Renae Extrum-Fernandez is a fifth generation Methodist born in Pittsburg, California, in 1957. She lived there with her parents, Raymond C. Extrum, school superintendent of the Knightsen School District, and Armida Extrum, eligibility supervisor for Contra Costa County Social Services, and her sister Karen Extrum, now a police dispatcher with South Lake Tahoe police force. Renae’s family attended the Pittsburg United Methodist Church where her extended family held membership since the 1930’s.
Renae recalls that her support and advocacy for LGBT persons has roots early in her life:
The image itself is as ragged as my memory of it. Yet, the bright wide smile, the sparkling eyes and those delightfully deep dimples are as clear today in my heart as they were then. Kenny is holding me in his arms, carrying me across the sidewalk “threshold.” We are both giggling out of control. Cousin Allyse officiated. I think we even found a Bible. My cousin Kenny and I were “married” just hours after my own Mom and Dad said their vows. He was 9. I was 7.
Ten years later or so, Mom and Dad told my sister and I that our cousin Kenny had been caught with a male lover at the home of a family member. Our extended Mexican-American family was in an uproar and it split – even within his immediate family. The Evangelical “side” of the family condemned his “chosen lifestyle”. Dad and Mom, however, took a strong stand in the other direction. Dad had just completed his Doctorate in psychology. He explained that psychologists had concluded that there is no pathology in homosexuality. But I knew that. I knew Kenny.
About a decade later, I answered the phone. Kenny was in his last days of living with AIDS. My Auntie was asking, “Would you do his memorial?” “Of course.” It was my privilege to minister to him in those last months. The night he passed, I had been at his side, singing softly to him the beautiful Mexican love songs that his mother had put on the tape deck. I’ll never forget the incredible fireball that streaked through the sky as I drove home. No coincidence that. I knew his sparkle had returned to the heavens.
Kenneth (and most of his family) was not active in a local church, so we scheduled the service in the town he grew up in at a mainline congregation. The day before the service, I received a call from the host Pastor. He told me that the Elders had decided they would not allow the memorial to be held in their church building. I was stunned. I called my Aunt. She was devastated. It was beyond my capacity to comprehend how Christians could turn away a grieving family. I had a frank conversation with the Pastor. Several hours later, he called me back. No matter the consequence to himself, he decided that “the right thing” was to welcome us back to his sanctuary and he would personally join me on the chancel. He did the right thing and with balloons announcing Kenneth’s freedom, we ended a wonderful celebration of my precious cousin’s life.
It was the United Methodist US-2 program that offered my first real opportunity to wrestle with the Church’s anti-homosexual tradition. The program took post-college young adults, trained them in liberation theology and assigned them for two years to a social justice ministry somewhere in the United States at a subsistence level of compensation. We were trained at Boston University by staff from the General Board of Global Ministries National Division. They, in turn, exposed us to some of the most forward thinking scholars in the denomination: Justo Gonzalez, James Cone, Tex Sample, and Ted Jennings. My world opened up and for the first time, I felt I had been give the language and rationale I needed to claim my own deep belief that homosexuality was not a sin and that the Church was apostate in its judgmental and exclusionary stance toward it.
I was only a few days from leaving California to attend seminary at Boston University in 1981, when I learned that one of the key staff persons had been unexpectedly fired. I had met her in my US-2 training and had been tremendously impressed by her passionate witness and competency. Upon my arrival I found the school of theology in shock from her dismissal. She was told, we learned, that she was fired because she was a Lesbian. However, the Administration vehemently denied this. For the next two years, I found myself supporting the anti-discrimination lawsuit that she filed. We gave our “witness” outside the administration office and in the courtroom. Before a jury of nearly all Euro-American men, the School of Theology administration won its case. I went to the Howard Thurman room, where Martin Luther King Jr. used to study, and wept.
When I left seminary in 1984, God sent me to a small congregation in the upper market area of San Francisco, right into the vortex of two hemispheric crises: the AIDS epidemic and the Central American civil wars. My congregation was made up of undocumented refugees from seven Latin American nations. Some of them had HIV infection and AIDS. We referred to it as “el SIDA” in Spanish. While the Castro was the heart of both suffering and tremendous response to it, I learned quickly that there were no services in the Mission District for Latinos with el SIDA. I offered my volunteer services to the Latino AIDS Project, a mix of Latino social workers, physicians and clergy who hoped to stem the tide of el SIDA and its wake in the barrio. There were no Roman Catholic clergy serving in the Project. I was the only Protestant clergywoman involved.
My first assignment was to a Catholic family whose Downs syndrome baby had been infected with HIV through a blood transfusion during one of his many heart surgeries. He was on a feeding tube when I first met him and his tortured family. They could not understand how their inocente could have such a terrible disease. They could not understand why the priest wouldn’t come. I had many other assignments after that. It was a humbling call to be pastora to those who had lost their families and faith communities because of their disease.
In 1996 the UM General Conference added a new portion to the Book of Discipline that attacked those leading intentional inclusion of homosexual members. It became a violation of church law to perform a ceremony of holy union for a homosexual couple. Suddenly, my colleagues and I found our pastoral ministry criminalized. We could only continue in faithfulness to our call at the peril of losing our clergy orders. I received a phone call from a colleague suggesting that a few of us meet to strategize a faithful response. Four of us met in a coffee shop in Berkeley to begin to discuss how we might respond to this new obstacle to our call to ministry. We planned to organize our colleagues. Meanwhile, Don Fado had offered retired clergy the opportunity to share in his witness of protest against the new church law by joining him in the holy union of his congregants, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton. Jeanne was our conference lay leader at the time, the highest position a layperson could have in our Conference life. When we heard what Don was planning, our active clergy group contacted him. Jeanne and Ellie welcomed us all to their celebration. That was the birth of “the Cal/Nevada 68” as we were called. One of our colleagues, coached by people outside our Annual Conference, filed a formal complaint against us. Our individual testimonies to the Committee on Investigations were published. The Committee received our testimony, deliberated and dismissed the charges. Many supporters of the new law left the United Methodist Church across the country. Clergy and entire congregations left our Conference. Yet others heard the welcome call of Christ to become part of His Body and they came.
These experiences, and others, were foundational to my commitment to be part of a United Methodist movement for full inclusion. The struggle for full inclusion continues. New voices take up the cry for faithful witness to the Gospel of Pentecost inclusion. As the old hymn says, I don’t feel no ways tired.I give thanks to God for the untiring witness of so many men and women across the United Methodist Connection who have remained faithful to our commitment to full inclusion at great cost to themselves. It is a privilege to serve beside them.
Renae graduated as Valedictorian from Pittsburg High School in 1975, earned a Bachelor of Science from U.C. Davis in 1979, served as a U.S.-2 (2-year United Methodist mission service in community development in Fresno from 1979-1981. She married Paul Fernandez in 1981. She earned her Master of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology in 1984 – graduating at the top of her class. In 1984 she became the first Latina raised in the California/Nevada Conference to be ordained. She is currently the District Superintendent of the Bridges District of the California/Nevada Annual Conference.
She and her husband Paul live in Walnut Creek, CA. They have two daughters, Elana and Daniela, both pursuing graduate degrees.
(This biographical statement provided by Renae Extrum-Fernandez.)