‘This is a church where you can bring your whole self’: Episcopal priest makes church a refuge for gays, lesbians

‘This is a church where you can bring your whole self’: Episcopal priest makes church a refuge for gays, lesbians October 30, 2005

Chicago Sun Times
October 30, 2005 Sunday, Final Edition

Copyright 2005 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. All Rights Reserved Section: NEWS; Pg. A10

Length: 1275 words
Byline: Cathleen Falsani, The Chicago Sun-Times

Tucked away in a cul de sac on the western edge of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood sits the Episcopal parish of St. Martin, an unlikely urban oasis that has become a thriving refuge for African-American gay and lesbian Christians and their soul mates — an eclectic mix of believers dedicated to spiritual and social justice.

Fifteen years ago, St. Martin’s, like so many urban mainline Protestant and Anglican congregations, was in decline. The neighborhood that had given birth to the parish more than a century earlier had changed dramatically. Weekly attendance had dropped to about 60 people, most of them older white folks who had moved out of predominantly black Austin to Oak Park or other western suburbs.

And then the Rev. Juan Reed, an openly gay, African-American, Roman-Catholic-Benedictine-monk-turned-Episcopal-priest, arrived on the scene.

A larger-than-life presence — at a hulking 6 foot 7 with a bald pate, dimpled beard, enormous smile and fiercely gentle demeanor — Reed, 58, resembles what one might imagine the biblical prophets Jeremiah or Ezekiel to have been like: Commanding, wise and full of dangerous ideas about how to subvert the dominant spiritual paradigm.

Turning on the lights, as it were, in the parish at 5710 W. Midway Park, was the first thing on Reed’s agenda. He began with parishioner’s hearts, gradually pushing them to face difficult issues of racism and homophobia, and after a few years moved on to the dank sanctuary blighted by an undesirable patina.

Reed had its old wooden pews removed and replaced with comfortable chairs arranged in a circle where congregants could see each other’s faces during worship rather than the back of one another’s heads. The circa-1940s hymnal was replaced with one that uses modern songs and gender-inclusive language for God. The sad tile floor was taken up, revealing a wooden floor that was stripped and buffed to a high sheen. Stained glass was cleaned, sealed windows unstuck, and the light came pouring in in more ways than one, said Josephine Wyatt, St. Martin’s former church secretary and a member for six years.

“Not only has he brought more light into the place, with his programs and his vision, he has raised the level of consciousness of the congregation,” said Wyatt, who described herself as “straight and a senior citizen.”

Weekly attendance at St. Martin’s has about doubled since Reed arrived in 1991, and its faces have changed. Today, the congregation is about 80 percent black, and while it is not predominantly gay, it has many gay and lesbian members, Reed said.

On Monday, Reed, one of very few openly gay, black clergy in Chicago (or anywhere else for that matter) will be inducted into Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for “leading a parish . . . that openly welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, for providing pastoral support to men living with HIV and AIDS, and for his example as an openly gay African-American clergyman,” according to a statement from the Hall of Fame.

St. Martin’s mission statement says, in part: “We are committed to creating space for marginal voices that are unheard in dominant stories.”

Reed is a man familiar with the margins of society. A Chicago native reared with five siblings in the Ida B. Wells public housing project on the South Side, he attended Catholic grade school and Hales Franciscan High School, and in 1966 entered a Benedictine monastery in Wisconsin where he would spend more than a dozen years.

Reed was the first African-American admitted to St. Benedict Abbey. It was a tumultuous time socially and religiously, with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Vatican II. Everything was changing. Too much was in turmoil, Reed recalled.

“My life in monastery was too often like being in a boxing ring with the various components of my identity — black, gay, monastic, etc. — fighting with one another, hoping to knock one or another unconscious,” Reed said.

In 1979, he left the monastery, and a couple of years later, he left the Catholic church altogether. “My exit from the ring saved my soul. The house I live in now is spacious and these components of myself are pretty much at peace and work together, rather than being at war.”

After a 10-year hiatus from membership in any church, in the late 1980s, Reed attended a service at an Episcopal parish on the South Side and heard the priest — an African-American, heterosexual man — say something positive about homosexuals, “from the pulpit, during his sermon, about gay people!” he recalled. “I thought, this is something I have to check out!” In 1991, Reed was ordained an Episcopal priest and assigned to St. Martin’s.

Far too often, particularly in the African-American community writ large, where the issue of homosexuality is usually ignored rather than pro-actively attacked from the pulpit or in the pews, a gay, black Christian has to leave part of himself at the church door, Reed said. He wanted St. Martin’s to be different. “People often say around here that this is a church where you can bring your whole self,” he said.

Parishioner Laurenti Wright, a 39-year-old African-American “out, same-gender-loving” public school teacher who grew up in Austin and now lives on the South Side, joined St. Martin’s three years ago, converting from Roman Catholic to Episcopal, in part because he could be himself. When he first began attending services at the Austin parish, “A few of the members said to me, nonchalantly but in a very friendly way, ‘If your church doesn’t want you, we want you,’ ” said Wright, a onetime Catholic seminarian who is contemplating becoming an Episcopal priest.

“People are very honest here and not at all about looking good, but much more about doing what is right and calling people on their racism, their homophobia, challenging each other to grow,” Wright said. “There’s no pretense about it. People are who they are. I really think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in Chicago.”

Bishop William Persell, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, said he is proud of Reed’s induction into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and that Reed has provided real leadership in the contentious areas of racism and homosexuality, topics that continue to rock the Episcopal church and others.

“He’s got a very creative ministry . . . very openly welcoming gay persons and lesbians from the black community, where that usually is not as open a topic,” Persell said.

“One of the things that’s very important to me is telling the truth, because if you don’t, all sorts of bad things happen . . . and the truth will set you free,” Reed said. “In churches we need to deal with this whole issue more honestly. It’s not about being gay, it’s about talking about who we are. Churches are full of gay people, and the oppression couldn’t go on without the participation of black gay people. It just couldn’t. We say here that one of the first steps is to stop participating in your own oppression, your own diminishment.

“I think of this in the whole context of life. It’s not just a gay issue or a sexual-orientation issue, and it’s public — not private. It’s part of who I am as a Christian,” he said.

Reed wrote his doctoral dissertation for the degree in ministry he earned from Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union a couple of years ago, about being gay, black and Christian in the African-American church. He interviewed eight gay black Christian men and was struck by how lasting the effects of homophobia can be.

“It’s a moral issue . . . the times call for this,” he said. “To be silent in the presence of this is immoral.”

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