On a frosty winter morning, Eldonna Hazen was preparing to do something she had postponed for years: lead Sunday morning worship service.
"I felt a call to the ministry my sophomore year in college. But I thought that, as a gay woman, it was not possible for me," says Hazen, who was recently installed as the senior minister at First Congregational Church. She is the congregation's first woman minister and its first openly gay one.
Instead of going to seminary, Hazen majored in music and earned a master's degree in curriculum and instruction. She taught music in public schools in a small town in her native Nebraska for 10 years before leaving to open a bakery. Hazen found happiness in both pursuits, but the desire to become a minister still nagged at her.
Finally her partner, Cathy Noth, challenged her.
"Cathy said to me: 'Just how long are you going to ignore this call?'" Hazen recalls. So, at the age of 44, she sold the business and enrolled in United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, where she received a master's in divinity in 2005.
Hazen was hired as associate minister at First Congregational Church in 2006 and became senior minister in 2013.
First Congregational is one of a growing number of mainstream churches that now welcome gay members, support marriage equality and ordain openly gay clergy. In Madison, it was one of the first to do so, declaring itself to be "open and affirming" and hanging a rainbow banner in the sanctuary more than 20 years ago.
The congregation has adopted a mantra, which Hazen recites at the beginning of Sunday service and which is featured prominently on the church's website: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
The denomination, which is part of the United Church of Christ, allows each congregation to make its own decisions. Hazen notes that not all congregations are as progressive as hers.
"People who are members here are often surprised to learn that other congregations are not as accepting as we are here," she says.
'I've softened some people'
Growing up in the tiny town of Sterling, Neb., Hazen says she never experienced the kind of harassment that has scarred and haunted many other LGBT kids -- the ones who have been the focus of the "It Gets Better" campaign.
She says she didn't realize she was gay until she was in college. Homosexuality "simply wasn't discussed" when she was a kid.
"Growing up, I just didn't have much interest in the dating thing. My attention was on other things, especially sports. Looking back later, when I started to process [my sexuality], I realized there was a reason why the women we called old maids or spinsters weren't with a man, but as a teenager I don't think I ever even heard the words 'lesbian' or 'gay.'"
As an adult, Hazen's sexuality has never been a big deal among her friends and coworkers. When she came out to her mother and father, they were accepting and supporting, she says. And she remembers attending her 25th class reunion with Noth, who was very pregnant with their first child, and being greeted warmly by her former classmates.
"I was lucky to have grown up in a very supportive community," she says. "When I go back to visit, I don't get shunned. Even if people there think homosexuality is wrong, they don't know how they can't like me because they liked me for so long. There is still bias there, as there is everywhere, but I think, at least, I've softened some people."
When Hazen was hired as associate minister at First Congregational, it was her first job after ordination. The hiring committee was so impressed by her talents, her warm personality and her commitment to social justice that they immediately ended their search after interviewing her and offered her the job, says chair Phil Certain. When the previous senior minister retired a year ago, the congregation was delighted to offer her the post.
"Everyone just fell in love with her," says Tom Rickner, a type designer who serves as the church moderator, a position akin to president of a congregation. "The thing about Eldonna is that she knows everyone in the congregation intimately. She knows about their families, what they do for a living, what their hobbies are. She is extremely empathetic, a real bridge builder."
A welcoming community
Because of the church's acceptance of homosexuality, it has attracted many gay members. Rickner estimates that a quarter of the members are gay or lesbian. Among them are Joshua Feyen and his husband, Jay Edgar.
Feyen joined in 2006 after reading an article about gay-friendly churches in Madison. A former Catholic, he'd left organized religion behind for years, but realized he wanted to reconnect with a church community.
Feyen visited several churches before deciding that First Congregational was a good match for him. He says the congregation is like family, and notes that a straight couple asked him to be godfather to their child.
Hazen officiated at the couple's wedding in 2010, which is when Feyen and Edgar got to know her well.
"When we were working through the wedding preparations session, she posed questions about things to think about as you get ready for a momentous occasion," Feyen says. "We went to her for advice about how to deal with our family members, who were having a struggle with words like 'wedding' and 'marriage.' She helped us figure out what was more important to us -- using the words or maintaining a good relationship with our parents. She's a very good counselor because she's a good listener. She doesn't give advice. Instead she asks questions and makes you think for the answer."
Another gay member of the congregation, Diane Drinkman, says that Hazen and the welcoming church community changed her mind about organized religion.
"I didn't grow up in a church family," she says, explaining that her family showed up at their Methodist church only for Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals. She says Hazen is calming, peaceful and compassionate.
"Eldonna is the kind of minister I wish I'd had when I was 10 or 12," Drinkman adds. "Someone like her would have kept me in a church growing up."
The congregation has also attracted many young straight couples with small children, a demographic mainline churches with aging memberships would envy.
"We have members of all stripes," says Mari McCarty, who chaired the committee that nominated Hazen for the senior minister position. "People have commented to me that they joined because they wanted their families, especially their children, to be part of a welcoming community."
Walking the talk
For Madison liberals who also happen to be Christians, one of the draws of First Congregational is the emphasis on volunteering and promoting social justice. Hazen calls it "walking the talk," and she leads by example. Her passions are fighting homelessness and AIDS.
"I believe all people deserve to be treated with dignity, but in our world too many are pushed to the edges and forgotten," she says.
Hazen advocates for better services for people who are homeless through programs sponsored by Madison-area Urban Ministry. Every Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, she leads a memorial service for homeless people who have died during the previous year on the Capitol Square, near a spot where a homeless man was found dead on a park bench in 2009.
"That man died because of an untreated infection," Hazen says. "Probably $25 and a prescription would have saved his life."
She says that the homeless often have no one to remember them when they die, and that this small ritual may be the only memorial they have. "So we gather and read their names. Then we go stand with the men waiting to get into the shelter at Grace Church," she says.
"It just rips my heart out," she adds. "I know I'm going home to a warm house and a meal, and they have to stand in line in the cold and hope they are one of the lucky ones who gets in."
Hazen is on a task force working to establish an emergency medical clinic for homeless individuals. She also works with other churches to raise money to help low-income families pay for a funeral and burial when a loved one dies.
And she has a small fund in the church's budget that allows her to help homeless people pay for a motel room.
"Often these women have been victims of domestic abuse," she says. "It's just not safe for them to be out on the street where their abusers might find them."
Hazen decided to get involved with the AIDS Network because she felt it was important to bring a spiritual perspective to the organization's work.
"AIDS has carried such a stigma," she says. "For years, people believed you had to stay away from a person with HIV/AIDS. You certainly didn't touch that person. So that person's dignity was gone, but what is worse is that it was like saying even God doesn't care about you. My hope was to say to them 'you are a valued person. You have an infection, but that doesn't change who you are.'"
As a board member at AIDS Network, she works on policy and budget issues. She leads a World AIDS Day service in honor of people with HIV/AIDS and their families and friends. And she volunteers for the AIDS Ride, the group's annual fundraising event, which includes cheering on the church's team.
Hazen and Noth, who is a volleyball coach and trainer, have been committed partners for 21 years. They have three children, a 13-year-old son and 3-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Last August, they took advantage of Minnesota's passage of marriage equality and tied the knot at a cottage where Hazen's family has vacationed since she was a small child.
"It was a complete surprise that Cathy and my oldest son planned," she says. "I didn't even know about it until we went to get the marriage license. We got married in shorts on the pier."
Hazen has a busy schedule, juggling church responsibilities, community service and a family. But she's living the life she has wanted for a long time.
"I get to be with people a lot. It is beyond an honor to be a part of the sacred side of people's lives. I don't mean just the religious part, but being part of the birth of a child or a death in the family or a time when people are struggling with problems like marital issues or mental illness," she says.
"I love preaching and challenging people to think theologically. I came from a religious tradition where they told you what to believe. You had your little green catechism and you just regurgitated everything that was in there. I love making this church a comfortable place for people to say, 'You know, I don't think I believe that.'"
First Congregational Church is about as far as you can get from the Westboro Baptist Church, which has made headlines for preaching that the deaths of servicemen are retaliation from God for homosexuality. Members hope that their acceptance of LGBT people will become the new normal.
"I'm often dismayed about the reputation Christianity can get because of churches that preach divisiveness and hate and say gays will burn in hell," Rickner says. "That's not what Jesus said. He said to love everyone. And I believe that if we do that we make Madison and the world a better place."
Hazen is proud to be part of a community that shares her commitment to creating a better world.
"This is what I always wanted to do."