It almost seems like Stephen C. Blonder Adams was destined to lead the Old Stone Church, First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland.
Although he has served the Public Square church in the past as an interim pastor, in July Blonder Adams was named senior pastor/ head of staff to lead the congregation in faith, acceptance, and community support.
Blonder Adams is only the 13th senior pastor in the Old Stone Church’s 203-year history as a welcoming symbol of spiritual leadership, community involvement, and stability to diverse congregations in the heart of downtown Cleveland.
“This church has always had a heart of giving and a heart for justice,” says Adams, adding that Old Stone has a history of supporting the city’s Chinese and Black communities. “As the senior pastor, I want to take this passion and build on it. I want this truly to be a place for all.”
Blonder Adams has first-hand experience with acceptance. As a religious gay man, he has kept his faith through decades of being a part of a theology that didn’t tolerate LGBTQ+ identity among church leaders until 11 years ago.
In July, when the congregation voted to accept Blonder Adams as the senior pastor, he knew his sexuality was no longer an issue. “They’ve been incredibly accepting,” he says. “It’s been a non-issue. I had my husband with me when the vote was taken, and he’ll be involved in church activities.”
Blonder Adams says that acceptance is reflective of Old Stone’s continued commitment to welcoming everybody, working with often-neglected groups of people, and reflective of the current congregation itself.
“We have gay people, lesbians, multi-racial families, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, and the homeless who worship here,” he says. “It’s really an incredible mix. I want to see the city really utilize this church and this building—it’s really a place for the community at the center of the city for prayer of all people. I want this to truly be a place for all.”
An early calling
Blonder Adams knew at a young age that he wanted to devote his life to God and the Presbyterian church. A native of Irwin, Pennsylvania, as a youngster Adams served as youth delegate and was a member of a youth missionary during a summer in Ecuador.
“I was active in the church and felt called to ministry when I was as young as five,” Blonder Adams recalls. “I was always active in the life of the church with my mother. At the age of 15, I was a youth missionary in Quito, Ecuador. I was one of twelve children and two adults that spent the summer working with native peoples to help them restore a building and learn of local and Indigenous cultures. During that summer I sensed beyond a shadow of a doubt my call to ordained ministry.”
Blonder Adams attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he attempted to keep his sexuality a secret. “Given the climate of those [early] years, I had close male and female friends, but didn’t date or fully come out till I was in seminary in my late 20s,” he says. “I was outed by a fellow student in seminary and was threatened with expulsion and not being allowed to be ordained. It was an incredibly trying time, and it wasn’t until then that I fully came out to my family.”
After graduating seminary in 1989, he initially came to the Old Stone Church as an interim associate pastor in June 1989 before becoming stated supply pastor of Brooklyn Presbyterian Church in January 1991 and served there until August 1992.
In his early years with the Presbyterian church, Blonder Adams mostly kept his sexuality private. “I always had a sense of confidence in God’s call and authority—that allowed me to navigate around the church’s anti-gay policies and teachings, never forcing the issue,” he says. “I saw that part of myself as between God and myself back then. As I matured spiritually and personally, I began to see the need to be fully true to self, God and other, no matter the cost. Though I did live with the fear of being outed and cast out, I sought out like minded Ecumenical Christians and worked within my denomination to support LGBTQ laypeople and to educate others in order to help shift the polity of the church.”
A greater mission
In 1992 Blonder Adams found his true calling with hospice work while serving at Cleveland Clinic Hospice and earning his certification in Clinical Pastoral Education. For nine years, Adams went on to serve in various roles at the Hospice of the Western Reserve.
“Hospice allowed me to live in the ministry, but I didn’t have the Sword of Damocles [impending disaster] hanging over my head,” he says.
At the same time, while Blonder Adams was active with the AIDS Task Force and Cleveland’s AIDS community, he was not fully out except to a few trusted people. He knew his sexual identity would have caused controversy—especially in the Presbyterian Church.
“A few people come to the [head of church] at the local level and wanted to out me, and [church officials] asked ‘has he hurt anyone?’” recalls Blonder Adams. “And the Presbyterian leaders would say ‘unless he has hurt someone….’ So, they protected me through those years. In exchange, I didn’t push it publicly—that would have forced their hand.”
But the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, national outrage, and the 2009 enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Blonder Adams says he thought it was time he came out fully and use his calling for change.
He says he related to Shepard. “I knew I was gay, as early eight or 10 years old,” Adams recalls. “I was bullied off and on throughout my childhood for being ‘different’ or ‘sensitive.’”
He joined United Church of Christ—where he was accepted as a gay pastor—first with Plymouth Church of Shaker Heights as acting associate pastor for pastoral care from 2006 to 2008, and later as part-time interim pastor at Archwood United Church of Christ in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood from 2008 to 2010.
“Matthew Shephard’s death spurred me to go to UCC and be fully out,” he recalls. “I was so moved by Matthew Shephard—his blood was on my hands and [on the hands of] anyone else who didn’t speak out.”
Reflecting on when he came out in 1998, Blonder Adams continues to be motivated by Shepard’s death as he takes over at Old Stone Church—preaching acceptance, understanding, and tolerance.
“Any of us as Christians, when we don’t speak out against discrimination of any group, we’re culpable,” he says. “When I came out, the response was humbling and beautiful. People lined up and thanked me for saying he have to be accountable for what we do, what we say, and what we don’t say.”
As Blonder Adams transitions into his new role as senior pastor, he says he has already felt the affirmation and common mission of acceptance and tolerance of the congregation.
Blonder Adams not only promises that acceptance to his congregation, he also says his experience with Hospice has taught him to be an excellent listener. At six-foot, four-inches tall, he carries around a portable folding chair with him.
“I’m not going to stand when someone needs to talk,” he says. “I need to be on their level.”
Blonder Adams, and his husband, H Bruce Blonder, live in a 104-year-old house in Cleveland Heights. The two were spiritually wed in May 1993, had a civil union ceremony in August 2003, and we legally married in November 2013.
They regularly go to the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Blonder Adams spends his spare time singing, caring for his house plants, and his art, while Bruce is involved in the Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society and model railroading. Adams says they love spending time together and traveling the United States and Europe.