FOX43 Focal Point: Pastor’s Problem – Lancaster County minister’s credentials pulled after signing gay son’s wedding license

LANCASTER, Pa. - Since 1948, Chester Wenger spread Mennonite views across the Eastern Seaboard.

But back in 2014, he signed his gay son's marriage license. By 2015, after nearly seven decades of service, the then 96-year old Chester's credentials were pulled.

You may know his son, Phil, as the co-founder of Isaac's Restaurant and Deli (which he sold in 2018). He is now the CEO of the Lancaster County Conservancy.

For the first nine years of Phil's life, he lived in Ethiopia with his siblings and father, who was ministering to the locals there. They then returned to Lancaster, where Chester preached up and down the East Coast.

"We would load up in the car to a different church every weekend," Phil said.

Chester ended up briefly calling the First Deaf Mennonite Church on Old Philadelphia Pike in Lancaster home as he continued ministering at other churches as well. During that time, Phil continued playing what he calls the "traditional" part.

"High school I played a traditional kid. I dated women. I wasn't attracted to women, but that's what you did," Phil said.

By 1979, Phil was off at college and soon came out to his friends and family. He shared lengthy conversations with his father.

"All of these things led him to being a supporter of LGBT individuals being welcome in the church," Phil said.

"God made him that way, so that's the way I took him," Chester said.

Not all church members agreed. Later that year, without conversation with Chester or Phil, the church excommunicated the college student from the congregation.

"I was also editor of a Mennonite Youth magazine in Washington, D.C., the year prior. Instead of firing me, they cut funding to the publication and killed it," Phil said.

The bishop of the local conference of Mennonite churches discussed the issue with Chester and Phil and apologized for how it was handled. But, nothing changed. Phil moved on.

By 1983, he co-founded Isaac's Deli and Restaurant with money from his father. Chester had set aside a certain amount of money for each of his seven children to use as down payment for their first homes when they married.

"I went up to Dad and said, 'I'm never getting married. Could I use this money to buy a restaurant?'"

Buying up a little former doughnut shop in Downtown Lancaster, the other co-founder of the restaurant left within a few months.

"I'm 28-years old, I have a restaurant and I have no idea what I'm doing. That's how Isaac's was founded," Phil said.

The restaurant chain exploded into what it is today.

Rewind to 1986 - Phil, who told his father he'd never be married, found his other half.

"Then along came a night in 1986 at a gay bar in Marietta, Pennsylvania, when the cutest guy at the bar was looking at me. I wanted to go and talk to him," Phil said.

When gay marriage was legalized in the commonwealth in 2014, the then-mayor of Lancaster was set to perform their wedding. But, after a 25-year anniversary celebration years earlier, Phil knew his father had wanted to be part of the story.

"I just wanted to be part of his life," Chester said.

When the time came, Phil asked his father to do what he does best.

"He comes around and says, 'Dad, will you marry us?' I say, 'Yeah, if you want me to.' I was proud to do that," Chester said.

Word spread into the Mennonite community about what Chester had done. Chester reached an agreement with the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, after a barrage of phone calls, to keep it quiet. But the phone calls didn't stop. So, Chester grabbed a pen.

He published an open, public letter to the Mennonite Church and published it with the Mennonite press. The letter mentioned about why Chester believes that gay parishioners should be welcome in the church and much more.

Publicly declaring what he had done, along with these beliefs, went against the Mennonite Church at the time. It didn't come without consequences.

After 66 years of preaching, Chester Wenger's credentials were pulled. He was no longer a Mennonite minister.

"They [Lancaster Mennonite Conference] wanted to make sure they said to all the other pastors, 'You cannot do this or you will lose your job,'" Phil said.

Then, the story went viral. Phil and Chester were contacted by magazines and publications all across the country. They even did a podcast with Malcom Gladwell, which remains one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time.

"Steve [Phil's husband] and I were caught up in something we never intended to happen," Phil said.

The dust eventually settled. Chester is 101-years old now, at the time of this article. He still tends to his massive garden and will tell anyone who asks what a good sermon really is. Phil continues his work with the Lancaster County Conservancy.

"I love him. I expect him to remain with his friend for life and we can be happy wherever we are," Chester said.

"My father really is an amazing human being," Phil said.

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