First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) is hosting the 'Showers of Stoles Project' — a collection of artistically rendered church vestments representing the lives of gay, lesbian and transgender people of faith — through Sunday.

The exhibit's roots

The Showers of Stoles began in 1996, when a closeted Presbyterian Minister Martha Juillerat in Missouri came out.

Facing the threat of being defrocked, Juillerat asked colleagues to send their stoles to her Presbyterian meeting hall as a sign of solidarity.

While Juillerat originally hoped to receive a few dozen from her closest friends, she received 80 overnight. The collection has since grown to approximately 11,000 stoles from 32 faith denominations.

Local display of support

Pastor Lorelei Toombs has served at FUMCOG for three years. She said she hopes the exhibit will challenge people to consider those who have lived in secret for fear of being rejected by their church community.

"You should not just talk the talk, but walk the walk," says Toombs. "We made a commitment in 1990 to be an open and welcoming church [to LGBT people] and state that in very public ways." 

Toombs said FUMCOG has acted like an island in its acceptance of the LGBT community in that regard, even when it has put her church at odds with the greater network of the United Methodist Church.

"There are greater tensions and great inhospitality in the greater church in the LGBT community, including the defrocking of recent individuals, or other clergy who have done services of their children or married their child to a same-sex partner," she said.

"We can't get away from the fact that we're part of this greater structure," added Toombs, who estimated the FUMCOG congregation includes at least 15 same-gender families.

 "There are a lot of churches where families live in secret. Their fear keeps them from telling those stories."

The message resonates

Ruth Thornton, a recently retired Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine chemistry professor, has been part of FUMCOG for 25 years.

Originally from Texas, her father was Southern Baptist minister which made it difficult for Thornton in college, when she realized she was gay.

"Thank goodness my parents didn't reject me, but even today, people think it's sinful," Thornton said. "There are certain things my family and I just don't talk about."

One particular stole inscription brings tears to Thornton's eyes when she reads the quote from the person who donated it
: "For many gifted students I taught who have remained closeted." 

Thornton remained silent on her sexuality for most of her career, only publicly coming out during these last five years. She wondered aloud whether she could have helped her gay and closeted students more if she had been outspoken. 

"It robs you of your sense of humanity," said Thornton of being closeted. "I feel sad that students certainly wouldn't have thought to come and talked to me."

The history

In 2003, former FUMCOG pastor Beth Stroud openly announced to her clergy that she was a lesbian, ultimately going to trial within the greater United Methodist Church structure, and losing her ability to be a pastor. 

Mariana Eckardt, a FUMCOG member and retired art teacher, said that exhibits like Showers of Stoles speak to people about difficult subjects they wouldn't talk about on their own. 

"Every one of those stoles has a story about someone who has been censored by the church, cast out, left out, told they weren't good enough," Eckhardt said, "and I think that's wrong." 

Philadelphians can view the Showers of Stoles by appointment from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Friday, and publicly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.