Erv and Ross: legacy of love and service
Erv Uecker and Ross Walker are proud to be (as far as they know) the only same-sex couple in Wisconsin who have been together 65 years. A tour of their cozy apartment in Alexian Village in Milwaukee—walls covered with photos and awards— leaves no doubt about their loving legacy.
Decades before the U.S. Supreme Court and the ELCA legalized and recognized same-sex marriage, Uecker, 90, and Walker, 84, found one another and made a life together without apology or secrecy.
“We’ve never worn a sign,” said Uecker, pointing to his chest, “but we’ve never been dishonest either. If asked, we told the truth.”
“Surprisingly, not many asked,” Walker added.
They met through a mutual friend in 1957 and have been together since, separated only during Ross’s service in the Army (Uecker had previously served in the Navy during the Korean conflict).
Uecker is a 1969 graduate of LSTC who began seminary at Maywood. He’s not sure who knew about them in seminary but says no one really asked. His first call was to Wilmette (Ill.) Lutheran Church (now closed), and his second to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. He followed William “Bill” Lesher, who became president of LSTC; Erik Christensen, LSTC’s pastor to the community and director of strategic initiatives, followed years later. “Erik brought [St. Luke’s] back to life,” Uecker said.
“Erv and Ross reached out to me very shortly after I arrived in Chicago to share their support and encouragement for my ministry with St. Luke’s,” said Christensen. “Knowing that I was part of a history of ministry by gay clergy, not just in the church at large but in that very congregation, was a source of pride and strength as we did the tough work of redevelopment together.”
A nod to the 70s
During that decade at St. Luke’s— and all 65 of their years together, really—their service to the church and organizations as a clergy and spouse couple always focused outward, shaped and sustained by 18 EPISTLE | SUMMER 2022 strong progressive faith. As they reminisce, it’s clear their years in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago were most memorable.
“They were the most hectic, rewarding, stimulating period of our 65 years,” Uecker said.
When Uecker was interviewed for that call and shown the parsonage, he told the call committee, “I want Ross to look at it first.” They don’t recall anyone questioning that.
The only incident against full acceptance they recall was a progressive dinner held by the young married club to which Walker was not invited. Later, an intentional invitation to both of them to a Christmas party changed that oversight and Walker was always included.
The congregation was vibrant, the outreach astounding. Uecker headed a staff with four associates; seven congregations used the space for worship and there was a fulltime counseling center. There were 1,000 people coming through the doors between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day, they recalled, marveling at the activity. In collaboration with the city of Chicago, they served 200 meals a day to seniors.
Walker served on the church council and had his own remarkable teaching career in special education. He produced the first environmental education program for Chicago Public Schools with an emphasis on “people, pets and kindness.” He was named Illinois teacher of the year.
In the 70s, they witnessed a changing neighborhood and congregation, from primarily older Northern Europeans to a Hispanic influence. The community was half Roman Catholic and half mainline Protestant. A plan to build a six-story senior subsidized housing project funded by the Illinois Commission failed after owners of eight properties needed for the project wouldn’t agree due to due to changing neighborhood fears.
On to Wisconsin
In 1979 Uecker resigned and the couple moved to Wisconsin, where their life focused on a horse farm near Oxford, a lifestyle they loved but for which they weren’t prepared. Walker joked, “We didn’t even know which end [of the horse] to feed.” They figured that out, and eventually had 60 horses, including six stallions.
A pivotal request in 1983 caused them to leave the Lutheran Church in America (predecessor body to the ELCA) in protest to a mandate for clergy in same-sex relationships to sign a document promising celibacy. Uecker and Walker had been a committed couple for 26 years, and they met that request with a firm no (and possibly some choice words). That year they formed Samaritan Pastoral Ministry, with the sole purpose of offering credentials to clergy who were not able to function in their church bodies (i.e. Lutherans without call, married Roman Catholic priests). It was affiliated with the International Council of Community Churches.
In the 1980s and beyond they served a variety of churches (including St. John’s Community Church in Milwaukee), led a bank, and volunteered at organizations— often commuting to and from Oxford, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Country to city
They moved from their “retirement” horse-breeding farm to Milwaukee in 1982 and volunteered full-time at the Brady East STD Clinic. In 1992 they founded and provided seed money for the LGBT Community Center in Milwaukee. Much of this volunteer work was at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Their activism didn’t wane, and Walker is proud to have marched in Milwaukee’s first pride parade.
Uecker and Walker were legally married at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Grafton, Wis., seven years ago. They had considered a private ceremony of six people, but their pastor said, “No, this is not how this is going to work. This is a big deal.” Some 300 attended, most of them staying for a meal prepared by members and served by the youth in the space they decorated. Even though his husband jokes that “Ross has been actively gay since he came out of the womb,” and Uecker came out decades ago in the Navy, it was a day they hadn’t dared imagine.
In a home filled with photos, art, framed letters and awards, the most recent additions are the Lifetime Community Service Award by the Milwaukee LGBTQ+ Community Center, and the Shepherd Express “Progress Award” underwritten by Northwestern Mutual and sponsored by Planned Parenthood.
These days, health concerns slow both of them down some, but those who know them wouldn’t be surprised if more awards for their service and dedication land on their walls.
Original article published in the Summer 2022 Epistle Magazine; written by Julie Sevig