Meriden pastor advocate for justice

Photo by Kimi LarmouthMERIDEN – He didn’t intend to be a voice for the gay Christian community, but that’s what ended up happening when Rev. James Olson decided to go through seminary as an openly gay man in 1995.

Olson, rector of Center Congregational Church in Meriden, never intended to be a minister either, but says that’s the career he stumbled into after trying his hand at other vocations.

“I went to Maine and went through the Maritime Academy. I thought I was going to sail, but I got sick and couldn’t do that,” he said, noting that his struggled with diabetes got in the way.

So he went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earned his bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration.

It was during his undergraduate school studies that Olson, 41, became active in church for the first time, helping First Churches of Northampton to become open and affirming along the way. The pastor, Olson recalls, is the one who nudged him toward ministry.

“The pastor came up to me and said ‘why don’t you go to seminary so you can get paid for being here all day like you are now,’” Olson said.

Olson now has a Master of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary and a Master of Sacred Theology from Boston University School of Theology, where he is currently completing a Doctor of Ministry degree.

He was the first openly gay person to be ordained in the Hampshire Association of Massachusetts Conference UCC. Others have since followed in his footsteps.

Before coming to Center Congregational two years ago, Olson served as pastor of Greater Hartford United Church of Christ in Vermont and minister of music and worship at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis – both parishes he helped to become open and affirming.

Being open and affirming, Olsen said, doesn’t mean waving rainbow flags outside the church. In fact, he despises rainbow flags and steers clear of gay pride parades. To him, he said, being inclusive simply means being on the “right side of justice.” His own church, though welcoming, is not officially open and affirming and Olson says there are other issues in the Meriden community that the church needs to focus on right now.

“I’m gay, but that’s not the focus of my ministry,” he says.

In his academic research Olson has been studying worship and liturgy, which is something he said he’s passionate about.

“I think we would all learn well by following his example and model for ministry,” said Bishop John Selders, of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford, “he manages to balance liturgy, community organization and service.”

Five years ago Olson and his husband, Darrick Jackson, were the first openly gay couple to get married at Marsh Chapel in Boston.

“Amazingly, the roof stayed on and no pits of sulfur bubbled up in the parking lot,” he said.

Jackson serves as Unitarian Universalist minster.

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