Interview with Jay Deacon

I’m Jay Deacon. I just wanted to add a few stories that there wasn’t time for in the program the other day. I want to mention Provincetown for one thing, the old Universalist meeting house in Provincetown was close to expiring. It had hardly any members left. Beautiful building right in the middle of Provincetown. When the Ballou Channing District and maybe the Mass Bay district together decided this thing should be revived and should focus on a ministry to the gay and lesbian community that is all over Provincetown and they went looking for a minister and they called Kim K. Crawford Harvey and I’m not … She had been somewhere on the Cape as an assistant or something before that, but this is her first big ministry and the place began to fill up.

I was her regular substitute, particularly when she was in Central America and adopting her daughters and the place was packed. People sitting on the floor down the central aisle and I could usually count on Congressman Gerry Studds being there in the pews. There was that.

But after my work at the UUA, I was called to the UU Church in Oak Park, Illinois just outside Chicago, just out Lake Street, from the loop. The search committee had been looking for awhile and they had asked the settlement director for my packet and the settlement director told them, “Well, I don’t think he’s your man”, but they insisted and I had 10 of the best years of my work life at this new congregation because we led that congregation and Beacon Unitarian Church down the block into consolidation and really created a new congregation called Unity Temple, UU Congregation. That was a really exciting place to be.

That was during the time when towns and cities were going for domestic partner ordinances. There was a big campaign in Oak Park and lots of members of that congregation were knocking on doors for the domestic partner registry and the victory celebration was at Unity Temple. That was a really proud moment. Our district executive then was Helen Bishop, who a lot of UU’s will know.

I had arranged for a sabbatical working with British Unitarians while I was there. As the date approached, I was supposed to be going to serve this little five little yoked congregations in Yorkshire where my family is from. All of a sudden I learned that the Yorkshire congregations had refused to accept an American homosexual. This was an awkward moment. But Jeff Teagle, the executive secretary of the British Unitarians arranged two other ministries, one in Aberdeen, Scotland and one in Golders Green, London.

You know, a few years have passed but by now the British Unitarians are very outspoken advocates for queer people. They always have a nice presence at the giant London Pride parade.

I left Oak Park to go to Northampton, Massachusetts, the home of Jonathan Edwards, actually. His church was, his former church was … Who has actually been dead for a while, was down the block a little bit. This was about the time when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that marriage had to be open to same sex couples. The legislature acted and legalized same sex marriage.

In the meantime, I wrote a piece for the Daily Hampshire Gazette announcing that I wouldn’t sign marriage licenses until I could sign them for same sex couples too and it was kind of absurd for me to sign a license for something that wouldn’t even apply to me, that I didn’t qualify for. You know, I would do your wedding for sure, but you would need to go to a civil authority to sign the form, which is who ought to be signing these legal forms anyway. Why are clergy signing these things?

I was interviewed about this on a little North Hampton radio station, WRSS, which broadcast from a basement studio underneath an art store. The interviewer was Rachel Maddow, not yet discovered by Air America Radio or MSNBC.

Same sex marriage was legalized first in Massachusetts as a result of that court decision and on the eve of the laws taking effect, I conducted a big rally at the North Hampton meetinghouse and the place was packed. It was really quite electric, loads of people from the community. This was one of those moments when you could see that a part of that congregation was truly excited and felt that significance and the religious significance of what was happening and another part of the congregation was a bit uncomfortable and stayed away.

On the first day, the first wedding that I did was two women who had been members of the congregation for a lot of years. They’d already had a big wedding, you know, holy union, civil union things. This was small. This was just the two of them and their adopted little girl and me by the Smith College waterfall where they first kissed. The main attraction was the license and the legal protections that it brought. There were lots more after that.

But it takes only a few people in a congregation to make it impossible for you to stay, I found, and eventually a group of people who were not happy got control of the board and I was forced out. I went to Newport, Rhode Island to the Channing Memorial Church, outside of which stands the statue of Channing with arms raised, sort of keeping watch over us to make sure we’re behaving.

Marriage equality was coming up in Rhode Island then and the Senate president of the Rhode Island Senate was a devout Catholic who represented Newport and she had never allowed a marriage equality bill to come to a vote. She had never agreed to meet with activists to even talk about marriage equality but somehow we convinced her to meet with us, a gay couple and a straight woman, who’s been a terrific advocate for gay people.

We had a good conversation. She agreed to let the bill come to a vote and it passed. I should say a little bit more about Newport, and this is kind of a different aspect of this story. There were some progressive, courageous people in Newport. One of them, Pam Goff, before I ever got to Newport, had organized an annual prom for gay and lesbian and bisexual and eventually trans high school students. At first they used the police union hall, which was sort of amusing, but we had a very warm, friendly welcome there.

While I was there, we moved the prom to the city of Newport’s own oceanfront rotunda and carousel, and they ran the carousel for us. Kids came down on buses from Providence and the more conservative members of the congregation weren’t very happy about this. They weren’t about to say so publicly. They weren’t about to speak out against our having the prom, but you could feel the tension.

One of one of those members had Googled me and found that while I was minister in Northampton, I had written a column for the Northampton newspaper critical of Joseph Ratzinger, who had just become Pope Benedict, and talking about how he was very bad news indeed for gay and lesbian people. This man in Newport never forgave me for that and organized some opposition so I was there only four years.

I guess I want to say about that, just to remind us something that some wise minister said, that a minister always has got to keep at least one suitcase packed, at least if you’re doing your job.

But here really is my point. What this religious and spiritual movement is about is the evolution of consciousness and culture. Now I know something about the evolution of consciousness. I’ve undergone a lot of it and so have most of us and we’ve shared that evolution of consciousness together. When we do, we participate too in the creation of a new culture and the culture that we shape also shapes us and the larger culture around us, and the UU universe has borne witness to a higher human possibility, a culture that could and did evolve beyond the narrowness of soul of the world, of the apostle Paul or the Levitical holiness cod, or the world of Franklin Graham or the world of Mike Pence or the world of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

It’s an amazing thing. Look, it’s possible and there it is. You can see it. You can experience it. That has a really profound effect on the larger religious world and the UU movement has had a tremendously profound effect on the larger religious world. We can never underestimate that.

When I was director of the office of lesbian and gay concerns, we organized a UU presence for the 1987 March on Washington to protest Hardwick v. Bowers. People came on buses from all over the country. A lot of us were arrested at the civil disobedience at the Supreme Court but before that was a giant parade. As we marched, the UULGC folks were handing out bazillions of copies of this little pamphlet that I’d written called A Serious Spiritual Alternative For The Gay and Lesbian Community: Unitarian Universalism, which it is, in a particularly profound way, freeing people from the presumptive authority of ancient scriptures and enfolding them in a community that honors their humanity, believes in them and stands by them.

Jay Deacon

A Unitarian Universalist minister, writer, and (for awhile) broadcaster. Until July 2016 Jay served as minister of Channing Memorial UU Church in Newport, Rhode Island. From 2010 until the summer of 2012 Jay served as Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH.