October is LGBT History Month, and this article is the first in a series featuring the contributions of some special St. Stephen’s leaders, LGBT and straight allies, whose contributions and leadership we celebrate. This week we remember Dr. Mary Jo Ruggles, who was St. Stephen’s much loved choir director. Those who knew Mary Jo remember her spiritual presence, her inclusive and holistic theology, her compassionate and deep faith, her quiet courage, and a love of music that shaped our worship at St. Stephen’s for ten years.

 

Mary Jo Ruggles 1933-2002

St. Stephen’s, Director of Music 1992-2002

 

Mary Jo was a pioneer of Reconciling ministries at St. Stephen’s. In the late 1990’s as the Congregation was exploring concerns about homosexuality, Mary Jo felt an obligation to be open about her sexual orientation. Mary Jo and I had been partners since 1993 in kind of a “don’t ask don’t tell” relationship with others. Coming out for us was not a public announcement , but rather behaving toward each other in church and in other social situations in the same ways as do most couples. But for Mary Jo who was staff, it was quite a big step to be more open about our relationship given the official position of the United Methodist Church regarding homosexuality.

 

Mary Jo was much beloved in all walks of her life. She was, I believe, charismatic in the same way as some famous people who walk into a room and energy suddenly flows everywhere. She was very kind and sincerely interested in each and every person. She was a professor at OU and started the World Music and Native American music programs there. She was very involved with a Cheyenne family in Kingfisher and did scholarly research on the music and traditions of the Cheyenne Sun Dance. Today’s choir had its beginnings through her leadership. She worked with the choir to develop their musical skills and even recorded a DVD with the choir.

 

After the church voted to change the mission statement in 1999, Mary Jo worked with Pastor Craig Stinson and other staff to create a committee which was to figure out how to live out the meaning of the new statement of inclusiveness. It was decided that the new committee should be a ministry, which would give it voting status on the Administrative Council. The new name was to be Gay/Lesbian Ministries Committee, and I was its first chair.

 

In 2000 Mary Jo fell ill with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer related to leukemia. Mary Jo passed away July 1, 2002. Even though she suffered greatly, she never stopped caring about and loving her friends. Those of us who knew her will always feel close to her and cherish her memory. Our Church commissioned Hal Hopson to compose an anthem in her honor, which was published with the title “You Are the Light of the Nations.” Unfortunately, she died shortly before it was performed but it gave and gives comfort to those who knew her and offers the gift of music to all. Everyone who arrived at St Stephen’s after her passing still benefits from her courage and commitment to the LGBT community and our steps to becoming a truly inclusive church. – Marilyn Nicely