Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s outspoken former press secretary, once asked Robbie Ausley, “How in the hell did you get your politics growing up in Lubbock, Texas?” The answer is simple for Ausley: Her mother valued Christian principles in her household, especially compassion for others. The greatest thing her mother taught her was to not judge other people until she had walked in their shoes.
A champion for social justice and equality, Ausley has actively volunteered for various organizations, including Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the Sustainable Food Center, and Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. Ausley and her husband co-chaired a $6.8 million capital campaign for a Planned Parenthood complex in South Austin, an effort that was completed in 2006. She continues to support the organization’s mission of prevention and believes in providing access to health care, especially for low-income women.
A devout Methodist, Ausley firmly believes “we are all God’s children”—including gays and lesbians—and equal in God’s eyes. Ausley, along with her congregation at First United Methodist Church (FUMC), recently joined the Reconciling Ministries Network, a national movement to mobilize United Methodists towards the inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
FUMC’s goal, however, is to do more than to just welcome LGBT people to the church. The Reconciling Ministries Network wants to change the church doctrine, the Book of Discipline, to include the ordination of LGBT church members and to allow ministers to bless same-sex marriages or civil unions. Even though Ausley was not a delegate, she attended and advocated for changes to the doctrine at both the 2008 and 2012 general conference for her denomination. The delegation convenes every four years, with the next one being in 2016. “I like a good battle,” she said with a laugh.
Growing up in the Bible Belt during the civil rights era fueled Ausley’s passion for social justice. There is one experience in particular that she will always remember.
Her elderly grandfather, whom she called “Papaw,” loved dawdling at the family grocery store where he tried to be a helping hand. Ausley’s father assigned Horace, a black man, to help Papaw refresh the produce section daily. Over the years, Horace and Papaw developed an uninhibited companionship, laughing and telling each other funny stories and jokes. “Skin color did not matter to Papaw and Horace—they were just best friends,” Ausley said in a speech called “How Our Stories Shape Us.”
In 1958, her grandfather suddenly became ill and died. On the day of Papaw’s funeral, Ausley was riding in the limousine with her mother in the funeral procession when she saw Horace standing on the street corner near their church, dressed in a suit and tie, with tears streaming down his face. Ausley’s mother explained that black men were not allowed to attend white men’s funerals.
“That vision of Horace on the street corner, being excluded and discriminated against because of his skin color, still pains me and will forever be etched in my heart,” Ausley continued in her speech.
In 1965, she moved to Austin so that her husband Tom could attend law school. Robbie was a stay-at-home mom caring for four children. When they were in high school and middle school in the 1980s, AISD was required by federal law to bus its students to provide a quality education for all. Many affluent white people living in West Austin fled to private schools or different neighborhoods to avoid the integration in East Austin, where predominately black and Latino students went to school. Ausley decided to keep her children in the public school system and put her energy into successfully integrating them. It was her first active stance on a social justice issue.
A few years ago, a childhood friend, Glen Hunt, moved to Austin. She thought he might need a new church home and invited him to FUMC. He declined, saying that he didn’t feel welcome at a Methodist church because he was gay. He was the very person that solidified Ausley’s inclusive stance.
“I thought, how evil are we by doing this to him,” Ausley said.
John Wright, senior pastor at First United Methodist, first met Ausley in 1975 when he was a seminary intern. In the nearly 40 years since, Wright has seen her “fearlessly challenge those in power” to do right for the underdog. “She does it with such grace that they find it difficult to oppose her or at least to face her,” he said.
He also believes it’s vital for the church to accept the LGBT community, so LGBT churchgoers can not only have a “sociological validation of worth,” having equal protection before the law, but more importantly to have a “theological validation of worth.” He explained that in a theological sense, God is reality.
“Gay men and lesbian women should know that they are valued fully as persons, not simply because a majority of the population has now voted to do so, but because value and worth is rooted in ‘reality’,” Wright said.
Ausley’s experiences have shaped her and her beliefs. She will continue to fight for social justice issues because it’s what she’s been called to do.
“My hair is silver, I’m 68, and I’ll never retire as long as I live,” she said. “But we have to have men and women of the younger generation step up. We need to be the voice.”