Rev. Jan Griesinger: Longtime UCM Director and social justice activist.
OBITUARY: The Rev. Jan Griesinger, 80, longtime community activist and Director of United Campus Ministry in Athens, Ohio, died December 9, 2022, at The Laurels in Athens.
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1942 to Howard and Elizabeth McGeachin McKee, Jan was the oldest of five children. Jan grew up in Barrington, Illinois and was exposed early to the political activism of her parents, who raised her to be independent, think critically, and “speak as though I had some idea of what I was talking about.”
She graduated from high school in 1960 and from DePauw University in 1964. Growing up, Jan was impressed by the commitment and concern of persons in her church and began teaching Sunday school at age 15. She was the only woman in her college graduating class to major in religion and was president of the United Campus Christian Fellowship. “The formal study of theology and the Bible fascinated and challenged me,” she said. At a time when very few women worked in ministry, in 1970 Jan received a Master of Divinity from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio and was ordained that year by the United Church of Christ. She was drawn to campus ministry after seeing activist people engaged in it and went on to serve in that capacity until her retirement from United Campus Ministry in 2004.
“I saw traditional ministry as an almost impossible task of trying to pastor the local church, which had people from one end of the spectrum to the other, and keep it from imploding. That was not my gift,” she explained. “My faith is that there is a sense of hope and a sense of power that is more than we can imagine, that, as many African Americans say, can make a way out of no way. The injustice that we see all around us does not always have to be.”
Jan’s activism had started early on. in 1966, the United Church of Christ and pastors from the Cincinnati area, where she lived at the time, encouraged her to become involved in a peace effort at the Ohio Conference annual meeting She supported a resolution opposing the Viet Nam War and participated in the Vietnam Summer of 1967, going door to door to mobilize opposition to the war. She was arrested at a draft resistance sit-in, her first experience of civil disobedience, and marched with Martin Luther King in an anti-war protest in 1968.
It was with exposure to the women’s movement, however, that her life as a white woman began to take on clear shape and meaning. Feminism captured her imagination and made her a convert. She was becoming aware of women’s oppression and the life and death effect of women facing illegal abortion, rape, battering, and severely limited lives. In response, in 1973 she and her life companion, Mary Morgan, co-founded
Dayton Women’s Liberation, which provided counseling, educational literature, medical referrals, and other services to women in Dayton. At about that same time, Jan began applying for campus ministry positions. Although she had worked part-time and as a volunteer in campus ministries for several years, many of those she applied to were not interested in her resume. Although some wanted to hire women, they wanted women who were “a little more quiet and a little more submissive.” Jan was not that. She was speaking out, often with immediate and negative responses. In 1976, however, the United Campus Ministry in Athens offered her the job that she would hold for 28 years, first as a co-director, then later as director.
Jan “came out” in 1977 and worked from that time as a lesbian pastor. She helped to start what was then called the Gay People’s Alliance, then Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA) and later called Open Doors. Her efforts were significant in laying the foundation for the LGBT Center at Ohio University. However, her work at UCM included many other kinds of justice organizing on the local, national, and international levels, such as working with the local Athens Women’s Collective, co-founding the local battered women’s shelter, My Sister’s Place, and co-founding groups like the Free South African group, the Coalition to Overcome Racism, the Middle East Peace Coalition, the Central America Solidarity Committee, and the Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees at Ohio University. Jan’s work for social justice reached far beyond UCM.
In 1979, she and her partner, Mary Morgan, bought land outside of Athens to co-found a women’s intentional community, the Susan B. Anthony Memorial UnRest Home and Women’s Land Trust, SuBAMUH. Jan served as National Coordinator of the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns from 1984-1997. In 2000 she joined the Board of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, OLOC, and later became its co-director. “Ageism is an avenue of oppression that is little understood,” she said. “It clearly affects young people, especially women, and they don’t know it. It needs lots of study and action. Activism is an intergenerational dialogue.”
Jan also loved singing and expressed the emotional importance of the Spirituals in her life and ministry. As Director of UCM, she supported founding the Calliope Feminist Choir, and sang with them until recently.
Jan’s last years were spent in assisted living at The Lindley Inn and more recently in nursing care at The Laurels. However, she never lost her dedication to social justice and personal liberation, while recognizing the privilege and economic security that made it possible for her to do that work. She said that her life had been a journey of doing what needed to be done.
Jan is survived by her sisters, Jean Barry of Dallas, TX and Barbara Bays of Raleigh, NC, six nieces and nephews, ten great nieces and nephews, and her beloved friend and caregiver, Fawziah. She was preceded in death by her life companion, Mary M. Morgan, sister, Cynthia Hinman of Barrington, IL, and brother, William McKee of Golden, CO.
She has donated her body to the Body Donor Program of Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. A memorial is planned for Spring 2023. Donations can be made in Jan’s honor to United Campus Ministry, Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, SuBAMUH, and Calliope Feminist Choir.