Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“I Love to Tell the Story”

An hour-long teleconference with

Nancy Wilson

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Mary E. Hunt Intro: What a pleasure to welcome my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson to our WATERtalk. Nancy is well known to many colleagues in progressive religion. I consider her a world-class religious leader in the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) in which she has served as a pastor, Elder, and before her retirement two years ago, as the second Moderator following the founder Troy Perry. She is also highly regarded as an ecumenical/inter-religious leader and as a tireless social justice advocate.

For any who do not know the MCC, the denomination started in 1968 as a place for lesbian and gay Christians to ‘be’ church when other denominations were unwelcoming. It is now, fifty years later, a denomination with global reach, including colleagues in a wide range of countries/regions in what it calls “a global movement of spiritually and sexually diverse people who are fully awake to God’s enduring love.” Click here to learn more about MCC. Nancy will say more about this and her long decades of work to minister in hopes of a world where racism, sexism, homo and trans hating are things of the past.

Nancy came to her leadership work with a BA from Allegheny College, an MDiv from SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan (a Roman Catholic seminary), a Doctorate in Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, which later gave her an Honorary Doctorate in Divinity. She worked creatively to bring the MCC into conversation with other Christian churches through the World Council of Churches, building international community especially among queer folks. She has served churches in Boston, Detroit, and Florida and was recently elected to be Co-Senior Pastor of SunCoast Cathedral MCC in Venice, FL.

She says of herself: “My Purpose in life is to share the message of God’s amazing grace, in a way that is engaging and inspiring in an intersectional, contemporary way. And to lift up the liberating, life-saving and history-making story of Metropolitan Community Churches and our movement for spiritual and social change.”

Today we will discuss her book I Love to tell the Story: 100+ Stories of Justice, Inclusion, and Hope (Books to Believe In, 2016) that is a kind of capstone project about her decades on ministry. Except it isn’t because her ministry is far from finished as parishioners in Venice, FL and other places where she preaches and ministers know.

When the book came out, we at WATER blurbed in on our website saying: “Nancy Wilson displays the mind of a scholar, the heart of an activist, the soul of a pastor, and the insight of a good administrator. Hospitality is her middle name. Her ministry unfolds as a vital chapter in church history. This collection shows how both the Bible read critically and everyday pastoral work in a welcoming church give religion a good queer name.”

You can listen to a WATER Podcast from last year with Nancy Wilson and Lauren Bennett representing different generations of MCC leadership in “A Church for All” as MCC is known. Click here to listen.

I speak without hyperbole and with affection when I say that Nancy Wilson is the consummate pastor, a marvelous storyteller and preacher, and a distinguished colleague whom I consider it a singular honor and blessing to know and call a friend.

Welcome, Nancy. We look forward to your words.

Nancy Wilson: I wrote this book three years ago as a parting gift (I was the moderator for MCC for eleven years) in thanksgiving for the amazing opportunity MCC gave me starting forty-six years ago. MCC gave me the opportunity to live my life wholly as a lesbian feminist woman in ministry in a Christian culture and context. I was able to do my work with creativity and courage to change the world. MCC believed in me early when I was only twenty-two years old and gave me the opportunity to help shape the church.

The book was a way to capture some of the themes of pastoring whether it is talking about weddings/funerals, activism, confronting the church about sexuality issues, and encounters with the White House. It is about what one deals with these things as a pastor and an activist – which are both part of one another.

I am particularly grateful for those who accepted a call to be MCC pastors, especially women pastors in MCC, who have given themselves to our movement and project of bringing new levels of justice and hope to people. I think of MCC as both a sanctuary and a disruptor for people. In many ways we are a sanctuary for people fleeing fundamentalism or authoritarian religious backgrounds or for those who are simply in search of a spiritual connection. At the same time, even our smallest churches are there in their communities to disrupt the status quo and to call communities to be more inclusive.

I am a storyteller. As a preacher, I think story telling makes the Gospels alive. When I wrote this book, I made a list of stories and I had to be selective because I had hundreds to choose from. I think of the stories and the people from the stories lived within me. Therefore, getting them out on paper was really therapeutic for me.

The situation we were in during the 1970s was that LGBTQ people were considered a criminal class. Sometimes we forget that. The fact is that in many places in the world that is still the case. People paid a terrible price for that label and status of criminality and many elderly LGBTQ people still live with those affects. Furthermore, we (LGTBQ people) were labeled as mentally ill and immoral by the church. Overcoming all of this is an amazing story in the 21st century. To be a part of that story shaping and disrupting faith communities has been the joy of my life. I am back to pastoring part time in Venice, FL and I still love telling stories and preaching in order to help our community to become disruptors of the status quo.

There are three stories I chose for this talk. The first is (pages 40-42), “ It May as Well Have Been a Million.” In the middle of the 80s and 90s pastoring at MCC in Los Angeles in a very urban setting, the biggest challenge we were facing was HIV/AIDS. In a time where there were no adequate treatment and people were dying at an enormous rate this issue became the focus of our church resulting in coping and building community in the midst of that crises. In the middle of that, we experienced an earthquake and lost our building.

I tell the story of Frank who was a person who lived on the streets around the church with whom we had a transactional relationship. He was our unofficial night watchman and he was able to panhandle at the church and to feel like we were a safe community. This is a story about how we (Frank and I) built a connection beyond the transactional into some kind of community.

As a community of marginal people, we were attracted to and given the opportunity to be in connection with others who were marginalized for different reasons (this is true for all MCC churches across the world). As a women pastor I think that sometimes women give more than we can. I think many people during the 80s and 90s had to deal with this. I tell the story of how Frank touched my heart one evening.

I saw him approaching the church and my heart sank thinking that he was going to ask me for money and I didn’t have anything to give him when instead he smiled and gave me five dollars and told me that he had had a wonderful day. I don’t know what it meant or what it was that had happened in his day, but it humbled me and I said his five dollars might as well have been a million dollars. I felt in that moment the transformation that had occurred between us–how his mutuality and his love for the church and for me was transformative. That is the great gift of being able to be a pastor or a leader in a community that is attempting to reach out and touch people.

The second story is of Jamaica (pages 85-87) “Paying the Price in Jamaica.” At one point, we became aware through an article in the New York Times of the terrible status of LGBTQ people there. I had the opportunity for another encounter with a young man named Gareth. Brian Williamson who was an activist in Jamaica and leader of JFLAG was murdered for being a gay man. It fell to his roommate Gareth to be his successor in a lethally homophobic culture. The reasons for homophobia in Jamaica stem to the colonial history and rule there. I found myself being invited to be present to accompany people in Jamaica who were in need of a safe space and spiritual community. I learned so much about the courage and powerful witness of LGBTQ people in Jamaica who risked their lives every day to change their own culture. Gareth eventually had to flee Jamaica for his life because they were going to kill him for his activism. He now lives in Toronto and has made a wonderful adjustment there in an expat community of Jamaicans and is still a leader in his community.

I have gratitude for the ways in which I have been able to meet people from around the world from Jamaica, Romania, Africa, and Asia who are providing sanctuary and also disrupting the cultural norms that they have lived with. I am grateful for the ways in which faith and religion have played a part for them in overturning the oppression they experienced. I think some of our best work through MCCs Global Justice Institute has been to help LGBTQ refugees, with people who have had to flee their countries for their lives. I think this is another untold story that is happening in our world. The people in MCC are working to make a global community.

The last story I chose is (pages 182-185) “Rage, Obscenity and the King James Bible.” This is a story of a women pastor Rev. Jane Clarke who started her life vocationally as a union organizer. In an art class, she decided (quite innocently) to take a large version of a King James Bible and offered it publicly inviting people to write in the margins their needs, feelings, and relationship with the Bible. It became this enormous media crisis because thousands of people came from all over to write in the Bible.

What they wrote was often rage, anger, obscenity, and yearning. I think Jane felt she was naïve in not realizing how much pent up anger and hostility there was but also moved that people would take the time to come and do this because of their yearning for religion that was different and for healing. Jane said her greatest disappointment was in how the church reacted to this. Pope Benedict XVI said that what had happened was disgusting. I don’t think he ever said that word of pedophile priests but never mind. Writing in the King James Bible does not take away people’s childhood or lives. I think it is the classic example of MCC as a disruptor and there at the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible they played a role in helping people express their feelings and get healing. In fact, it was on display at the Anglican Sheffield Cathedral as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible. It is a great story of the deep needs that so many people have to reconcile their faith and their lives to make it whole.



Q: Most creative and effective resistance has come from marginalized people – where did you get the courage personally during the 70s to do what you have done? To what do you attribute your own courage?

A: I was a shy person especially around sexuality issues. I was 22 years old and I had a strong sense of idealism – I had been shaped by the civil rights movement and the anti- war movement. I thought that young people could change the world, it was very hard but it could happen therefore I applied that to myself.

First, having inspirational people as a young person in MCC like Troy Perry and Freda Smith and many others who were really out there and courageous was important. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to start MCC, but I had the courage to join and to make it my own. I was so attracted to the freedom I found in MCC (I was a Methodist); the freedom was like an energy drink and gave me what I needed. A certain amount of being naïve when you are that age helped and I had a strong love for those early friends, colleagues, and people who were doing the same thing. The fact that others were on this journey gave me courage.

Q: We were both in Boston in 1972—you with a Rockefeller grant to go to seminary and I at HDS (Harvard Divinity School). We were breathing the same air and you had the wisdom to move away from a homophobic place, Boston University School of Theology, in those days and end up in a progressive Methodist place with an Adrian Dominican nun who gave you shelter. How did that experience shape your sense of ecumenical/inter-religious work?  

A: I grew up in Long Island, New York with mostly Catholics and Jews. Being a Protestant was a minority growing up which I think made me curious of people with different faiths and church backgrounds. I went to Boston University School of Theology

and from there I got an opportunity to go to Detroit, Michigan. It was in Michigan where I met a Methodist pastor who introduced me to the school that Anneliese Sinnott, OP, was the assistant dean. It was the perfect school for me to complete my Masters in Divinity. They really shepherded me through to finish my degree. I felt like these people were like guardians and step-parents who helped me to make decisions about my education when I was still in my 20s and thought I knew it all and didn’t.

They gave me the gift of being able to complete education and understand Catholic culture from a different perspective. Those were the days when many nuns were getting their Masters in Divinity and doctoral degrees in hopes of being ordained. I was watching them and trying to look at their optimism coming out of Vatican II and it was fertile ground. I never studied the Documents of Vatican II until I went to that seminary and it opened my progressive Catholic and liberation theology. It was an antidote to fundamentalism that is still working in many Protestant churches. I met many friends there that opened my eyes to a broader world.

Q: What kind of advice would you offer LGBT affirming Christians in North America who want to begin engaging LGBT populations outside of North America?

A: First, to understand that we are not here to export something and that what we can do as we engage is to try to find someway to understand the realities and particular gifts and religious context of people in different cultures. Understanding that there will be similarities to our own struggles and there will be enormous differences. The worst thing I have seen is when people believe they know what is best for other people. We always have to step back from that and we need to be invited and not presume. The most important thing is to listen before we act, never act without feeling very clearly that our actions or support are welcome and not harmful in any way. There are these moments of incredible joy when we can transcend and realize differences. We really have to be prepared, humble, and willing to learn.

Q: With some liberalism entering religious traditions how are queer people finding a different spiritual place?

A: Are we in a post Christian era? How is Christianity itself imploding and how will it emerge? Many people today are claiming that they are spiritual and not religious. They do this because religion has done damage and is considered dangerous – because of the patriarchal and colonial nature of many religions. I do think that there is great fertile ground now for people to get out of their labels. There is great movement among progressive evangelicals who are seeing commonality among values of human justice, love, and peace. I think movements like ours help to create interconnections between people of different traditions. Interfaith opportunities and understanding the richness of other faiths is important.

Religion is either the most profound cause of violence and oppression or it can be an amazing force for human values that transcends differences. For spiritual adventurers we will encounter other similar spirits and make common cause with them.

Q: I loved the story of your mother kissed by President Obama. Can you say what it feels like now during the Trump years for religious leaders? I honestly don’t see much of a role anymore—it used to be that White House access switched from left to right with the elections—Maureen Shea was stellar in including all of us during the Clinton years. But now I see so little religious anything in the White House…what does that mean?

A: We have a president that is dismantling the White House and the entire apparatus. Why does he need religious advisors, except for the evangelicals who lay their hands on him? Trump cannot stand the evangelicals and does not value religion in any shape or form except for in the way that it can be used.

I had the rare privilege of being moderator for MCC during President Obama’s time. At a place where people of faith were regarded, respected, and looked too. There was a real consideration and role in our civic life. All of those norms are being disregarded now and we just pray they can be recovered at some point.

Q: Sanctuary and disruption – they have been spinning through me as I listen to you. How do you see us being sanctuary and disrupters today in 2019?

A: First, both those tracks need to continue and how they continue may change. How are we creating sanctuary or safety? Recently in Venice, FL we did a public thing in talking about the Bible as an ally or adversary. We had a huge group of Baptists come seeking community and answers for a beloved member who was a lesbian. These are people who have no vocabulary for LGBTQ people and they came with open hearts and questions. In a time of great divisiveness, I think it is important to find subversive ways to reach to people with whom we might not ordinarily have conversations. We have to educate and open people’s hearts to conversation and dialogue. I am amazed by what people still think and believe. I have to learn from what they have experienced and what their journey is telling them.

Even in ways to be disruptive. Being disruptive in the Obama Administration is different than being disruptive in the Trump era. You have to seek different platforms and find different tools. I think many women are feeling despair and powerless right now – how do we move against that despair? How do we both remember and reorient ourselves? More than ever we need ritual, liturgy, and music to inspire us.

Q: In a male-founded organization until you led the church, what was it like being a woman in ministry, a pioneer, and a feminist? How did you manage not to clean up after men? Was the HIV/AIDS crisis when so many men of our cohort died a shaping force?

 A: Early in MCC there were powerful women, lesbians were out there in the face of men. These men had privilege but had been broken by the patriarchy in many ways. I would confess that we were never asked to clean up after men or that we never did. I think we were able to move in quickly and be in powerful positions to prevent things or make things different. To younger women: you are dealing with thousands of years of an established patriarchal hierarchy that is determined not to be overthrown. Perhaps in a much smaller organization it is an easier task to achieve than it is in dealing with the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Nancy Wilson: Keep on keeping on! The work you are doing right now is more important and valuable than ever. People need hope that is based on the values of love and justice. Let’s keep doing it.

WATER thanks Nancy Wilson for this profound and informed presentation.

Please join us for our next teleconference, Wednesday, February 6, 2019 from 1PM – 2PM “Glorious Sex” with Patricia Beattie Jung. Register Here!