An interview with the incredible Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr
Pride Month 2023 is here, and Ritter Center is honored to celebrate Pride with recognition and deep gratitude for Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr and her incredible contributions to society.
Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr – or “Janie” as she prefers to be called – describes herself as a lesbian, feminist, Presbyterian minister committed to justice issues for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer community, pursuing connections for wholeness with other oppressed communities claiming their freedom. Her amazing life story is one worth telling as she has contributed so greatly to the human rights movement.
Janie was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is a twin. She is the “wife emerita” of Jim Spahr and proud mother of sons, Jim and Chet. She is the “sister-in-love” of Bill Fenton (Joanie’s partner) and Jackie Spahr (Jim’s partner). Ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1974 in Pennsylvania, she later served as Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian in San Rafael, California. Janie became Executive Director of Oakland Council of Presbyterian Churches where she was encouraged to resign because of being lesbian. That’s when Janie began her “out” liberation work with and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco.
In 1982 Janie, along with many friends, founded the Ministry of Light which became the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns. She served as their first Executive Director for over 10 years. From its origins as Ministry of Light, The Spahr Center was created in 2016 from a merger between Marin AIDS Project and Spectrum LGBTQ+ Center. Today, The Spahr Center honors the trailblazing LGBTQ+ and HIV community activists whose vision and dedication have laid the groundwork upon which we stand.
Janie has traveled throughout the country, educating and informing other faith communities and universities throughout the country, working on behalf of greater inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. During the past 5 years, Janie has devoted much of her efforts to working with the transgender community in creating a safe and welcoming house for transgender friends, their caregivers and families following their affirmation surgeries.
Janie’s connection to Ritter Center goes back many decades. In fact, it was while Janie was working at a nursing home that she first became connected to our organization. Extra deliveries to the nursing home that weren’t needed were sent to Ritter Center. Today that partnership has grown by leaps and bounds. One shining example here is a multi-year collaborative grant awarded by Marin Health & Human Services to Ritter Center, Community Action Marin and SPAHR Center to provide expanded street medicine services to people living on the streets. Together, we will be providing services growing from 3 days a week to 5 days a week over the course of three years. The grant adds a Licensed Behavioral Health Clinician, A Peer Outreach Navigator with Lived Experience (Community Action Marin) and a Harm Reduction Navigator (SPAHR). The partnership between these three organizations enables many aspects of healthcare in the field such as harm reduction tools; overdose prevention; and personal hygiene items.
Janie was gracious enough to lend the team at Ritter Center time to hear about her inspiring life story. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
You are someone who has a uniquely powerful way of interacting with other human beings. Can you speak to your approach to life, love, compassion and kindness?
“We love people and help them become who they are and we do it again and again. It doesn’t work every time. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts. People can self-sabotage and we have to keep working at it together,” said Janie.
How has being a twin affected your life’s work and passion?
“I was born a twin which means I came into this world with someone who loved me and I loved them back. Part of the reason I’m such a lover of people is that I’ve been so deeply loved from the very beginning of my life. There is an ethereal quality to this mystery of the higher power source of light — whatever you choose to call it. It is this true seeing of people at a deep level infused with intuition. I’ve felt this from this life and before this life, too. It is not tough love. It is a holding. An embrace,” reflected Janie.
You have often mentioned the well-known Martin Buber quote: “The basic word I-Thou can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou.” What does it mean to you?
“It is only when we truly ‘show up’ for one another that ‘the between’ comes into being. It is being intentional, empathetic, and present while also transparent and accessible. It is in this moment that we become connected,” shared Janie.
You were a major part of the healing community when HIV hit. How did this affect you?
“When you sit with young people as they pass to the other side, your soul is etched forever from the experience. This is also true of course when you bear witness to anyone at any age who is passing, but I also hold a special memory of the HIV/AIDS crisis that struck so many people at a very young age. I remember sitting and praying with my friend Gary who was dying. He always thought about others first. When we were done praying for him, he put his finger to his lips and said ‘now it’s my turn to pray for you.’ In that most humble, vulnerable moment of his own death, he’s praying for me while he’s dying. That is the ultimate act of selflessness. It was beyond moving. When I came out of his room, his parents were wringing their hands. They asked me ‘Janie, is he saved?’ I replied ‘Not only is he saved, but he is saving us.’ His parents breathed a deep sigh of relief,” recalled Janie. Even though this is not Janie’s theology, she was able to reply in a way that was helpful to them in that moment.
Tell me about some key moments in your own story of coming out and also being out throughout the course of your lifetime.
“At the age of 14, I kissed a girl and was never the same. But the Presbyterians didn’t know what to do with me! This ‘otherness’ became a key theme of my life, and that thread wove through nearly every aspect of my life.
In fact, being gay saved my life. It made me much more conscious of asking different questions. By this, I mean, I am constantly asking who is at the table? Equally important, if not more important, who isn’t allowed to be at the table?
You see, I understand whiteness and privilege. But there is a key component here. I understand within the lens and framework of being a lesbian that I have had access only because I am white,” recalled Janie. “So I better be working on changing people’s hearts and minds around how racism is so deeply embedded in this country.”
Things seem so very hard in the world right now. How do you maintain hope in what can feel like a very dark time?
“We have so very much work to do still in this world. There is a tremendous amount of racism, sexism and heterosexism continually bearing down on us. These are domination systems which systematize and institutionalize making another ‘the other’. We must continue to ask about how we treat each other! Not only the human family, but those that have four legs and swim in the ocean. It is the earth, the environment and the plants and animals, too. Every living thing has a sacred story,” asserted Janie.
What is the lens through which you keep fighting? How do we make sense of the world when it feels like it is ending?
“It is the patriarchal and power over framework that is the issue. When things get tough, it’s about economic injustice. Then it becomes about our bodies – these domination systems turn to attack and assault the precious vessels of our souls: women’s, people of color and trans bodies. There are over 260 trans bills currently out there against transgender people and their families, but not one gun bill has passed. When you start talking about bodies, the threat is huge. The other side is threatened. They don’t talk about greed and the disparity between the rich and the poor from healthcare, distribution of food and access to social services. Instead, they blame the victim and make them the problem, rather than the system that created it. This perpetuates fear and violence. Our job is to change all of this and show how foolish it is and we absolutely must continue to move forward,” argued Janie with tremendous passion.
I know that you were married to a man at one point. How did your coming out affect your family?
“Part of my story is that I have a wonderful former husband who loved me into being me. He told our children that ‘everybody will say mommy and daddy can’t be together because mommy is a lesbian, but it is as much that daddy is heterosexual and can’t meet mommy. But no one will say that to you.’ This was such a beautiful and important thing for him to say,” remembered Janie.
What about your children? How did they respond?
“A milestone moment in our family was when one of my children told me ‘Mom, don’t you know that god made you gay to bring other people freedom!’ We absolutely cannot let others define us. We cannot allow these power over systems to define who we are. In every liberation movement, it is critical that we define who we are. We define ourselves. We make our own narrative. It is the power over domination system that feels they have the right to name and frame who we are. We must keep working for change. Let’s keep working for what is truthful and right. We know what we are and we define who we are and what we stand for in this world,” reflected Janie.
Thank you Janie for the light you continue to bring to this world! We are honored to celebrate Pride Month with you!