in 1999, the Rev. Elder Jimmy Creech was defrocked by the United Methodist Church for presiding over the holy union of two men in North Carolina. He had already faced possible punishment for serving as a celebrant at a same-gender covenant ceremony two years earlier.
Ordained in 1970, Rev. Creech was, and is, an outspoken advocate and activist supporting Churches’ acceptance of LGBT persons. Today, as co-founder of the organization “Faith In America,” he travels widely and continues to be a leading voice on this issue. He is the author of a new book, Adam’s Gift: A Memoir of A Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays.
In this extended State of Belief Radio interview, you’ll hear Rev. Creech talk about his book, the progress he’s seen in organized religion in relation to LGBT rights, and his recent return to Omaha to participate in National Coming Out Day on the lawn of his former church in Omaha – still unwelcome in the sanctuary because of his stand on these issues.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Rev. Jimmy Creech, Faith in America[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Gay and Lesbian rights have been in the headlines this year, both in the ongoing culture wars and within several Christian denominations. You know that flashpoint issues have included marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT persons. But of course, none of that is new.
October 6th marked the 43rd anniversary of the founding of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, when Rev. Troy Perry answered the call to create a place for LGBT Christians to worship, and feel loved and accepted, just as they are. And in 1999, the Rev. Elder Jimmy Creech was defrocked by the United Methodist Church for presiding over the holy union of two men in North Carolina. He had already faced possible punishment for serving as a celebrant at a same-gender covenant ceremony two years earlier.
Ordained in 1970, Rev. Creech was, and is, an outspoken advocate and activist supporting Churches’ acceptance of LGBT persons. Today, as co-founder of the organization “Faith In America,” he travels widely and continues to be a leading voice on this issue.
Rev. Creech has received more honors and awards than we could ever name here on this show and still have time to interview him. He is the author of the new book, Adam’s Gift, about his experiences of the Church’s struggle to welcome and accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Let me be right upfront with you and say that this is a man I’ve known for years, loved for years, and appreciate; and I’m so very pleased to welcome Jimmy Creech to State of Belief Radio today! Welcome, Jimmy.[REV. JIMMY CREECH, GUEST]: Thank you, Welton. You’re very gracious. It’s wonderful to be with you. [WG]: I know you’re speaking to us by phone from Nebraska, and we’re going to talk about the events in which you’ve been participating this week; but I want to start with some history. I think it’s fair to say you’ve come to be a legend in the battle to include sexual minorities in the Church. How did that start? What moved you to make this such a central part of your ministry? [JC]: Well, it was not something I intended, it was not a goal in any sense of the word. I understand myself to be a pastor, and I love being a pastor. And I was serving a congregation in eastern North Carolina, a small town, in 1984, loving my work as a pastor of that congregation, when a member of the congregation came out to me as a gay man. He was the first person who ever self-identified to me as a gay person, and he talked to me about his experience both in the Church and in society at large, and told me things I was completely naive about, things I did not know, things that really upset me quite a bit. I’d known him – I call him Adam, he is the person whose name I give to my book, Adam’s Gift – his gift to me was telling me his story. I’d know him for three years, he was a leader in the community, a leader in the church, someone I admired, respected greatly; he was a faithful Christian, a gentle, kind person. He did not fit the stereotypes I had about what a gay person is to be like, and he destroyed those stereotypes – just in his presence, his humanity, his person-hood. It not only changed my thinking about gay people, but it changed my thinking about the role the Church plays in the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It helped me begin to understand that persecution. [WG]: Jimmy, the subtitle for your book is: “A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays.” We’re talking to a guy who was not an activist in the GLBT community, but a pastor who saw a wrong and tried to right it. Isn’t that correct? [JC]: Yes. That is very correct. [WG]: In those early years, did you think this was a battle that was about to be won, or did you see it as a long-term process? Did you have any idea what kind of Pandora’s box you were opening? [JC]: No, I’m actually not a strategist. I don’t really think in those ways. To me, what I learned is that the Church I was a part of, the United Methodist Church, was doing harm to people in my congregation by cause of what it taught and its policies; and I thought, as a pastor, the only thing I could do is to begin to challenge those. I had no sense of whether I would be able to change things or how to go about, you know, what’s the most effective way of making the changes, all I knew was I had to begin to challenge openly and publicly those teachings and policies. And this was in 1987. ’84 was when Adam came out to me. ’87 is when I really, when I came out as a challenger to the teachings, and had no sense of history in regard to where we might be going. Even the Gay Rights Movement was still, for me, fairly new. I had not been a part of it, didn’t know its history that well. [WG]: When you look back at that, how do you feel about the progress that’s been made, and, I guess, how much farther do we have to go? [JC]: Well, I begin by first of all acknowledging there’s a long way for us to go, still. But, when I look back over the last twenty-four years, since I became active in 1987, a lot has happened – and it’s happened on a large scale, on a grand scale, and it’s also happened on a small scale.
On the grand scale, you know, we have had major changes take place in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, polling now indicates that 74% of Roman Catholics support either marriage or civil unions for same-gender couples; they support adoption rights for same-gender couples, employment protection for same-gender loving people; and so, in terms of religious attitudes – they’ve changed dramatically. We’ve repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there is very serious discussion with the possibility of actually repealing the Defense of Marriage Act as far as national legislation is concerned – so there’s a lot that has been done.
There’s also been reaction. Many of the states, I think 31 different states now have a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. There is still a lot of religious bigotry, language that is very hurtful and harmful that’s being spoken from national leaders in the religious community, so there’s a lot that still needs to be done. But I see the resistance – which is becoming more public and profound now – as a sign that we are making great progress. So I’m encouraged in that regard.[WG]: Good. Jimmy, I, several years ago, after a bout with depression, wrote a book on depression; and I know out of that experience that the book-writing does something for readers, but it also does something to the author. Your book, Adam’s Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays, is a massive memoir of sensitivity. What did it do to you to revisit all of that? [JC]: It was very painful. A lot of what I tell is about the pain I’ve seen others experience, other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and their families experience. It’s also about my own losses, and it’s not intended to be a, sort of, self-pity kind of thing, but that was the reality. That’s the story. And getting back in touch with the events and the consequences of those events, and being able to tell the story truthfully and candidly, required immersing myself once again in the pain of those moments. So it was a painful process. It certainly was not just, sort of, an intellectual exercise. It was a painful, visceral experience. [WG]: I’ve never seen you as a person who engaged in self-pity. I’ve seen you as a very honest person who has to reflect on the pain of it in order to tell the story. But I want our readers to know that not only is the pain there, in all of its rawness and honesty, but your writing and work are both informed with a moral and spiritual clarity that is precious and, I’m sad to say, rare. Where does that come from for you? [JC]: I’m asked that question often, and I know it sounds simplistic but I have to say that it really comes from what I learned in church as a child and as a youth. Those experiences shaped me. I recall in our Methodist youth fellowship meetings every Sunday night, you know, I was a part of that for four years, five years, maybe. Every Sunday night before we left, we would sing “Are ye able, said the Master, to be crucified with me?” And you can’t sing that, over and over again that much, and without it doing something to you. It was the stories of Jesus, it was the stories of compassion, love your neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you… Those teachings shaped my life, and shaped who I understand myself to be, and what I think – I believe God calls us to do – and that is to make the world a better place, to bring God into the world – and that means bringing justice and love and compassion into the world in which we live. [WG]: In our church, we sang “Jesus loves the little children of the world, all the little children of the world,” and I thought they meant it. [JC]: Yeah. [WG]: But as you found out, as I found out, there is some gap between the music and the realities on the ground. [JC]: Yeah, and the marvelous thing is that the teachings survived the realities. I had that same experience. It was when I was in my last year of high school, or last two years of high school, that the Civil Rights Movement really opened up in this country; and I began to see the people who taught me the stories of Jesus, who told me that, you know, loving your neighbor is what God wants us to do and that our role is to make the world a better place – I saw those same people angry and acting with hatred toward people of color.
You know, I grew up in a very rigidly segregated society, and I was told it was God’s will that these races be segregated, that black people were morally inferior to white people, it was a, you know, white supremacist point of view. Those were the same people who told me these wonderful stories, biblical stories… And the stories survived the bigotry that existed in the culture in which I lived; and it was the story that shaped me, not the bigotry. So I’m grateful even to those who were so angry with black people for wanting their full and equal rights in the society. I’m grateful that they were able to teach me those stories, because I still hold on to them.[WG]: You’re listening to State of Belief Radio, brought to you by Interfaith Alliance. I’m Welton Gaddy. My guest is Rev. Jimmy Creech, a hero for the cause of LGBT equality in the Church, author of a fine new book called Adam’s Gift.
Jimmy, let’s talk about what brings you back to Nebraska this week. You’ve spoken at a number of events this past week, and I’m fascinated with the event that took place this past Tuesday, when you were observing National Coming Out Day on the lawn of your former church in Omaha, First United Methodist Church. There is something profoundly biblical about the fact that, one, you were not able to enter the sanctuary; and two, that the event had to be identified as an interfaith celebration for you, as I understand it, to be permitted to take part. Tell us what it’s like to return to Omaha under these circumstances?[JC]: Well, first of all, I was warmly welcomed by those who invited me to come, a very gracious welcome. It was an ecumenical, or actually, an interreligious event for National Coming Out Day that was sponsored by the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion, which is an ecumenical, interreligious group that is really working hard to make a witness in the middle part of the country, the midwest, for inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in religious communities and in society.
There was a wonderful attendance, so, just a great response for the event, and I was a part of it. I wasn’t like… It wasn’t just all about me. What this was about was about what is being done now and in the future, the vision they have of being fully inclusive; and I was able to be here, and to share that, and to speak a word of encouragement. I think my history here was, you know, contributed to a sense that we are on a journey and that the Promised Land is in sight. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re getting closer – and that is something to celebrate.[WG]: Jimmy, when you were standing there on that lawn, what was going on inside? [JC]: Well, I have to tell you that, first of all, I felt like I was back home again. I was with family. This congregation is not like just another congregation. We went through a tremendous amount together, even in a very short period of two years; and they are a gracious, wonderful, courageous congregation; and I felt like I was with family, I was at home. I was also thrilled to know that so much progress has been made since I was… Since the bishop would not allow me to stay, and I had to leave in 1998. A lot has happened. There are many more voices for justice and inclusion. And it was just a very satisfying event. I grieve that I was not able to be a part… I was not able to stay and remain with them on the journey they have been a part of, on their journey. But I am very grateful and proud of the witness that continues… That the congregation continues to make. [WG]: What have you done with anger, especially anger about the Church? [JC]: Well, I have been angry, I have felt hurt; but those have not been feelings that have endured very long, they have not been predominant feelings. I understand that I am involved in a long-term effort to bring about change. And any movement for change is going to experience… Or anyone involved in a movement for change is going to experience reaction, hurt, loss. That’s just a part of it. I have, you know, what I have lost, I’ve lost because of what I have done. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have lost things because of who they are. That’s a much more profound hurt. That is a personal… I mean, they are being hurt because of who they are. I don’t take what happens to me personally. It’s because of what I’m doing that I’m losing things. And that’s… There’s a significant difference there. [WG]: That’s a great, great insight. Recently, 900 Methodist pastors have pledged to defy Church rules and perform same gender marriages or unions. 2000 Methodist pastors have signed a demand that bishops enforce current Church rules. Can you talk about what’s happening within the Church, and you can go beyond the Methodist Church, what’s happening in the Church on this issue? [JC]: Well, I think within the United Methodist Church, there are folks who are very impatient with our General Conference. Our General Conference meets every four years, and it’s the body that makes the laws and rules for the Church and its teachings, decides on its teachings. And it has refused, since 1972, to remove the language in our law, in our book of discipline, that does harm to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
But there is growing impatience with the General Conference. People are being very creative in ways of defying the Church. We recently had a United Methodist pastor who was on trial in Wisconsin, the Rev. Amy DeLong. She had two charges brought against her. One, she was charged with being a lesbian. It’s interesting that someone would have a charge brought against you for being yourself… And then the second was, she was charged with conducting a holy union for a same-gender couple. The jury, who were her colleagues, all ordained United Methodists, brought back a verdict of not guilty in regard to her being a lesbian; and the reason they brought that verdict back was they had no proof that she had ever had sexual relationships with her spouse. And so they just refused; unless it got down to that kind of information, they were not going to convict her. So that was a creative kind of way of saying: “Ok, we’re just not going to put people on trial for their… You know, for this kind of stuff, or convict them.” And then they found her guilty of conducting the ceremony, and the penalty was 60 days suspension, and asked her to write a paper on how the clergy can better talk together and not let these things happen again, let trials happen again. So, you know, rather than take her credentials from her, they chose something that was, perhaps, creative and helpful to the annual Conference.[WG]: That’s great. [JC]: So, there are ways that folks are responding that are not as punitive; if they can’t change the law, they’re going to let the consequences of breaking that law much less profound. This is happening, too, in other denominations. [WG]: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from all of your years of activism, and the challenges that you faced and overcome over these years? [JC]: Well, there have been many profound ones. A really positive one that comes to my mind is that, when I was working with the North Carolina Council of Churches, we voted into membership the Metropolitan Community Church. We were the first state ecumenical body to vote into membership the Metropolitan Community Church. You know, the MCC has been trying to be a member of the National Council for 20 years or more, maybe as long as Troy… You know, the 43 years that MCC has existed, and it has been denied. And it was denied in other places, other states in terms of state ecumenical groups. But we were the first. We had a wonderful process that we went through, we had people speak strongly in support of it, people recognized that we might lose some of our long-term members who might be upset; but the motion to approve the membership application from the MCC was made by a Roman Catholic priest, and it was overwhelmingly supported. That was a great moment. [WG]: Rev. Jimmy Creech, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you being with us today on State of Belief Radio. I will say to you on the air what I have said to you face-to-face more than once: thank you for sharing your story, thank you for your pilgrimage, thank you for your continued work in this area. The book that you’ve written, Adam’s Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays, is a marvelous contribution to this whole thought and history, and I’m grateful that you wrote it. The author is Rev. Jimmy Creech, a legendary leader in the struggle of LBGT rights, within and beyond the Church. Jimmy, thanks for being here. [JC]: Welton, it was my pleasure. Thank you very, very much.