Local Women of Faith: LBT women who take the lead in religion

Joan Schaeffer. Photo by Carina Mask.

Joan Schaeffer Finds Strength in her Faith

The former president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami could have been Catholic.

Joan Schaffer’s bloodline connection with her faith goes back to a time where its members were heavily persecuted.

The past president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami’s family lived in Europe during the second World War, hiding away because they were being pursued. Schaffer recently visited family in France whose upbringing was much different than her own.

“It’s emotional for me because they are not Jewish due to the fact that the mother one of my cousins was hidden during the war by a Catholic family so she could live,” she said. “So there’s a whole side of my family that is Catholic, but I’m very happy because my grandfather got out and went to Brooklyn.”

Being raised in New York by her parents, Schaffer’s upbringing differed from that of her Catholic relatives. 

“Judaism was a very important part of my life but it wasn’t always that way. My parents aren't that religious, they are what I would call secular Jews. They ate Jewish things and lived in a Jewish neighborhood but they didn't pray a lot.”

Despite her parent’s less traditional approach, Schaeffer practiced her faith. Her mindset at the time played a huge role in how she approached life.

“For me, although I didn’t acknowledge it until I was in my 20s, I knew I was different and it turned out that difference was I was gay. But when I was young I didn’t identify it in that way, I just didn’t really fit in with the other girls.”

With those feelings of isolation, Schaffer found strength in Judaism. That boost helped connect her further with god and create a tight bond within her life.

“My parents didn’t force me to do it, unlike most kids,” she said. “I felt drawn to it naturally.”

Initially when Schaffer moved down to the area in the ‘80s, she said her gay identity took over her faith because she went to the Metropolitan Community Church. But not wanting to be baptized in a different religion led her to the rabbi at Temple Israel.

“Ironically he was looking to the gay community to help fill the temple,” she said. “I found a home at Temple Israel.”

As she spent more time there, including the start of a gay group at the temple, Schaffer got more involved. She became a member of the board, an officer, and then finally became president of the temple.

“Somebody told me I was going to be president and I was like, ‘Me?’ So that happened and while it was a very difficult experience, it was very valuable during that time.”

“It was so hard because I always felt like I was being watched and eventually I just did my best and that was that,” she continued.

Schaeffer thinks more women are getting chances at leadership positions because they’ve started to gain respect for showing they can do the job like anyone else. For those looking to break in, she says the people around her have helped her best.

“It’s important to have support systems in place so that when it gets lonely, and it does, that there are people that can hold you up,” she said. “I think it’s very important for women, especially young women, to assume leadership positions.”


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Photo courtesy: Metropolitan Community Church.

Lea Brown creates a new path

After being stopped from becoming a military chaplain because of her sexuality and nearly losing her faith, the Metropolitan Community Church pastor has fought through to lead her own congregation.

For Lea Brown, her desire to serve wasn’t just for her faith, but for her country as well.

Brought up in a Baptist home in Oklahoma, Brown said she was initially unsure of the path she wanted to take. But going to Oklahoma Baptist College helped her clarify what she desired out of her religion. 

“So when I got there I was taught it was really OK to question,” she said. “By the time I was a junior I started feeling called to religious leadership. I did some Bible studies on my own and read a few other books that taught me to see things in a different light. I first realized it was OK if I was in ministry.”

Initially she thought her only two options as a single woman were to be a missionary or to serve as a religious education teacher. But after looking into those options, Brown looked at her roommate's father and saw a different option: becoming a United States Army Chaplain.

“One day I woke up and thought, ‘Wow, I really want to be an Army Chaplain. But that was very tricky because the Baptists were still not very keen on ordaining women in the ministry.”

There were only two churches at the time that would ordain women as Baptist ministers, one in San Francisco and one in Louisville, Kentucky. So she headed west to go to seminary in the late 1980s to help accomplish her goal.

After college, Brown became a chaplain candidate in the U.S. Army. Training from 1988-89, she later had to resign and be honorably discharged due to her coming out.

“It just shattered my heart, I love the ministry,” Brown said. “Military chaplaincy is a very vibrant, important industry. Chaplains are not there to convert, they are there to provide support and be a shoulder to lean on.”

Brown later also left the Baptist church because of her coming out, subsequently joining Metropolitan Community Church and trying to be ordained there. But with the loss of her chance at chaplaincy, she struggled with her feelings and later left faith for a while.

“For quite a while I was really hurt, bitter and disillusioned with it,” she said. “I went into therapy, did really hard work in that for four or five years. When I came back, whatever magic happened to me, MCC suddenly felt like home.”

Serving at both MCC San Francisco and MCC Wichita Falls in Texas, Brown eventually became senior pastor at MCC of the Palm Beaches in 2011. While Brown says her path was challenging, she encourages people to think about what they want to do.

“The best advice anyone’s ever given me is to follow your calling,” she said. “They said that when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Wichita Falls and they told me, ‘If you feel called to that church, go. On the hard days, the only thing that will keep you there is if you feel called.’”


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Photo courtesy: YouTube.

Anne Atwell Makes Her Place

In a male dominated position, the reverend from Sunshine Cathedral is part of a trend of more female leaders in faith.

Anne Atwell initially never considered that she would be able to be ordained as a minister in her lifetime.

“If you had asked me 20 years ago, would I have been a pastor, I would have thought you were nuts,” she said. “I would have said, ‘No way, that could never happen.’”

Growing up in the 1970s in Brockway, Pennsylvania in a Presbyterian family where her mother was an ordained elder and her father helped as church accountant, faith was a huge part of the minister of connections’ life. The thoughts of leadership came not from her mother or family though, but from an outside source.

“When I was 14 or 15, I had a Sunday school teacher who, he kind of really challenged me,” Atwell said. “He gave us permission to read the Bible and ask questions. Meeting him and having him as a teacher made me realize that I had a call to ministry, but quite honestly as a woman I didn’t think that was possible.”

Atwell took courses at Penn State and a few Pennsylvania community colleges, but eventually ended up at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton to try and save money. Working toward a psychology degree, Atwell graduated and later got her Master’s in divinity from St. Thomas College in Miami.

At the same time in the ‘80s as she was getting her degrees, Atwell became more active with Sunshine Cathedral, a local LGBT-friendly church in Fort Lauderdale. Starting as a greeter, she later worked as an usher with the chancel ministry and helped with the consecration of communion.

“Coming out as a lesbian, I felt like I didn’t connect with a faith community until I found Sunshine Cathedral,” she said. “Once I found that, I was like, ‘This is it. This is my path, this is where I’m being led. Going into seminary with the encouragement of the staff here at Sunshine Cathedral, it turned my life around 180 degrees.”

After getting out of seminary, Atwell did notice more women were getting into schooling related to faith. Whether it was for her master’s or the doctorate she is currently working on at Boston University, she said that there has been a change in mindset for those females.

“Women are finally giving themselves permission, they are not waiting for people to say, ‘Ok, you can do this.’ We’re giving ourselves permission to say, ‘This is something that is part of us. This is part of our journey and we’re not going to let anybody say we can’t do it.’”

Despite this trend, Atwell says some sects of the church are advancing slower than others. She believes that the best way to challenge what has been a male dominated field is to step up to the challenge and follow where your faith is guiding you.

“I mean in churches, people still look at me like I’m the church secretary and I have as much education as my colleagues,” she said. “Just being open to where you’re being led and having the courage to do it, those are some of the biggest steps you can take.”


SFGN NoahKitty

Photo by Carina Mask.

Noah Kitty clears path in Judaism for LGBT women

The former Congregation Etz Chaim president worked through a personal tragedy to eventually lead her congregation.

Rabbi Noah Kitty’s path to leadership was something she thought was “quite a journey.”

Starting out in an average middle class family in New York, one might not think that the congregation Etz Chaim board member and former president was in for a ride. Raised by Jewish reconstructionist parents, faith was part of their lives but was not the biggest influence for Kitty until later on.

The fact that her family was not pushing her into the field and instead allowed her to make the choice to go into rabbinical school on her own separated her from many of her peers.

“The process begins as seeing yourself as a member of the people, then you grow in your desire to serve and then you go to rabbinical school,” Kitty said. “As a lesbian, it became clear what community I was meant to serve.”

Finishing up school in 1994, Kitty worked in Brattleboro, Vermont at congregation Shir until her father’s death. In the wake of his passing, she moved to South Florida in the late 1990s to take care of her mother and eventually became a member of Etz Chaim.

She first started attending the church in 2006, working as a volunteer in leading services and holiday programs as a volunteer. She was hired as executive director for the Wilton Manors-based congregation in 2011.

Kitty said she has noticed more women are starting to look into rabbinical school and consider the career. A lot of it has to do with “more schools being available to ordain women Rabbis than when I first was going.”

Even with that progress, Kitty said that there are some obstacles for women entering the field, especially the patriarchal structure, which has mostly been the same over time. That traditional field can react negatively when someone follows in Kitty’s path.

“As soon as women enter the field, it loses authority,” she said. “Women get lower pay and it’s not their fault, it’s a traditional field.”

Even with those challenges facing women entering the rabbinical field, the rabbi encourages them to consider the role if it feels right for them. Even if they do not try to take the same faith path as her, she thinks it’s good for people to take on leadership roles.

“Regardless of if you are a man or woman, I encourage anyone to take on any issue in a community they are passionate about,” she said. “Go for it, I’m always pleased when someone takes the initiative to lead and I would do everything I could to help them.”

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