John Fease ‘70, “Clergy for Planned Parenthood Guy,” speaks on his progressive Christian values

Photo of John Fease ‘70. Photo by Rachel Crowl.

“I would consider myself a strong follower of Christ,” said John Fease ‘70. “But I cringe at the thought of calling myself a Christian, because of what they’ve done to the term.”  

Fease is well known for standing at the Downtown Appleton Farmers’ Market and holding a sign that says, “Clergy for Planned Parenthood,” as well as handing out contraception to anyone who needs it and going to Appleton’s Planned Parenthood location to show his support for reproductive rights.  

Fease graduated from Lawrence in 1970 with a degree in anthropology. His interest is cultural anthropology, and the ways in which he sees culture lifting people up or destroying them, rather than artifacts and archaeology. He feels that in the world we live in today, and the increasing attacks on people, that anthropology has become more and more fascinating throughout his life. Although he is the first to admit that his academic record isn’t the best, he feels that going to Lawrence gave him the confidence to speak out more, since he graduated from what he characterized as “one of the finest educational institutions in the country.”  

After Fease graduated from Lawrence, he got a job selling insurance, but quit before his first day on the job due to his father suffering a heart attack, after which he returned to his parents’ resort in Northern Wisconsin, Shady Rest Lodge (which is still operating) to help them run it. After moving from Appleton to Rhinelander, Fease became a social studies teacher.

Fease recalled engaging students in interactive lectures and valuing notes over exams, methods that might be considered unorthodox, because he felt that it was more important to pay attention and care than to perform well on an exam. However, after the death of his father in 1980, he quit his teaching job and he and his wife devoted their time to running the resort. Fease operated the resort for 26 years and raised his children there.

Up until 1997, Fease was a member of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a Christian denomination that is considered a champion of social justice. However, Fease walked out of an annual meeting and left the denomination after feeling that the budget they had adopted didn’t align with the values they professed. He began looking for another faith community and recalls having a significant spiritual experience at a friend’s storefront church in Rhinelander, and was eventually convinced to go into ministry. Fease became a credentialed pastor, who pastored first in Iron Mountain, Mich. for four years before relocating to Kenosha, where he pastored a congregation for five years.  

In Kenosha, Fease was surrounded by a conservative Pentecostal congregation that encouraged him to seek advancement in ministry, and eventually reached the highest level, becoming an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, Cleveland, Tenn., which he did. He recalls the white members of the congregation in Kenosha having an issue with the ways in which the Latine families whose church rented the building acted, many of whom did not speak English, and feeling far more drawn to them than his own congregation.

This experience opened his eyes to the plight of non-white, non-native English speakers in the United States. He also recalls being disturbed by the fact that women could not become bishops. Fease eventually left this denomination and moved to Quinlan, Texas, to be closer to his son and grandchildren.  

In Texas, Fease attended a bilingual church, and began using his carpentry skills to become an independent carpenter-missionary. He recalls that one of his construction projects was on the pastor’s house, which he completely remodeled. Shortly after, he was asked to surrender his official duties as a pastor due to him reading the “wrong books” and not being fit to have authority in the church. 

Fease returned to Appleton in 2010 for his fortieth reunion. It was the first reunion he attended due to feeling embarrassed about his academic record. However, when he returned to Lawrence, he realized he had no reason to be embarrassed, because he was accepted and appreciated. He is open about his academic record, because he has seen the power of shame to hold people back and feels that it’s important to be honest about who you are.  

“I’m not running for Congress in New York, so I’m not going to lie about my record,” Fease said, referring to Representative George Santos (R-N.Y.). 

Fease was invited to give the invocation at the alumni banquet, which he found very moving. He commented that it was one of the best experiences of his life, and added that this is true even though he has become a father twice. About seven years ago, Fease moved back to Appleton where he has lived since.  

As a progressive Christian, Fease realized he had an issue with institutional religion. He remembered initially feeling that the UCC was a denomination that cared about the poor and the downtrodden, because of their rhetoric, but once he became a part of the church, he realized that he was wrong. He said that institutional churches use the message of Christ to mask fortunes and added that the religious leaders seen as the most “successful” are wealthy. 

“I think our only hope is for institutional religion to completely fail,” Fease said. “I pray for the end of the institutional church.” 

Since Fease retired before becoming a pastor, he was able to give his salary away, which he felt allowed him to not affirm the lifestyles and beliefs of the congregation. He has carried this independence from institutional religion to the present. Fease is a strong supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, which has led to some backlash against him. He feels that Bible verses that allegedly condemn homosexuality deal with lust rather than love and feels that the patriarchal people who wrote the Bible would be more readily willing to condemn lust between men because they likely lusted after women themselves. He feels that lust is selfish, and that the Bible condemns selfish behavior above anything else, but that two men being together can be an act of love.  

Fease referenced the story of Balaam and the Donkey to make his point. He describes the story as a holy man, riding a donkey, and the donkey refused to obey his commands, including physical beating, and then the donkey spoke, revealing the Angel of the Lord in front of him. He said that the Evangelical interpretation of this is that God is so powerful that he can make a donkey speak, however, he took away from the story that this holy man was so full of himself that he couldn’t even see the Angel in front of him. 

Another idea of the church that Fease rejects is that humans are the pinnacle of creation. He feels that if humans were not on this Earth, the rest of the Earth would not suffer, and that makes the reality of human-caused climate change and global degradation impossible to ignore or deny. Rather than eliminating ourselves, Fease believes that humans should learn how to live in harmony with the rest of Earth’s creatures. He sees indigenous ways of living around the world and the interdependence they have with other organisms as something to be honored and emulated. In his opinion, the idea that humans are more important than other organisms is not far off from the idea that men are better than women and white people are better than other racial groups. He identified hierarchy as one of the most troubling aspects of the institutional church. 

“How can we capture that which we destroyed intentionally?” Fease asked rhetorically.  

Fease is also a strong supporter of abortion rights. He characterized it as a basic need for anyone with a vagina or a womb, however they identify, and feels that abortion restrictions are about control, not morality.  

Photo of John Fease ‘70. Photo by Rachel Crowl.

“This really reflects the patriarchal part of our culture…the men who brought the adulteress before Jesus…didn’t bring the adulterer,” Fease said. “The guy wasn’t brought, it was the woman, and nothing has changed. The people who stand out there aren’t advocating for tougher laws against rape [and] incest. They want to make sure that if a woman has [sex, voluntarily or through force] that she pay the price.”  

For his activism, Fease has been targeted by local anti-abortion activists, such as Duane van Boxtel and Mark Gabriel, the latter of whom is a former candidate for Common Council who ran against Alderperson Katie Van Zeeland due to her fighting to ban conversion therapy in Appleton. Van Boxtel and Gabriel are accusing him of harassing people and requesting a restraining order against him from being in front of Planned Parenthood, and Fease is now being called to court to settle the matter. He has encouraged students who have seen him around town to send in notarized written testimony that he does not harass his detractors.  

If you need help doing so, feel free to reach out to me, Nathan Wall, the writer of this story. The notaries on campus are Carla Molder, Executive Assistant to Provost and Dean of the Faculty Peter Blitstein, Director of Conservatory Operations Rosie Cannizzo, Kyle Tauschek, the Gift Processing Specialist in the Development Office and Craig Bailey-Skibo, the Student Accounts Specialist. You need a state ID and a school ID with you.  

Fease feels that many Christians use the Bible in order to excuse their behavior, but not to actually spread the message of Christ, and feels that many Christians today would be the first to condemn Jesus had they been alive 2,023 years ago.  

“The way people choose their churches is that they find a group of people that have the same favorite sins they do,” Fease said. “God damn the person who goes before a congregation and makes them feel uncomfortable.” 

He also pointed out that football players thank Jesus when they win a game, but wondered what the other team did such that God would condemn them to losing.  

Fease speaks out against the systems of capitalism and neoliberalism that govern the world and believes that they are out of line with the message of Christ. In the Bible, the birth of Jesus Christ was a good sign for the downtrodden, but not for the political leaders of the day, Fease related. He sees capitalism as being about winning, and in particular, winning power, which he noted is more in line with the ideology of the political leaders that Jesus stood up against. Fease pointed out the similarity between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus, who were both condemned and ultimately assassinated by the religious and political establishments of their time because they stood up for the downtrodden and those marginalized by society. He believes that in order to fix the world’s problems, we have to resist these systems.

“How do we become better residents of the Earth?” Fease asked. “[The first thing is] to burn an effigy of this neoliberalism, the idea that every good idea needs to be boiled down to a bottom line. Even the progressives use the economic model to show that [their way is] better. It’s better because it’s fucking better… [Even] if we didn’t save money by doing it, should we not do it?” 

As a Lawrence alum, Fease extends his criticism of hierarchy to his alma mater for depending on contributions from wealthy alumni, and compared it to the hierarchy of the church.  

“I cringe at the power of money at an institution like Lawrence,” Fease said. “How do you avoid building things that rich alums like because it shows off nicely? Plus there’s a very good likelihood that they’ll get their name somewhere on campus. Unfortunately that’s the same thing in the church.”