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Queerly Beloved

[whitespace] Pastor David Harvey
Dai Sugano

Out and Devout: Pastor David Harvey leads Christian songs with visitors during a church service at the Billy DeFrank Center in San Jose.

Where do you go when you love Jesus as well as your own gender? To the flock of a gay Pentecostal preacher who loves Siegfried and Roy, or one of the growing number of churches that minister to gay Christian Soldiers.

By Kelly Luker

'THIS IS THE DAY the Lord has made!" shouts Pastor David Harvey from behind his electric organ. A chorus of "hallelujah" and "praise Jesus" greets him in response. Within moments, his congregation of about 30 or 40 are on their feet, palms turned upward in praise. The industrial carpet is worn and the ceiling tiles are stained with age, but no matter--this nondescript conference room vibrates with faith enough to light up the Sistine Chapel.

This is Celebration of Faith, a Pentecostal service that electrifies with its infectious joy and love. But there are clues that Celebration of Faith may not be like the Pentecostal churches of the deep South that shaped Robert Duvall's character in The Apostle.

While praise and upbeat music, Bible-thumping and talking in tongues are part and parcel of the service, so is the reminder from the pulpit about finalizing plans for the annual gay-pride parade. And this service is held in the Billy DeFrank Community Center, San Jose's gay and lesbian center.

Harvey's parish may be one of the few gay/lesbian/transgendered Pentecostal parishes in existence. "We're a minority within a minority," Harvey laughs, which he does a lot. During the service, he is moved to tears by a testimonial of God's healing, but the pastor who was originally ordained with the fundamentalist Assembly of God churches is also funny, campy and flamboyant.

During the announcements, Harvey fills his parishioners in on a recent trip to Las Vegas. There were the fabulous costumes of the "gay boys," as Harvey calls Siegfried and Roy, who it is rumored recently got a divorce. Then there was the pirate floor show with all those fabulous wet bodies. A few heartfelt "amen"s and "yes, Lord"s punctuate Harvey's travelogue. And Harvey admits he managed to take in a couple of drag shows before flying home.

Hovering somewhere between surreal and sacrilegious, the moment manages to touch down right where it's supposed to--in the heart. Harvey's parishioners adore him, but they know he's just a conduit to the Big Guy.

"We're just Bible-believing people," Harvey tells me. "We celebrate the life Jesus gives us and preach that Jesus is Lord."

Conversion Aversion

THESE ARE GAYS AND lesbians, but they do not need or want healing for their sexual orientation. Instead, they are reaching out for a power that can heal damages left by a Christian-dominated society that has cast them out as "abominations." Ironically, the only power strong enough to do the job, these men and women are convinced, is Christ Himself.

Lord knows, organized religion and homosexuality make for strange bedfellows. But sometimes there's nowhere else for spirit-hungry gays and lesbians to turn than the church next door. And slowly, ever so slowly, those big oak doors are creaking open in response.

It's not easy tuning into the original message of unconditional love beneath the hate-mongering rhetoric or waffling by some conservative and traditional denominations. A fair number of Christians--Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and their antecedents--have been busy the last couple of millennia reinterpreting the founder's basic premise to exclude gays.

Harvey knows that his Sunday service is full of people who have been thrown out by their own churches, sometimes physically. Like Harvey, most come from Pentecostal backgrounds.

"I have a lot of people with a lot of baggage that I have to work with," the pastor admits. "I stress that if God knew you in your mother's womb and you're gay, why are you trying to question what you are?"

But Harvey had to leave the Assembly of God churches in 1986 to do his own questioning, to explore being gay and Christian before it destroyed him. Then he started asking God what to do about it.

"God told me to establish something for the gays and lesbians," Harvey says of the spiritual awakening that came as an answer, and so Celebration of Faith was born.

This morning, several parishioners stand and give testimony. Dolores Dickerson, who was born male, testifies to her various afflictions being healed after a laying on of hands. Rick witnesses to the breakthrough in protease inhibitors, which has allowed his AIDS-impacted immune system to partially recover.

"God hears our prayers," Rick says. "And God answers all."

Then Celebration of Faith's treasurer, Ross Parlette, passes the collection plate. Tall, with graying hair and wearing a business suit and tie, Parlette looks like a distinguished deacon in a small-town Baptist church. Which he was at one time.

He left the Baptist church in 1969 after coming out. Within two weeks he was attending San Francisco's Metropolitan Community Church. But Parlette hungered for a more traditional church.

"I'm a religious conservative," explains the retired computer programmer. And San Francisco's MCC was "not a hotbed of biblical teaching," he adds dryly. Parlette cottons to the traditional practice of Christianity--no guitars, no New Age philosophy.

"Besides being gay," Parlette likes to joke, "I'm pretty straight."

Ken McKee
Love Thy Neighbor: Ken McKee, 67, prays during a church service at the Billy DeFrank gay and lesbian center.

Cross to Bear

THE METROPOLITAN Community Church is the most visible place of community worship for Christian gays and lesbians, but almost every mainline denomination has developed official--and sometimes unofficial--organizations that are attempting to reach out to them.

The Catholic Church offers an organization called Dignity, Lutherans have Lutherans Concerned, Presbyterians have Inner Light, and Episcopalians have Integrity--all are groups formed to reach out to gays and lesbians.

The Rev. Jean Hart is pastor of Lavender Road, the Santa Cruz branch of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a worldwide denomination begun in 1968 to give gay and lesbian Christians a safe haven in which to worship.

"It was a place for gays and lesbians to go until the mainstream churches got it together," explains Hart, yoked with a thin gold chain and a cross emblazoned in the center with an upside-down pink triangle.

But it's been 30 years, and the mainstream churches still haven't gotten it together, which raises the question: why would gays and lesbians want to be part of a religion that appears to want to have nothing to do with them? It's an interesting juxtaposition, considering that the fellow the religion was named after spent most of his time hanging with the outcasts and oppressed.

It's a paradox that people like John Phillips, David Harvey and Ross Parlette don't quite understand themselves. But each has been tapped by the Holy Spirit and, against all odds, found a home with some of the most conservative practices in Christianity.

'IT'S TOUGH," says Phillips, an associate pastor with Lavender Road. "You go to a church, and you really like the people, but you know you can't come out, and inevitably the pastor condemns people just like you. Then the gay community condemns you for being a traitor if you're Christian."

Phillips is describing not just the struggles of others but his own faltering steps toward Lavender Road. A self-described "effeminate" child, Phillips was the after-school punching bag for his schoolmates in Georgia, where he grew up. After one time too many, the young boy rode his bicycle into the woods and begged Jesus to take him away: he no longer wanted to live. He's not sure what happened next--a vision, a visitation, who knows?--but Phillips recognized it for what it was: "a massive born-again experience."

Phillips couldn't shake the Spirit, and as he grew older he took to witnessing like only a born-again can. When he was in his 20s, Phillips hoisted a 12-by-6-foot wooden cross on his back and walked from Atlanta to San Antonio, where he was ordained a pastor with the fundamentalist Calvary Chapel sect.

Phillips always knew he liked men, not women, and when he finally broke the news to his church, he was shown the door. The next couple of decades he scoured the scrolls of Eastern religions and sweated in the sacred lodges of Native Americans, but "Christianity was always my home," he says.

The one-time Calvary pastor finally came home to his original faith this January, after attending Metropolitan Community Church sporadically for years. The occasion was a particularly powerful charismatic service that healed Phillips of a crippling illness that had left him virtually bedridden for years. Phillips now assists Hart in offering Communion, healing, blessing and praying with his parishioners.

"Some of the most devout Christians I've met in my life are gay," observes Phillips, a big, burly man with rainbow suspenders. "God is much bigger than any religion."

Fundamentalist Rights

ALTHOUGH THE CHASM between gays and organized religion seems impossibly vast, Vaughn Beckman sees signs of hope. Beckman is the executive director for the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County, a network of 100 churches in Silicon Valley committed to social justice. A graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Beckman left his role as education minister of a San Jose Baptist church in 1989 in order to take a hard look at his sexuality and theology.

Now openly gay, Beckman has gathered a list of 50 churches in the Silicon Valley region that are open and affirming to gays and lesbians. Out of 800 churches, that is still a mere drop in the bucket, but he believes it is a start.

Beckman also taught a class at the DeFrank Center on the Bible and homosexuality, which he says was one of the largest attended classes in the history of the center. He also notes that one of the bestselling books in gay bookstores is What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, by Daniel Helminak.

Perhaps those latter two are merely indications that gays and lesbians want to learn how to fight fire with brimstone. But Beckman has faith that change--although it moves glacially--is on the horizon.

"I don't think this is unlike other social justice issues," Beckman says. "Churches tend to be the last to deal with those kinds of issues." He points to Christianity's stance on slavery, racial issues and women's rights.

But folks like Hart, Harvey and Beckman figure the only way to claim their piece of the cross is to pull up a front-row pew.

"There's a lot of hypocrisy in the church, and it's time for the church to wake up," Beckman says. "It creates a real pain for people struggling with these issues, and I don't think that's what God wants for us. He wants us to be whole people.

"And," he adds, "free from that hypocrisy."

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From the June 24-30, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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