A ‘Leap of Faith’ for Two Scholars of Theology

The Rev. John Russell Stanger and Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons were married June 1 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The Rev. Lauren Jones Mayfield, a United Church of Christ minister, performed the ceremony.

Mr. Stanger (left), 32, is the pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ky., and a psychotherapist in private practice in Louisville. He graduated from Schreiner University in Kerrville, Tex., and received a master’s of divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He also received a master of arts in marriage and family therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

He is the son of Mary S. Stanger and Russell S. Stanger III of Brazoria, Tex. His parents are cattle ranchers there.

Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons, 29, is a freelance opinion writer and a senior media associate at ReThink Media, a progressive advocacy organization based in Berkeley, Calif. He graduated from American University and received a master’s of divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

He is the son of Judy K. Graves and Orell L. Fitzsimmons Jr. of Houston. His mother, who works in Austin, Tex., is the assistant director of organizing at the Communications Workers of America. His father, who works in Houston, is the field director for United Labor Unions Local 100.

The couple were introduced on a blind date in January 2015, while both were living in New York, and immediately connected over a shared love of theology.

At the time, Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons was in seminary and Mr. Stanger was running Parity, a nonprofit organization that served the LGBTQ community, “reconciling identity and faith,” as he put it.

“I found Guthrie to be very attractive,” said Mr. Stanger, who enjoyed a first date with Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons at a restaurant in New York. “I found him to be a really good listener, and someone, much like myself, who cared about doing meaningful work but also liked to have fun.”

Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons said he “fell in love” with Mr. Stanger’s “big, goofy laugh,” and the next day he returned to the Union Theological Seminary and told several classmates that he hoped Mr. Stanger would call him again.

“I told them that the date I had gone on with John ranked as one of the most remarkable nights of my life,” he said. “We were both from Texas and had so many things in common, like a love of pop music and travel, and I was really hoping that we would see each other again.”

Mr. Stanger called later that day, telling Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons: “I so enjoyed your company. I didn’t want our first date to end.”

They continued dating, and in May 2015 moved in together in an apartment in New York. The following year, when Mr. Stanger sensed the call for him to go back to school to pursue a bi-vocational career as a therapist and pastor, they packed up and moved to Kentucky.

They became engaged Dec. 31, 2017 in El Calafate, Argentina, “a leap of faith considering we had only been dating for less than two years,” Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “But it has worked out for us in ways we couldn't have imagined.”

But not everything worked out for Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons as well as his relationship with Mr. Stanger, such as a trip he took to the United Methodist Church's General Conference in Portland, Ore., in 2016.

“I was then in the ordination process but barred from serving as an openly gay man,” Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons said. “I thought the church would change course and evolve, but sadly it did not.”

“John was part of the Presbyterian Church USA's evolution toward LGBTQ inclusion, and we bonded over our own struggles with faith and acceptance,” said Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons, who decided to leave the United Methodist Church after that meeting and joined Highland Baptist Church, where he is a deacon, in Louisville.

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