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The Rev. Carolyn Mobley Photo by Jay Paul
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Brooke Taylor, Alexandria Hawkins, David Wilson and the Rev. Carolyn Mobley Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo by Jay Paul
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Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond served as Shari Drees’ “sanctuary” during and after her gender transition Photo by Jay Paul
Shari Drees wasn't sure what to expect as she climbed the 14 stairs leading up to the front doors of the Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond for the first time. She was a few minutes late, and the doors were closed, but once inside, she was greeted with smiles and hugs. She sat close to the back of the sanctuary, wondering how it would go. When one of the worship leaders announced it was time for the children to leave for Sunday school, the pianist played "Jesus Loves Me."
Drees broke down and cried.
"We see that a lot," among newcomers, she says today. "I just felt like I had come a long way. Here I was, worshipping, in a house of worship — no longer anything to hide."
That's why the congregation exists — to offer a spiritual home to those who don't fit in elsewhere, says the Rev. Robin Gorsline, who stepped down as MCC Richmond's pastor in May to become president of the nonprofit People of Faith for Equality in Virginia (POFEV). "That's been our role — to take in wounded from other faith communities," he says. "In some ways, MCC becomes almost an emergency room. They need a faith community where it will be safe."
The congregation, which celebrated its 35-year anniversary in June, is part of a denomination that's not much older. The international movement of Metropolitan Community Churches began in 1968 in California, in the living room of a former Pentecostal minister who was forced to resign because of his homosexuality, and it now comprises nearly 250 congregations in 40 countries worldwide, including some in Australia, Latin America and Africa. It's still small enough that long-term members in Richmond have met the founder, the Rev. Elder Troy Perry (who last visited in 2003), and bring up his name in conversations about the church.
"Our founder refers to the people of MCC as saints," says David Wilson, 57, who started attending MCC Richmond regularly in 1999 and has served on its board of directors. "He wants to give us back our religious commitment toward God and to follow Christ."
When Drees first visited the church about a year and a half ago, she was completing her transition from male to female — an identity that she says she had spent a lifetime trying to deny.
"The transition was going well, but I felt like something was missing," says Drees, who moved to the Richmond area in 2000. She had attended a Grace Brethren church in Delaware, Ohio, in the early 1990s but had stopped going to church after moving to another part of the state. She searched the Internet for LGBT-friendly churches in and around Richmond, and was surprised by how many there were — a recent look at the Gay Community Center of Richmond's website and gaychurch.org turns up 27.
Still, having spent many years as a straight, married man, Drees, 56, didn't know a lot of gay people. A slender 5 feet, 9 inches tall with sleek, subtly highlighted light-brown hair, a low voice and large hands with polished nails, she says she stands out, even at MCC. She says that Gorsline took steps to make sure she was drawn in to the life of the congregation. When it was time for her to reveal her new identity at work, Gorsline called and texted to check on her. On Sunday mornings, sometimes someone she didn't think she knew would give her a hug.
"Of all the churches I could have walked in that Sunday, I'm convinced that's the one that was put in my path," she says. "They know what to do with me. Other [churches] may be accepting and welcoming but not know what to do. I always felt that whatever craziness went on during the week, I had this sanctuary to look forward to."
Drees' wife of 19 years has also been welcomed at the church. "One of the things she told me that gave her confidence about staying together was how quickly she was accepted into MCC."
Jim "Bubba" Bruce, the church sexton, says that an invitation to attend a service at MCC of the Resurrection in Houston back in 1977 literally saved his life. He had lost his business, a gift shop, and nothing seemed to be going right. One Saturday, he swallowed a big handful of Seconal pills, prescribed to treat insomnia.
"About an hour later, a friend called and invited me to church," he says. There was a new pastor, the Rev. Elder Jeri Ann Harvey, and the friend said he thought Bruce would like her. Bruce managed to regurgitate the pills and went to a service. Raised a Southern Baptist who "went to church any time the door opened" in Louisiana, Bruce had not been to church in about 12 years. "I knew if they found out I was gay, they'd ask me to leave," he says. Listening to the message that day, "It was like she was talking right to me, telling us that God loves all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we've done or what we've been."
He joined the church, which at the time was meeting in a bicycle-repair shop, and later moved to the Los Angeles area when Harvey was pastor at the MCC "mother church" there, and he became a deacon. When he moved to Richmond in 1999, he was in poor health. "I had full-blown AIDS," he says. "I came to Richmond to die." By that time, Harvey's partner, the Rev. Elder Gillian Storey, was pastor at MCC Richmond, and Harvey told Bruce, "We'll take care of you."
Bruce, 68, is a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Air Force, and he says that McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center set him up on a regimen of medication. "After about five years, all my counts began to turn around," he says, "and I realized I wasn't going to die anytime soon."
As more churches have adopted statements welcoming people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, some MCC attendees have returned to denominiatons they grew up with, such as Episcopalian, Methodist or Presbyterian, Bruce says.
According to a soon-to-be released National Congregations Study by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, 48 percent of the 1,331 congregations surveyed nationally, including Christian churches, synagogues, mosques and Hindu temples, accept as members gays and lesbians who are in committed relationships. That's an increase from 38 percent during the last study, conducted in 2006-2007.
"People have more places to go," Bruce says. "In Richmond, there's even a Baptist church that's gay affirming."
New attendees are still finding their way to MCC Richmond, though, bringing an infusion of energy. Among them are Alexandria Hawkins, a graduate of the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, and her partner, Brooke Taylor, who is completing her master of divinity degree at VUU.
Hawkins, 28, says she grew up attending a predominantly African-American Baptist church in the Richmond area, and after completing seminary, she became a youth pastor there.
"I didn't start coming to grips with my sexuality until about my mid-20s," she says. "Because I grew up in church, I thought, ‘I can't be gay — that's not a good thing.' Once I graduated from seminary and was thinking for myself in terms of my theology, I came to realize that was who I was."
Hawkins says she wasn't dating anyone when she started serving as the youth pastor, but after she met Taylor and began a relationship, she decided to tell the pastor that she was a lesbian. That disclosure led to her resignation, and she left the church.
"I talked to God about it — ‘You called me to ministry. Is there a place where I can be gay and be a minister and not have to separate the two and not have to pretend I'm one and not the other?' " Hawkins recalls.
As she and Taylor, 24, began visiting other churches. Hawkins says she realized that if a church doesn't say it's inclusive, "you kind of know that they may not put you out outright, but at the same time, they're not going to be open and affirming." The couple first attended a service at MCC a year ago, when Taylor was applying for a ministry position there. Learning that there was not just a church, but a whole denomination, founded on the principle of inclusion was a happy discovery, she says.
In June, Taylor preached a sermon at MCC, while Hawkins performed an accompanying liturgical dance. The message was based on passages from Matthew, in which the Pharisees take Jesus to task because his disciples picked grain to eat on a Sabbath day. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they've turned guidelines to help people live according to God's will into a means of oppression, Hawkins says. "Jesus said, ‘If you do as I've taught, loving other people, taking care of the poor, then you're doing what you're supposed to do.' "
Hawkins and Taylor also take turns preaching at a monthly Sunday-evening service they're leading at MCC that incorporates music and poetry. They're reaching out to college students and people who might have stopped going to church because of hurtful experiences in the past. While the service used to attract around five or six people, the number grew to 25 in November.
"A lot of the young, gay population has been ostracized from the church," Taylor says. "I think there's a lot of young people who are yearning to know God and know Christ and be part of a church family."
In the early days, MCC Richmond's congregation held services at the Friends Meeting House on Kensington Avenue. Elaine German recalls that when she first attended in 1984, there were about 18 people, mostly men, at the services. One Sunday, she asked a female friend if she'd like to attend. The friend said no — "she knew she was going to hell because she was gay," German says. "That moved me, because that's not what I believed at all. It turned me around to wanting to be committed to the church."
After German became a regular attendee, she worked with the pastor, then the Rev. Arthur Runyon, to try to attract more women and African-Americans. "Once a month, we had women's Sunday, and various women from the community to speak. By the end of that year, it was probably half and half, men and women."
MCC started a building fund in 1985, after the death of a member who had donated half of his life insurance proceeds, and purchased its current building at 2501 Park Ave. in 1992 from the Unification Church. Bequests from other members helped the congregation purchase a grand piano and an elevator.
"The building was condemned when we got it," German says. The congregation paid $119,000 for the building and has put another $275,000 into renovations. "Our people did a lot of the work," she adds. "That was a really neat time, because we were all there working during the week. It was really a bonding experience."
At its peak in 1997-'98, after the congregation moved into its building on Park Avenue, attendance at MCC Richmond was more than 200. But a group split off in 2001 and formed another congregation, New Beginnings Christian Church, which meets at the Gay Community Center of Richmond. These days, about 100 people attend MCC on Sundays.
"Our church going through those tribulations is not unique," says Wilson, who was selected to represent the congregation in MCC's Eastern Network as well as at MCC's general conference, held every three years. "People push back against change. And when you move from a family-size church to the next step, there's conflict, and when you move from a pastor-size church to a program-size church [with paid staffers], there's conflict."
MCC Richmond has several part-timers on staff in addition to the pastor — an office manager, a program director, a music director and a pianist.
Like others at MCC, Wilson had attended church in his youth. His mother, who lived in New York City, was active in a Catholic church, and Wilson was baptized by a Southern Baptist pastor in Chesterfield County. After serving in the Army, Wilson came to terms with his homosexuality while living in New York City between 1978 and 1981. He realized that the churches he had known wouldn't accept him, so he decided not to be involved.
"It wasn't that I had abandoned God, but I had abandoned church," he says.
Wilson's introduction to MCC Richmond came through a client of his landscaping business. "I fell in love with the pastor [then Rev. Storey], with her message," he says. "It gave me some direction in my spiritual journey."
Gorsline, who came out while enrolled in an Episcopal seminary in Massachusetts in the early 1980s, says he was told by his home church in Michigan — the church that his parents helped to build and where he had been actively involved for years — not to come back. A priest at the church in Boston where Gorsline was attending services and working while in seminary also told him and his wife that they could not talk to anyone in the church about what they were going through. The couple later divorced, and after graduating from seminary, Gorsline had sporadic involvement with church until he attended an MCC service in New York City in 2001. By then, he was in a committed relationship with his husband, Jonathan Lebolt, who urged Gorsline to give the church a try.
Like Drees, he wept on his first visit. For Gorsline, it was during communion, when a lay person blessed the elements and prayed. "Almost any Sunday at an MCC church, you'd see a newcomer cry because they felt at home, they felt welcome for the first time in a long time," he says.
Communion is one of the defining experiences of an MCC service, members say. It's celebrated every Sunday, unlike at many Protestant churches. Participants can come forward individually, in pairs or in small clusters to receive the elements and pray in a group embrace. Bruce says that Perry, MCC's founder, didn't want someone to miss communion, even if they came to just one service.
"We feel like communion is a gift from God, and it's not up to us to decide who to allow," says Elaine German, who grew up Presbyterian in West Virginia, then attended Southern Baptist and Methodist churches in Florida. When her sister or brother visit, they'll go up as a group with German's partner and take communion together. "That's one of the things I love most about the church."
Drees says that one of the things that feels special about MCC is that on any given Sunday, about a third of the people who are attending play a role in the service — singing in the choir, serving as ushers, greeters, or leading prayer and worship. The congregation is also active between Sundays, she adds. There's a food pantry, a prison ministry, help for people who are addicted to narcotics, a support group for people who are HIV-positive and their friends, and one for those who are coming out. Drees represented MCC in a community group that planned the Transgender Day of Remembrance at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Nov. 20 — an annual event to remember victims of violence and stand against mistreatment of transgendered people. She also belongs to a network through which the congregation connects with other groups serving the LGBT community.
"We stand sentinel against attacks on people for who they are," Wilson says, whether they're gay, transgendered, women, African-Americans or people with disabilities. And despite MCC's history, "You don't have to be gay. We have straight members, too," he says.
Wilson hopes that in the future, MCC Richmond will expand in its diversity. "If we can figure out a way to open our doors wider to Hispanics and African-Americans and Asians and folks of different ethnic backgrounds, we will be going a whole lot further in our mission."
It seems fortuitous, then, that the congregation's interim pastor, the Rev. Carolyn Mobley, is the first African-American clergy member to serve there. Mobley, who arrived in early November, moved to Richmond from Dahlonega, Ga., north of Atlanta, where her partner, Adrain Bowie, was attending seminary.
Previously, Mobley had served as an associate pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Resurrection in Houston, the congregation that Bubba Bruce attended years earlier. While there, she worked with the Rev. Dwayne Johnson, who was the pastor at MCC Richmond in the early 1990s.
"It's a small world," she says of the MCC denomination. Serving as what's called an intentional interim pastor, Mobley says her job is to help the congregation prepare for its next phase. And while she's grateful for the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in churches and in society as a whole, she doesn't expect the need for churches like MCC Richmond to disappear.
"Troy Perry used to say that he prayed that there would come a day when there would not be a need for MCC because every church would welcome gay and lesbian people," Mobley says. But "there's something different about being welcomed as an outsider and being welcomed as one of our own."
"I don't think we're going to work ourselves out of a job," she adds. "MCC, I believe, will always be needed because we will be on the side of the underdog, whoever that is. There will always be a need for someone to champion the cause of the voiceless.