The following is reprinted with Patrick Murfin’s permission from “Heretic, Rebel, A Thing to Flout.”
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign asked for “Stories of Courageous Love” to fill a map with inspiration in advance of Valentines Day. I was delighted to share the story of the Rev. Dan Larsen who has been standing on the side of love for a very long time. Check out the page at http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/stories-of-courageous-love/ and click on the heart over northeastern Illinois.
The Rev. Dan Larsen is the usual suspect. Recently retired from a 19 year ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock, Illinois and named minister emeritus, Rev. Larsen was the one person the local media knew that they could count on when issues around social justice and discrimination of any kind arose. They knew that one way or another Rev. Larsen and his church would be involved.
Dan Larsen has been Standing on the Side of Love for a long time. In conservative, overwhelmingly white McHenry County, located in the far northwestern corner of the Chicago Metropolitan Area, he stood for love and justice when few others dared to.
Almost immediately upon assuming the Woodstock pulpit he reached out to the Latino community creating the first county wide Hispanic Concerns Task Force and battling housing discrimination and other hurdles faced by that community.
As numbers of Latinos in the county swelled, so did an ugly racist backlash and in recent years a virulent anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by groups like the Illinois Minutemen. Rev. Larsen helped organize and lead the county’s first big immigration reform march and organized protests to Minutemen meetings.
At church, he developed special outreach and service programs for the community, including a weekly group for Latino women that combined help with learning English with support in finding employment and, when necessary, assistance.
When a faction of the Ku Klux Klan targeted McHenry County in 1997 with a rally at the County Courthouse, Dan Larsen helped organize an interfaith alternative event on historic Woodstock Square.
That event became the Diversity Day Festival which ran annually through 2010, intentionally bringing together people of different racial, ethnic, religious, language, physical and mental challenges, gender, and sexual orientation. The Festival, held in late September or early October, helped local Muslims introduce themselves as a human community in the dark days after the 9/11 attacks. It was also the first public forum in which Gays and Lesbians felt comfortable in participating.
Starting with work educating the public about the real truth about the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the early 1990’s when local media and authorities were spreading both panic and blame on the Gay Community, Larsen has been an advocate for Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender community. He offered the church building as the only safe haven in McHenry County for Gay and Gay ally groups to meet. A support group became McHenry County Pride, the first openly gay organization in the county, which continues to meet at the church. The church also housed a pioneering counseling program for Gay teens, who were often the objects of bullying and violence in their high schools, and is the home for the county chapter of PFLAG. Larsen helped the Congregation become certified as a Welcoming Congregation and becoming a comfortable home for Gays and Lesbians. He pioneered in performing religious union ceremonies in the county and if forthrightly advocating marriage equality.
When a proposal to bring the rowing events of the Gay Games to nearby Crystal Lake, Larsen publicly spoke out at meetings packed by screaming protestors of the Park District’s decision to allow the use of the lake. All of these activities have frequently drawn public and privet threats of violence against Larsen and the Church.
This just skims the surface of a remarkable dedication to justice. It fails to mention his outstanding work in the peace movement and in advocacy for health care reform, among other issues.
Just after announcing his retirement, Larsen was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. After several month of intense treatment, he is on the road to recovery with a good prognosis. And he is back in the saddle working with many of the same groups he reached out to as an active minister.
He was recently elected president of Principled Minds, a local non-profit that partners with other organizations to develop documentary and educational programs designed to fight racism and discrimination.