Homosexuality at Fourth Universalist Church:  An Interview with Edmund Pease

Submitted by Rev.  Richard A.  Kellaway, minister at Fourth Universalist Church from 1968 to 1973.  (At that time, the church was called The Universalist Church of New York City.)  The interview was presumably conducted by Lee Paczulla when she was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  Edmund Pease was a member of the church. 

Q:  Was there any public conversation on homosexuality at Fourth Universalist prior to Rev.  Kellaway’s sermons and statements addressing the issue?

A:  It was non-existent… There was no conversation.  Of all of the people that were formally active in Ciarcia’s [Rev.  Albert F.  Ciarcia, 1955-56] ministry of a couple of years, and Ray Baughn’s (Rev.  Raymond J.  Baughn, 1957-58] ministry of less than a year, my estimate is that probably about 40% of that group was gay, but it was never talked about.  This group was looked at in the congregation as “the young people,” the younger generation.

I first visited the church in the spring of 1955, and the congregation was very, very small – maybe 35-45 people, mostly older.  At that first meeting, which was the last church session before closing for the summer in June, Ed Clifton invited 3 people home to have lunch with him.  We spent the afternoon with him talking.  Of that group, I was one; the others were a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who was at that time studying at teacher’s college; and a young novelist, a native of Massachusetts and graduate of Antioch, who was living in New York and making his living as a psychiatric social worker in a mental hospital.  The three of us spent that whole afternoon talking.  Although not acknowledged at the time, it turned out later that two of us were gay, the teacher from Pennsylvania and myself.

As Richard [Kellaway] said, Ed Clifton was always very open about his sexuality, which was somewhat resented by the older people in the church who would say, “Why do you have to talk about it?  We really don’t care.”  Soon after publishing his first book, the Antioch graduate got married to a very quiet girl from a very low class background.  Eight months after Frank got married, he committed suicide, which was suspected to be related to unresolved issues regarding his sexuality.

At that time, in 1955-56, Fourth U was a small congregation, and the Board of Trustees was all men; six men, all very conservative and older.  Hartford Beaumont, who was for many years Chairman of the Board, was a retired lawyer with Sterling & Sterling; he was an arch conservative, far right, very Joe McCarthy-type anti-Communist.  Another member of the Board was Colonel Wilson, the former military mayor of Seoul during the occupation after the Korean War.  He also was far right, very, very conservative.  A pretty good guy, old and a little bit crotchety, was Mr.  Powers, a former editor of the New York Times, who lived in Queens and would commute in to church.  Also Alan Spicer, a retired executive at AT&T.  Another member of the Board at that time, who subsequently became chairman, was Roland Gammon, a public relations person, who had his own firm.  Prior to that he was the public relations officer based in New York for the Council of Liberal Churches, the umbrella organization for the AUA & UCA prior to the UUA merger in 1961.  And all of these people just continued on forever; there was no turnover on the Board – if there were elections, they all stayed in.

There was a kind of stifling atmosphere at the church in the mid 1950’s, when Ciarcia came for a ministry of a couple years.  Things began to pick up as new people were attracted.  Rev.  Ciarcia was a graduate of St.  Lawrence, and a lot of recent graduates of St.  Lawrence, young professionals working in the city, started to show up and that was the beginning of the building of a younger group of people.  Of that group, I would say that something like 40% of them were known among ourselves to be gay.

The first break came when one gay member was elected to the Board of Trustees, Bill Lang… I don’t remember how that came about, whether somebody else retired.  Bill’s partner, Henry, was Jewish; although he came to social functions, he was not a functioning member of the congregation.  And very soon after that, I was nominated for the Board of Trustees of the New York State Convention of Universalists.  I guess maybe this was initiated by Ciarcia, or maybe because I wrote an essay on “Why I Am a Universalist” that appeared in the church newsletter (edited by old Hartford Beaumont) and later reprinted in a denominational publication.  But anyway, I was elected, I think, in 1958, and the next year when the annual convention was to be held in New York City, I was put on the program committee for the annual meeting, acting as liaison with the church.

The controversy that developed in the church at that time (when Ray Baughn was minister) had nothing to do with issues of sexuality, but is interesting in regard to issues of congregational polity.  The divisions were between liberal values and repressive tactics motivated by right wing political values and anti-communist fears left over from the McCarthy era.

The Convention Program Committee had voted to invite as keynote speaker Pierre van Paassen, a well-known liberal writer and journalist (who was also an ordained Unitarian minister and happened to live in the old Ansonia Hotel, a few blocks from the church).  George Kovaka of Buffalo (Vice President of the Convention & Chair of its Program Committee) made the initial contact with Van Paassen, and then asked Ray Baughn to follow up arranging details for his appearance at the church for the fall annual meeting of the Convention.  That’s when all hell broke loose!  Colonel Wilson egged on Hartford Beaumont to intervene to prevent Van Paassen’s appearance, alleging that he had communist leanings

Although this misdirected power play by “church leaders” (without support of the congregation, and opposed by the minister) ultimately failed, great damage was done.  Ironically these events catapulted me into denominational politics.

George Kovaka got so fed up with this kind of interference that he resigned from the New York State Convention of Universalists and recommended that I take his place as Vice President.  Very soon after joining the Board, I became Vice President when I was  perhaps 23 years old.  Subsequently I was elected President of the Universalist Convention when I was 25 and first took my seat on the UUA Board when I was 27.  (I always wondered:  would the same thing have happened if it were known at the time that I was a gay man?)

Q:  Considering your estimate that maybe 40% of the younger contingent at the church was gay or lesbian, would you say Fourth Universalist had a reputation as something of a haven for gays and lesbians even before the 1970s?  Was this sort of gay community common in other Unitarian or Universalist churches at the time, or other New York City churches in general?

A:  I don’t know if it was really known then as a gay or lesbian haven.  Except for Ed Clifton, everyone was essentially in the closet.  The congregation was conservative politically and theologically, even for a humanist person.  I don’t want to say, “not respected,” but there was not an overwhelming welcoming feeling.  Community Church was much more liberal theologically, although Harrington (Rev.  Donald S.  Harrington, 1944-82) called himself a theist.  All Souls was very definitely theistic.  Don McKinney (Rev.  Donald W.  McKinney, 1952-1992) was minister at the Brooklyn Unitarian Church, and that was the most open congregation theologically.  But at All Souls in Manhattan and Community Church, gay people wouldn’t have felt particularly comfortable at that time.  They probably felt somewhat more comfortable at a small congregation of mainly older people at the Universalist Church.

Q:  How did Rev.  Leonard Helie (Rev.  Leonard Helie, 1959-67) engage (if at all) with the gay and lesbian community?  Did he talk about or address these issues?  In what way?

A:    Not at all!  Leonard Helie came in under strange circumstances (which are illuminating in terms of church polity).  The church was going through a “search process” that wasn’t really a search process in the traditional sense.  They kept on inviting people to come as guest speakers over a year and a half period, hoping to find somebody, whom they would ask to be candidate for minister — kind of “serial candidating.”  In that process, Helie appeared; he was a friend of Roland Gammon’s.  Leonard Helie was a Harvard graduate; he had a promising start in the ministry in a fairly important church, I think in Roxbury, but things didn’t work out there.  Then he went to Homestead, Florida, sort of in the backwater, where he apparently was going through a divorce or separation at that time.  They couldn’t agree on choosing him as a candidate, but Roland engineered this thing where he became interim “supply minister, while we continue to look ”and that finally led to his becoming minister.

All of the younger people in the church were opposed to him.  When he came and settled, they either just resigned or dropped away or stopped coming.  At that time I had just moved to Brooklyn.

I basically would go to Fourth Universalist for Christmas and Easter services, make a small contribution and attend the Annual Meetings.  But I remained active in denominational affairs; I was attending church at the Brooklyn church at that time, though I never became a member.  Then when Helie left some of us came back, that was when Richard was chosen.  I was on the search committee that chose Richard.  The Helie period was a very, very fallow period, and any gay presence – which was not really overt before that – just disappeared completely during Helie’s ministry.  They stopped attending because they didn’t find Helie’s ministry meeting their needs.  It was just a very fallow period with a few of the old timers hanging on.

Q:  Was there any awareness at all of the Stonewall riots within the congregation?

A:  It was known about, but it was not a topic of much conversation, as Richard said; there was no congregational conversation of it, and very little coffee hour conversation.  There was one couple that lived in Greenwich Village who were great friends of the entire quote “younger” group – or the entire gay group – and I remember talking to them about Stonewall.  Nurak (Ed Pease’s partner) and I used to visit with them frequently, as did Ed Clifton.  Their names were Dot & Doug Anderson; they had a floor-through in a brownstone a couple of blocks from where Stonewall took place.

Q:  Do you remember much about what the reception was like to Rev.  Kellaway’s earliest sermons and newsletter notes on the issue of homosexuality?  From the perspective of a congregant and lay leader – were there any problems or push back from within the congregation to addressing gay and lesbian issues?

A:  There were no problems – but neither was there high visibility.  I don’t know too much about what happened in Schoelfield’s time (Rev.  Joel Schoelfield, 1974-84) , and I was not around during Darryl Berger’s ministry (Rev.  Daryl Berger, 1989-99), but my impression  is that the latter was another period similar to Helie’s time.

As to Richard Kellaway’s ministry, I would characterize it as a period of openness and willingness to try new approaches.  While I would not call his ministry as a period of great visibility for gender-related issues, I think he fostered the right attitude of openness.  I agree with what Richard said about Jean Powers and her small group.  Jean had a personality that was not easy to relate to; she started this group that was always, I assume, quite small, and it was basically dominated by her and petered out.  Even the UU Gay Fellowship, while that was meeting at the church, didn’t have an awful lot of visibility about it either.

But there were other things that Richard did that were opening up, not specifically gender-related.  The big Libmen/Libwomen theme, which was an outside group meeting at the church.  That group brought a lot of younger people to the church – it was mainly a big money making thing for the church.  There were theatre groups meeting there, which undoubtedly included some gay people, and these were all accepted and I think were part of laying the groundwork.

But my perception is that in terms of organized congregational involvement, what was happening in Kellaway’s time is pale if you look at what happened 10 or 15 years later in Montclair, NJ [an early Welcoming Congregation Mr.  Pease later joined].  The feeling was of a lot of talk, and real openness in the Montclair congregation, which was not the impression you would have in Fourth Universalist.  Schoelfield was not a strong minister – not as good a minister as Kellaway was.  He had all of the right attitudes, but again the issue was not visible, and the real blossoming, what I would call comparable to Montclair, really occurred during [Rev.] Rosemary Bray McNatt’s time at Fourth U (2001-2014).

One of the things that Richard did is he brought in a young music director, Michael May – a very talented gay man who did a lot with the musical program.  That involved a lot of gay people coming and being around, although they were outsiders.  Another thing that Richard did was to establish a religious services committee, a small group that he wanted to consult with about programming.  He was the main initiator, but all of us were coming from various perspectives, developing ideas about religious services we wanted to do.  Michael May was on the committee, I was on the committee, Ed Clifton was on the committee, Elizabeth Parmelee was chair at the time, and Lucille Spence was on the committee, so that almost all of the committee was gay people, like about 80%.

Q:  With gay men and lesbians so well represented on various leadership committees in the church, it surprises me that there wasn’t more public talk about homosexuality.  Was the church maybe an accepting place but not necessarily affirming?

A:  It was not demonstrative, no.  Contrast 4th U with the Montclair church, where the Welcoming Congregation committee would meet about every 6 weeks to do planning and they ran a film series every fall.  That committee was probably about 60% gay people, and 40% straight members of the congregation – but all of the members of the Welcoming Congregation committee had special nametags with a rainbow flag and a red ribbon on it, so that anyone coming to the church – like a gay person coming to the church for the first time — could easily search out any of those people to talk to during coffee hour.  It’s a completely different kind of attitude and openness – not openness – Fourth Universalist Church was never closed.  I don’t know how to characterize it, but it’s a very, very different feeling in terms of visibility.

There was much more visibility of gay people in Richard Kellaway’s time – that came because of all these other outreach activities.  There was a former schoolteacher, Lee Austin, who came on staff and was sort of like the rental manager; he managed these outside groups from the point of view of church administration.  Lee never made any big thing about it, but his partner would come around and people knew that he was Lee’s partner.  It never caused any problems.

An interesting note also is that Ed Clifton was a candidate for UU ministry.  He went to Starr King.  Clifton was orphaned and grew up in Nebraska.  He went into the Navy at the time of the Korean War, late 40s thereabouts, and after that went to Starr King.  I know that he never had a church and was not ordained.  I don’t know whether he applied for fellowship and was turned down or what, but I have the impression that he may have had a ministerial internship somewhere in California.  When I was on the Starr King Board I never went back to check, but my impression was that he left before graduation, which would have been in the late 1940s.

You might also like to know that I met my partner, not at the church, but through a wonderful couple at the church, the Eves.  Grace was a member of the church, a born Universalist from upstate New York.  Grace was an R.N.  when she married Sam; they did not have any children.  Samuel Russell Eves was a Quaker, musician and composer, and spoke three or four languages and did volunteer work at the Friends International Center in New York.  Several times a year they would invite a group of foreign students plus a couple of other people from the church to dinner.  I was a new member of the church back then, in 1956, and Grace invited me to their house for the first time.  That’s where I met my partner, who was a student from Thailand.  Grace and Sam became essentially “second parents” to us.

Q:  One name you brought up in your e-mail was Barbara Gittings, who I’ve read about as one of the founders of the New York chapter of the (lesbian organization) Daughters of Bilitis.  Was she associated with Fourth Universalist in some way?

A:  Yes, she was an active member of the church and very visible.  Everybody knew about her sexuality, but she was well liked and respected, although she never had any leadership role in the church.  I think she may have been even on the national board or a national officer of Daughters of Bilitis.  She’s a very articulate person.  I don’t know if she joined the church, but she came during Richard Kellaway’s time.

See the companion piece to this interview, an interview with Richard Kellaway, also apparently conducted by Lee Paczulla.