This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Pink Menno Grandmother’s activism came naturally

Ruby Lehman of Harrisonburg, Va., is an 87-year-old retired schoolteacher, member of Park View Mennonite Church, world traveler, mother of four, white-haired extrovert with an easy smile and gay-rights activist.

Ruby Lehman of Harrisonburg, Va., has been a gay-rights advocate since the early 1980s. — Randi B. Hagi
Ruby Lehman of Harrisonburg, Va., has been a gay-rights advocate since the early 1980s. — Randi B. Hagi

She’s been nicknamed the Pink Menno Grandmother for the cheer and support she has given to Pink Menno, a grassroots organization that ad­vocates for LGBTQ inclusion within the Mennonite church.

Though Leh­man’s activism may stand out in her generation of Mennonites, it began naturally as a mother’s concern for her child. Leh­man’s youngest son, Doug, was enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College — where his father, grandfather, two aunts and two cousins all taught — when he came out as gay to his parents in the early 1980s.

“Right away,” she said, “my main thought was, ‘I wish I would have known, so he wouldn’t have had to go through high school hiding it from us.’ . . . My husband and I both accepted him right away.”

Her love for Doug, and concern for how he was being treated by EMC administrators, led her to start speaking about gay-rights issues at North Baltimore Mennonite Church, which she co-founded with her husband and other area residents. Since that day, she has taken care to make no enemies through her advocacy.

“I wanted to be friends with people who disagreed with me,” she says. “I got really interested in doing what a mother could do.”

What can a mother do? Be involved with support and advocacy groups. Engage in community and political forums over sexuality issues. Attend every Mennonite Church USA convention possible. Participate in Eastern Mennonite University’s “Safe Space,” a student club for LGBTQ interests and fellowship. Write letters to the editor of the Daily News-Record, Mennonite World Review, The Mennonite and the Weather Vane (EMU’s student newspaper). In 2004 Lehman started Arches, an informal group of Park View Mennonite members and friends who meet for pot­lucks and share information about LGBTQ discrimination and inclusion.

Making friends with all

Lehman has attracted a good deal of feedback about her views, not all of it positive. She insists on making friends with every person she meets, and most respond with respect, even if they disagree. In one instance, she met a conservative Virginia state senator at a Valley Family Forum meeting about preventing the legalization of gay marriage and started corresponding with him.

“I’m just glad he’s my friend,” she said.

Lehman receives considerable pushback from fellow Christians: How can she be a devout Mennonite and fully accepting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people?

“I have learned that questioning is probably better than just telling people,” Lehman said. For example, “What would happen if we welcomed everybody? Might that be any better and safer than telling them they can’t join us?”

Lehman speaks glowingly of pro-LGBTQ conferences she’s attended, such as a Brethren Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns convention in 2002.

At one worship service, she said, “I could hardly sing because I was sitting there beside Doug, choked up because I just couldn’t accept the fact that these caring, loving, beautiful people are not accepted as equal brothers and sisters in the church.”

She has also participated in Connecting Families, Menno­neighbors and Harrisonburg’s PFLAG chapter.

The heart of a teacher

Lehman brings her perspective as a teacher to the Mennonite LGBTQ-inclusion movement. As a 19-year-old, she began alternating years teaching at a one-room school and attending Goshen College. She married Robert Leh­man in 1954, and they moved to Virginia when he accepted a position as a physics professor at EMC. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and an education specialist degree.

She taught all grades, using creative methods to get students thinking critically and interested in local and global events. She kept her ears open for the “problem” students — those who were disruptive, indifferent or had learning disabilities — and asked that they be put in her classes.

Lehman chose to empower and care for students to create a cooperative classroom environment, rather than trying to exert control over them. While teaching in inner-city Atlanta in 1970-71, she would sometimes stand in the classroom doorway to invite class-skippers to join her students for an educational movie.

“These extra students treated me with respect, since I didn’t yell at them or threaten them in any way,” she said.

She thinks back on students she’s had, wondering which of them might have been gay, and hopes she had a positive influence on those whose families were not loving or supportive.

Lehman says compassion, not intellectualism, ultimately guides her.

“Which would be the most serious mistake for the Christian church . . . rejecting someone whose worthiness you question, or accepting that person?” she wrote in a letter to the Daily News-Record. “I love my son unconditionally and thank God for him.”

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