Larry Sonner, Methodist minister who married lesbian couple against church doctrine, dies of COVID-19
Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner waited about a week to turn himself in.
The Methodist minister had married a lesbian couple the weekend before, in October 2014, going against the Protestant church’s doctrine. Other ministers had done so in the past, but they kept the unions quiet and the ceremonies secret.
Larry saw a problem with their silence. If Methodists wanted to call themselves “inclusive,” he asked, how could they deny LGBTQ people the right to marry in their faith?
On one hand, disobeying church rules could lead to grave consequences. He could lose health benefits. He could lose his standing as a minister. He could lose his pension, putting his and his wife Sue’s entire retirement at risk.
But on the other, Larry wanted to start a conversation about fairness and equity. And despite being a lifelong introvert, Larry knew how — and when — to speak up. So, he married the couple (after premarital counseling, of course) and turned himself in to church brass. Complaints were filed. Meetings held. An internal church trial considered.
With that one set of “I Dos,” an unassuming grandfather vaulted into the headlines, taking a personal risk in the name of what he thought was right.
On Nov. 27, Larry became one of the almost 5,000 Iowans to die of COVID-19.
The 84-year-old is among a growing group of clergy who have succumbed to the disease, including Ft. John A. Valukskas, famous for his carnival ministry; Rev. Gary A. Miller, who helmed the Grace Fellowship Church for nearly two decades; and countless laypeople and volunteers.
Larry “was not afraid to speak out on behalf of the least, the last, and the lost, regardless of the consequences,” Laurie Haller, bishop of the Iowa branch of The United Methodist Church, said in a statement. “Our hearts are filled with gratitude as we remember and celebrate the goodness of Larry’s life and vow to carry on his legacy of grace, peace and justice for all.”
A native of St. Joseph, Missouri, Larry didn’t look far for the woman who would become his soulmate and lifetime companion. Sue, then a freshman at Central Methodist University, was his roommate’s little sister.
The pair married in 1959, the start of more than 61 years together.
A born caregiver, Larry was the first director of the office of pastoral care for the Iowa branch of the Methodist Church. For more than three decades, he counseled pastors and their families, guiding them through hope and heartbreak.
At home, Larry was an expert at making sure his children knew he loved them. For Christmas, it didn't matter what gifts were under the tree, the most special present for Larry's daughter Deb was a letter from her dad placed among its branches, Deb said.
"It was just a tribute to you as a child, what a wonderful child you were and how proud they were of us, and those things just mean the world to me to this day," she said.
Every year on Super Bowl Sunday, Larry would act as a butler for his two sons, serving them any snack they wanted and pouring them an unlimited supply of soda. Deb got her own day, which always centered on her favorite movie, “The Sound of Music.”
COVID-19's siege: How an Iowa teacher is grappling with COVID-19 survivor's guilt
Born just after the Great Depression, Larry’s family didn't take many vacations. His dad could earn extra money if he worked instead of taking his allotted two weeks of paid time off, so they stayed put during school breaks.
When Sue and Larry married, they did their best to show their children the whole country.
"Every single year of our life we traveled," Deb said.
Every August, when Larry had the month off, the family would pile into a car with a camper trailer and set off on trips, road-tripping to the pacific northwest, the northeast and to Disneyworld every other year.
Under the tent flaps of their camper, they would play cards, watch the stars and talk about life, death and everything in between.
When the family returned, they’d make collages with items from their trips, like a piece of rubber from when a camper tire blew or a pamphlet from Knott's Berry Farm in California.
Then, with all the photos Larry had taken on the trip, the family would grab popcorn and sit down for a slideshow of their vacation.
"That was one of my favorite things growing up — when my dad would get the slide projector out," Deb said.
When his children had children of their own, no matter where they lived, Larry made sure to be a part of their lives. For Deb, that meant visiting her, her husband and their four children in Houston for at least three weeks almost every February and in December for her children's choir's Madrigal Dinner.
When he wasn't traveling or spending time with his grandchildren, Larry enjoyed learning about finance. From a young age, he taught his children "the power of compounding interest," Deb said. Those lessons had a deeper meaning.
"He would always talk with us about how you spend your money really represents your values," she said.
Larry was organized and methodical, the type of man who would write a chore on a list just to cross it off, Deb said.
He was the type of man who was his daughter's whole world, she added.
"He had his partner for over 60 years, he had three successful children, he had grandchildren with whom he had a personal relationship with each one of them, he’s gotten to travel, he was successful in his career and he pursued his academic goals — he just did it right," Deb said.
As to the conversation that Larry started with those “I Dos,” the United Methodist Church remains divided on same-sex unions, though the issue is poised to take over the church’s next general conference.
Larry never had a trial, despite the charges against him. Instead, leadership scraped the proceedings for a written resolution that the Iowa branch of the United Methodist Church would keep discussing what the church’s policy of inclusion and grace for all really means.
“I’m very happy with the discussions we had and the result we came to,” Larry told the Register when the resolution was reached in 2015. “I am especially proud of our church for pledging to continue to talk about LGBTQ issues, including marriage and the clergy."
"That's the very best I could hope for."
Larry may have been an introvert, but he always knew how to speak up.
This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at email@example.com.
Iowans lost to COVID-19
The following are deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 600 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.
Dorothy Beaton, 92, Iowa City. A world traveler who searched for faeries in the woods and walked along the Great Wall of China in her 80s.
Elaine May Bergan, 91, Lake Mills. Known as the "town historian" for writing books on the histories of Lake Mills and Joice.
Gail Berggren, 85, Iowa City. An avid tennis player who won several club doubles championships.
Robert Dotson, 97, Urbandale. Proudly served on the USS Oconto in the Pacific Theater during WWII.
Shirley Elsberry, 90, Waterloo. A snowbird who camped in Weslaco, Texas, every winter with her husband Chuck.
Goldie Frank, 88, Sioux City. Crocheted a baby blanket to celebrate the birth of each grand- and great-grandchild.
Raymond Gill, 95, Coralville. Opened the Coralville's first dental practice in 1956.
Louis Luiken, 79, Radcliffe. Served his community as city council member and mayor.
Jeffrey Mondry, 61, Mason City. Often found fixing and tending to problems for his friends and family, no matter how small.
Richard Morris, 81, Indianola. Took over the family business, Indianola Memorial Works.
Mark Nielsen, 69, Battle Creek. From Little League T-Ball to pro-basketball, loved watching and attending sporting events.
Diane Norelius, 85, Denison. A practical joker who always joined in on the fun with her children and grandchildren.
Scott Powell, 56, La Porte City. Piloted helicopters in the U.S. Army and National Guard for two decades.
Anita Schindler, 58, Iowa City. Always wanted to help others, be they friend, family, stranger or animal.
Robert Schuldt, 67, Climbing Hill. Habitually surrounded by pets, big and small.
Gary Sharum, 68, Sioux City. Helped students beat their personal records as coach of the AZ Flames Track Club.
Robert Svoboda, 50, Sioux City. Enjoyed working with his hands in the tile and construction industry.
Steven James Van Riper, 93, Coralville.