Offered by Rev. F. Jay Deacon, D.Min.
Keynote Address, UURMaPA Conference, October, 2019
(Note: This is not a word-for word transcription of Jay’s talk. Some asides have been omitted. For the full flavor of his presentation, we recommend that you also view the video.)
Guess I’ll start this with 1969, the year of Stonewall, when Rev. Jim Stoll came out publicly at a UU college conference and became, other than out MCC ministers, the first American minister to come out.
I wasn’t a UU in 1969 — I was about to enter Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, where I was a student from 1970-73. After some agony I found my way to MCC.
So I didn’t know the early pioneers — not Jim Stoll, who after coming out never served a congregation again; or Dick Nash or Elgin Blair.
Before I showed up, there was the 1970 GA resolution against anti-gay and -bi discrimination; I wasn’t there when Nash and Blair lobbied in 1971 for the creation of an Office of Gay Affairs (so cleverly named), or in 1973 when the GA voted to create it or in 1974 when the GA voted to fund it. I didn’t know Arlie Scott, who ran the office from January 1975 through 1977. But I sure knew Bob Wheatly, who ran the office from 1977 until about 1984, and Daniel Pentlarge, who served as Acting Director until I started in 1986.
So let me give you just a little slice of the religious terrain facing this then-young gay person. I was brought up in a giant evangelical Presbyterian church on the Jersey shore not far from Murray Grove, where John Murray stepped ashore carrying his Universalist gospel. But nobody in Ocean County would ever have heard of Universalism. Here, homosexuality was not spoken of. The church was huge, and socially, the place to be seen — I could see how my lower-middle-class parents absorbed the respectability of the place, but I found it pretentious and boring, and my form of teenage revolt was to become an outright fundamentalist; I joined the Assembly of God, to my parents’ horror (and mine, now!). Years later, my parents’ giant Presbyterian church became an anchor of the anti-gay sentiment in the denomination.
I went to the A/G’s Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. It was an awakening to the hypocrisy and religious pathology of fundamentalism. In my senior year I left, disgusted, completing the last couple of courses by correspondence, and went to work for the Pentecostal evangelist David Wilkerson in New York. He produced a film in which he is interviewing — his description — a Communist Lesbian somewhere in the Village, and he asked us all what we thought of it. He didn’t like my answer and fired me for being a Communist sympathizer. This was the end of my time with Teen Challenge.
So in 1970 I went on to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary — big school with Billy Graham on the Board — and there I found my biblical and theological studies disturbing. There was too much that didn’t add up, didn’t make sense. To make it worse, translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew revealed a deeply flawed text that had no chance of being divinely inspired. By my senior year, I was editor of the seminary newspaper, and someone brought me a story about the chartering service of the Metropolitan Community Church of Boston (which met, you won’t be astonished to learn, at Arlington Street Church), which he thought I wouldn’t probably run, but I did. It drew the responses you’d expect — all about the floodtide of iniquity sweeping the nation, barnyard sex, all that.
And I was beginning to face the fact of being gay. So I ran an editorial defending MCC, all in the third person. I couldn’t have come out — I would have been denied my M.Div. The editorial became the talk of the school, and, to some extent, the Boston-area seminaries. Now, when I sat down at a cafeteria table, everyone got up and left. It might sound horrible but really it was liberating. What was hard was when I told my closest friend that I thought I might be gay, and he literally ran away from me and never talked to me again.
But in the meantime, I made a visit to MCC Boston. I had a friend with a car drop me off at Park Street Church, a huge evangelical outfit historically known as “Brimstone Corner” because the second sermon ever preached there was titled “The Uses of Real Fire in Hell.” And I walked across the Common and Public Garden to Arlington Street Church, in whose chapel MCC worshipped. I was a bit scared, because it meant being for the first time in my life surrounded by these people I’d always learned were strangely depraved. It was utterly transformative: because whatever I thought of myself, I knew these were good, warm, decent, spiritually sensitive human beings.
There, I met the great Rev. Nancy Wilson, who would go on to be the denomination’s leader. And I met founding pastor Larry Bernier, who had his eyes on Hartford, CT, where he wanted to plant a new congregation. I was weeks from graduation: would I be interested?
So MCC sent me to Hartford to found a new MCC congregation there. When we tried to find a house of worship that would rent to us, guess what? Only the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Hartford was up for it. Okay, so you weren’t surprised.
These were exhilarating days, as both the city council and state legislature battled over our rights and dignity in the early 70s. I wish I could describe a quite colorful confrontation with the Catholic Bishop of Hartford and the pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral, but I have to tell you that in that incident, the Capital Region Conference of Churches, which had admitted us as a member, and its director Rev. George Wells, acted quite heroically, and we got lots of free space on the front page of the Courant and on local radio and TV news.
Then there were the “Blue Berets,” otherwise called “Faithful & True Roman Catholics,” who would gather monthly at the former World’s Fair grounds in Queens and listen to an address by the Virgin Mary. Once she said she’d brought her son, but they couldn’t see him. A basic civil rights ordinance had been introduced in the City Council, and it was time for the hearing. The Blue Berets came in buses to the hearing, in their blue berets, and they got there early, so I was at the back of the line to testify. They all addressed the Council, saying the usual appalling and astonishing things, and then it was my turn, and all I had to say was “I believe by now you see why this ordinance is so important.” It passed
My car had been firebombed; the story was in the next morning’s New York Times. That afternoon I arrived late at a D.Min. class at The Hartford Seminary Foundation. When I walked into the classroom, I was greeted with a warm hug from the professor, Doug Lewis.
From there I went to a much bigger MCC in Chicago — in Lakeview, which we then called Boystown. These five years were just as exhilarating and challenging, and the old Chicago machine was being challenged by some gutsy reformers. Aware of racism among gay people, I endorsed Harold Washington and we held a rally for him at the church the Tuesday before the election. Black ministers warned him to stay away and have nothing to do with “that gay gathering,” but he came and thrilled the packed house, and Washington narrowly won. So you can imagine my delight a few months ago at the election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor of Chicago! The ground beneath us is moving.
It was while I was at Good Shepherd MCC that members began getting diagnosed with a strange new disease, and dying. I served on the institutional review board — really an ethics panel — for the gay clinic, Howard Brown Clinic, and we tried to grapple with the latest medical findings.
Illinois Masonic Hospital, right there in Boystown, set up an AIDS wing, with a hospice, where I visited way too many members, and where my ex and dear friend Evan died in 1988.
And another thing started to happen: more conservative members starting complaining that I wasn’t really a Christian. After the umpteenth time that somebody said “Jay, aren’t you really just a Unitarian anyway?”, I rang up Bart Gould, minister of Second Unitarian, just a block away from Good Shepherd, and said “Can we talk?” What I learned was that I was guilty as charged, and on Pride Day 1982, I joined 2U. By now I’d begun the process of transferring credentials.
So I had to undergo evaluation by one of these outfits that examines candidates for ministry for mental stability — those Centers for Ministry assessments. I was sent to one at Garrett in Evanston where an unreconstructed Freudian characterized me as a “belligerent feminist,” and, noting my transition from Presbyterian to Assemblies of God to American Baptist to MCC to UU, worried that I was unstable. Then came the interview in Boston. Naturally I worried about the report from Evanston. The MFC never mentioned it and gave me a “1.” I was impressed. My little sermonette was about how we all have to “come out” in our own way and that was much about what Unitarian Universalism represents.
I worked for a while as Acting Information Director after Carl Seaburg retired, for which I must thank Carl. What a privilege — this newcomer in charge of the UUA archives, those yellowing files full of heroic stories that I found thrilling. You wouldn’t even have to turn on the lights; those files glowed! These were stories of heroes, some of them tragic stories of heroes. It’s very hard to describe what a privilege that was.
The search for a pulpit wasn’t easy, and I felt that search committees must have spring-loaded mailboxes. Then I was called to the Unitarian Church of Bangor. A young gay member who had fled harassment in his small town came to the big city of Bangor hoping to find some acceptance and respect; he faced truly ugly treatment and hatred in Bangor.
A gay couple who rented him rooms faced similar treatment. They found their dead cat on their front step, found their tires slashed, and the police wouldn’t help and showed utter contempt for them as a gay couple, and they couldn’t put their house on the market.
Then Charlie was murdered on his way home from the Unitarian Church, where he was a member and was beloved. This was 1984, and as he walked home, three Bangor High School students spotted him and jumped out of their car and chased him down, and threw him over the high stone bulkhead into the Kenduskeag Stream that runs through the downtown, and his body was carried away.
Now, in 1985, we were conducting a memorial service on the first anniversary of his death. Maine Public Radio carried our service, and afterwards we all walked silently to the Kenduskeag Stream as the bells tolled from the Unitarian steeple. Silently we threw flowers into the stream and the powerful tide carried them away. A couple of UCC ministers from Bangor Seminary joined us, but nobody from the city government and no other clergy except for Laurel Sheridan, the Interim at the Universalist congregation — whose minister the year before, when Charlie was murdered, would not participate in the original memorial service.
Charlie’s memorial service was a pivotal day for a lot of people who told me their stories. One couple walking to the first memorial service saw the TV trucks. One said no, I can’t be seen there. The other said we must be there; we must be seen there — and that was the day they broke up.
This is the editorial in The Bangor Daily News. “NOT A MARTYR. We all know that it’s wrong to kill people, but he did bring it on himself by his effeminate ways.” I was pretty steamed, and I stormed into the editor’s office with a response, which he did print. BUT when marriage equality was on the ballot in Maine, The Bangor Daily News ran an editorial in favor of marriage equality, and it brought tears to my eyes. The earth is indeed moving beneath us.
From Bangor I took the position of Director of OLGC, with the specific task of assessing UU response to queer people. I organized the Common Vision Planning Committee — and ran a big survey of UU membership. There were about 3,000 responses; Helen Bishop tabulated the findings which appeared in the Common Vision Report. The UU Trustees were stunned by the nasty attitudes this turned up. There are a lot of quotes, and you really ought to take a look at the quotes because they will appall you; you’d be surprised. This teaches us the lesson that you can change a culture — you can create a new culture, because it isn’t like that any more. And not only that, we profoundly affected the religious culture outside our own walls.
So we designed the Welcoming Congregation Program, but while this was going on we found we’d been zeroed out of the budget by the Board of Trustees. So I made sure our motion to adopt the Welcoming Congregation Program and to continue the office was drafted as a Business Resolution, which meant that it had a stronger mandate and was not subject to the Trustees’ budget priorities. It passed by a margin something like 2000-25.
At the UUA, my office overlooked Governor Dukakis’s office in the Massachusetts State House, where I spent time arguing for passage of basic civil rights legislation during 1986-89, and what was happening was that the legislature would pass it, and Senate President Billy Bulger (brother of gangster Whitey Bulger) would send the bill to the Committee on Bills in the Third Reading, the point of which was never to meet. So I was part of a civil disobedience when we disrupted the Senate session. Bulger’s Senate Police threw some of us around and I still have a knee injury from that episode. But in the next session the bill passed and made it to Gov. Dukakis’ desk. He signed it into law in 1989.
We did a lot of demonstrations in front of the State House for marriage equality. Some activists thought we shouldn’t push such an extreme position on marriage and scare people, but my argument was that it moved the center of gravity for the debate in our direction. A state Supreme Court decision forced the legislature to pass it in 2004, and Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex marriage.
In 1987 our office coordinated UU participation in the March on Washington to protest the Supreme Court decision in Hardwick v. Bowers. UUs came from all over the country. We held a pre-march worship service at All Souls, then shared a circle dance led by Starhawk, and then the protest. Eight hundred of us were arrested, and we were handled by court personnel wearing rubber gloves.
But the permanent job had been promised to somebody else, so I went into search, and now I really felt the spring-loaded-mailbox phenomenon. For a couple of years, no response from search committees, at least until the UU Church in Oak Park, IL search committee specifically asked for my packet. The chair told me the Settlement Director told them “I don’t think he’s your man,” to which the chair of the Search Committee responded “Oh, we think he might be our man,” and I had ten of the best years of my life at the new congregation I led into a consolidation with Beacon Unitarian Church, of blessed memory, once served by Barbara Pescan and Anne Tyndall! — Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, at the magical building designed by a young member, Frank Lloyd Wright.
At Unity Temple, a longtime member took me aside after I’d done a Pride service. He’d been an engaged member for two, three, or four years, but considered himself a good old Chicago leftist, a long tradition there. As such he hadn’t understood the gay moment and was very uncomfortable about it and with my being there. But he kept coming, and listening. I think my evangelistic attitude toward the spiritual and religious significance of UUism and the inclusion of sexual minorities had got through to him. He wanted me to know I had won him over. That was one of those moments you never forget.
I’d arranged for a sabbatical working with the British Unitarians, but as the date approached, I learned that the churches I was to serve, in Yorkshire, had refused to accept “an American homosexual.” The leader of the congregations apologized profusely, and Jeff Teagle, the Executive Secretary of the denomination, found me two other ministries — three months each in Aberdeen and then at Golders Green, London. Meanwhile, the British Unitarians were coming around to our side very quickly. The British Unitarians today are outspoken advocates for queer people, and they always march in London’s giant Pride parade.
It was while I was minister at the UU Society of Northampton and Florence (MA) — from 2002 to 2006 — that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that marriage had to be opened to same-sex couples, and the legislature legalized it in 2004.
In the meantime, I wrote a piece in The Daily Hampshire Gazette announcing that I wouldn’t sign marriage licenses until I could sign them for same-sex couples, and that it was absurd that I could sign a license that no one could sign for me. I said that I’d still do weddings, but you’d have to have a civil authority sign the form, which is who should be signing legal marriage forms anyway, not clergy. (What are ministers doing being agents of the state?) I was interviewed about this on a little Northampton radio station, WRSI, whose studios were in a basement under an art supply store across the street from the church. The interviewer was Rachel Maddow, not yet discovered by Air America Radio or MSNBC.
On the first day of same-sex legal marriage, I married two women who were members of the Northampton congregation at the Smith College waterfall where they first kissed. They’d already had a big union ceremony so this time it was just the two of them, their little girl, and me. And the waterfall, and the marriage license. There were lots more, and quite a few had already had ceremonies, so some of these were much more intimate, with the main attraction the signed marriage license.
After a couple of interim ministries and two years as contract minister in Manchester, N.H., I was called in 2012 to Channing Memorial Church in Newport, R.I. where I served through 2016.
In Rhode Island, the Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed represented Newport, and she was a devout Catholic who had never allowed marriage equality to come to a vote, despite years and years of work by the community in Rhode Island. She refused to meet with activists to talk about it, but she met with me and three members of the congregation, and she agreed to allow a vote. And the bill passed on Feb. 5, 2013.
And let me say this about Newport. There were two distinct factions there, and the progressive core had done something magnificent before I was even there. The opposition was led by a wealthy donor who had Googled me and found a column I’d written for the Northampton newspaper critical of Joseph Ratzinger when he became Pope Benedict, in which I warned that Ratzinger was very bad news indeed, particularly for the gay community. He fought me to the end. He’d fought the rainbow sign out front, too.
But among the progressive majority was Pam Goff, who had organized an annual Prom for gay and lesbian and bi and trans high school students, conducted by Channing Church. At first they used the Police Union hall, and while I was there, we moved the Prom to the City of Newport’s oceanfront Rotunda and Carousel. Some of the kids came on buses from Providence. The more conservative members didn’t dare argue publicly that we shouldn’t be doing it, but their views were pretty clear. BUT this past Spring brought the tenth annual Prom.
So it’s always a soap-opera. As someone wise once said, a minister has always got to keep one suitcase packed.
And that brings us to Meg, so let me turn it over to Meg right here.
After Meg Riley made her presentation, Jay concluded with the following statement:
What a brilliant and beautiful story!
Look, here really is my point. What this religious and spiritual movement is about is the evolution of consciousness and culture. And how is this universe aware of itself, except in you and me, the human presence, our human consciousness, so far as we know the universe’s highest achievement? When you awaken, the universe awakens. I know something about the evolution of consciousness because I underwent it and shared with many others who did, too.
We’re way less original than we sometimes like to think we are. We are contained in a culture and we’re part of it, a culture or cultures that are bigger than we are and that shape us. Meg spoke of her disappointment when her political hero Paul Wellstone opposed marriage equality. I can be forgiving of historical figures whose better instincts were overridden by the force of that culture.
But we have all participated in the creation of a new culture. And I’m not much of a theist, but somewhere at the heart of things there is an intelligence and an energy and, I think, a purpose that draws us forward to higher human possibility, and I think we’ve got to never forget that that is what this religious movement is about. Because religion is either a lock on an outmoded past, or it’s an engine of evolution. It’s always one or the other, and just observe the Religious Right if you want to see the other facet of religion.
The UU spiritual movement bears witness to higher human possibility, and a culture that could and did evolve beyond the narrowness of the world in which the Apostle Paul lived, the world of the Levitical Holiness Code, the world of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, the world of Franklin Graham and Mike Pence. An amazing thing. Freeing people from the presumptive authority of ancient scriptures and enfolding them in a community that honored their humanity, believing in them, and standing by them.
So all I really want to say in conclusion is that this spiritual movement, once again, is about the evolution of consciousness and therefore of culture. And I think we feel the draw and the depth of it toward higher human possibility.
The ground is moving beneath us; everything is in motion. It’s as though you wake up in a moving car plummeting forward and, through your awakening eyes, you see that nobody is at the wheel. Take it! The future is in our hands.