a divinity, as a Trinitarian. I didn’t understand his life as redemptive for sin. I understood him as a really profound teacher.” To add to her hesitation, she started to figure out she was a lesbian and didn’t think any ministry would accept her, so she switched her major to human biology.
It wasn’t until after graduating from college in 1976 that she started to meet Unitarian Universalists and realized, “Oh, there’s a theological space here for me that is a little bit wider.” With a renewed interest, she enrolled in the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley in 1980, where it was “a very safe place to be an openly lesbian person.”
While openly lesbian ministers were not yet being called to serve in UU congregations, in 1983, she began a ministerial internship under the Reverend Rob Eller-Isaacs at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Shortly after completing her internship, Lindi and her partner at the time, were invited to adopt a baby boy. Though it was early on in their relationship, the two couldn’t pass up what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The congregation in Oakland was supportive, even throwing them a baby shower.
After graduating from seminary in 1984, Lindi applied for several congregational ministry positions. “At that time, you would create a packet of written material as well as photos of yourself, your family, etc. However, as soon as the packets got exchanged the doors would close, and I wouldn’t be able to continue on in that ministerial search,” she said.
A year later, the Unitarian Universalist Association recommended her to serve as the Extension Minister (a temporary position) to grow the dwindling congregation at the First Unitarian Church of San José, which didn’t have enough money or members to call a full time minister through the regular ministerial search. At the time, the church had only 30 to 40 active members, none of whom were openly LGBTQ+.
At first, Lindi was anxious about moving to San José because of concern that the city would have a strong conservative bent. In addition, the San Jose Mercury News had recently outed a lesbian Girl Scout official, implying that lesbians were a danger to children. Thankfully, those fears dissolved soon after her arrival. After two years of solid growth, the church asked her to stay on to become their settled Senior Minister, which she was glad to accept.
In January 1989, as a result of the church winning a national UU award for congregational growth, the Mercury News published an article about the church and its lesbian minister. The community response was overwhelmingly positive. The Sunday after the article appeared a hundred new people showed up. Laughingly, they are known as “the people of the article.”
Between 1985 and 2003, the church grew to 320 adult members, 140 children, and another 150 “friends of the congregation,” and developed a small Spanish-speaking ministry, several of whose members were connected to the LGBTQ+ community.
Lindi estimates that at some point in time as much as 15-20% of the congregation were members of the LGBTQ+ community. “For the children growing up in this particular congregation, it was just normal for them to have a woman minister, to have a lesbian minister.”
Lindi’s presence as an “out” minister helped create a culture of allyship and acceptance in the congregation. “The fact that the congregation was not an exclusively LGBTQ+ place also was important for LGBTQ+ families and their kids to feel like they were part of a larger community that valued them, that supported them, that cared about them,” she said. “There was a sense of camaraderie and acceptance in the congregation that was quite wonderful.”
During Rev. Ramsden’s tenure as Senior Minister, the First Unitarian Church of San José was heavily involved in social justice ministries. The congregation took part in providing sanctuary for refugees from Central America, participating in clergy fact-finding delegations in El Salvador and Honduras, and defeating the anti-immigrant Prop 187. Additionally, Rev. Ramsden and the congregation helped to organize a community coalition (CARES) which saved funding for 14 after-school program sites in the San Jose Unified School District. To further serve the local community, they formed the Third Street Community Center in the lower level of the church and partnered with City Year to provide after school support to immigrant children in the neighborhood.
Most personal to Lindi was the church’s help in the fight against the Knight Initiative, or Proposition 22, in 2000. If passed, it would amend the California family code to prohibit same-sex couples from being recognized as being married. When Lindi and her wife Mary Helen volunteered as the co-chairs of the local fundraising effort to defeat Proposition 22, members of the congregation stepped up too. They helped to educate their family and friends, made phone calls, and stood up for the LGBTQ+ people in the congregation. “I was so happy to see in San José how much the community rallied around us, both within the congregation and beyond.”
Lindi remembers asking Amy Dean of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council if they could use their phone bank to call voters. Amy said yes, which Lindi considered a bold step. She believes that the South Bay Labor Council was the first labor organization to come out against the proposition. Unfortunately, Proposition 22 passed but won by smaller numbers in Santa Clara County than statewide.
Lindi and Mary Helen had first gotten married in a religious ceremony in 1992. “It was a strange experience as a clergyperson to be able to marry straight couples and sign marriage licenses but not be respected enough by the state to have a marriage license for my marriage,” she said, shaking her head.
Lindi and Mary Helen got married a second time when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began allowing same-sex partners to marry—Valentine’s Day, 2004. ”We decided to go up to San Francisco and be part of what I affectionately call the most jovial and longest line for government services I have ever seen.”
Their marriage—along with all the others—was voided by the California Supreme Court in August. They were finally able to legally marry on June 17, 2008, the first day they could after the state Supreme Court struck down Proposition 22. Officiating was California Secretary of State Debra Bowen on the balcony of her office overlooking the state capitol. Joining them were their son Ben and Lindi’s mother.
After leaving her position at the First Unitarian Church in 2003, Rev. Ramsden served as Executive Director and Senior Minister of the UU Legislative Ministry of CA*, coordinating UU congregations’ statewide justice ministries across California. In addition to helping to pass historic human right to water legislation and health care reform, UULMCA and its Action Network educated and organized faith leaders and congregations to oppose Proposition 8 and secure marriage equality for same sex couples through the courts. In 2010, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry.
In 2013, Lindi left the UU Legislative Ministry to care for her mother and to finish a documentary on the human right to water. She was later asked to serve as the acting Dean of Students and Visiting Assistant Professor of Faith and Public Life at Starr King School for the Ministry, where she served until 2020.
Lindi, now retired, reflects on how she has seen the religious community progress. “There’s still work to be done to allow everyone to live their lives in dignity and with respect, to not be used as a political pawn,” she acknowledged. “The religious community has come a long way. But there are still parts that don’t accept LGBTQ+ folks. I hope over time that will change. In the meantime, it is the job of those of us who are fortunate enough to have found a home in a religious faith that is respectful and inclusive to cast a bigger web, to make a larger embrace so that everybody can live their full human selves and love whom they want to love.”
As to their son, Ben, he and is wife are blessed to be the parents of a wonderful daughter who is well loved by her doting grandmas.
*The UU Legislative Ministry, CA was later renamed the UU Justice Ministry of CA.