I have just come from a funeral for my Presbyterian church. I’ve cried less at funerals of dear friends. Every hymn, every scripture, every memory, every familiar and unfamiliar face made me want to weep inconsolably, tugging at the proverbial heart strings. I held back, lest I terrify those around me. Blessed I was to be surrounded by longtime friends who felt much the same.
The sanctuary of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church was packed with many generations of its membership for the final service, April 3, 2016. The only other times I’ve seen it filled was for its 100th anniversary a few years ago and in 1994, for my then partner’s and my “Ceremony of the Heart.”
A love story always has a beginning, even with a church. When Mark King and I moved to Atlanta in 1993 for his job as executive director of AIDS Survival Project, we began looking for a church home where we could be open and honest about our relationship. We visited several welcoming congregations, but we found ourselves drawn to the small Presbyterian congregation at the corner of Woodland and Delaware. We moved to the neighborhood, Ormewood Park, largely because of the church.
The members were warm and friendly, both young and old, maybe especially the elderly. There was already a handful of gay and lesbian members and leaders of the church. It would be several years before it formally became one of the few More Light churches in the South, at Mark’s urging in a letter to its Session.
The pastor, Peter Denlea, a retired Navy bomber pilot for whom this was a second career, grappled personally with scriptures in every sermon—still a scrapper from his days as an Irish Catholic youth in Boston’s Southie neighborhood. During worship, he would invite us all to wrestle with a biblical text until it blessed us. The congregation was enjoying a renaissance.
Peter eagerly created and celebrated our “Ceremony of the Heart” with “God’s glorious gadfly” and LGBT/AIDS activist Howard Warren on October 30, 1994. My dear friend Michael Morgan served as organist. The congregation turned out in full, and that, with Mark’s family from Shreveport and our friends (many attending an AIDS conference in the city that weekend) filled the sanctuary.
When other Presbyterian pastors got wind of it, they called Peter to account, urging the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta to reprimand him and nullify our blessing, which, as then Central Presbyterian pastor Ted Wardlaw told me at the time, was “like trying to undo the ringing of a bell.” This gave Peter a chance on the floor of presbytery—like his namesake in regard to baptizing Gentiles in Acts 10 & 11—to defend his decision and us by giving a persuasive speech that prompted a resounding ovation and a refusal to press charges.
Today, as he left for his assisted living facility, where he still offers a friendly touch and ear to his neighbors, Peter—as straight as God can make a man—kissed me full on the lips in saying goodbye.
The church went on to be served by several capable pastors, but Peter was a hard act to follow. They continued his welcoming legacy by later attracting transgender members, thanks to one-time parish associate, Erin Swenson. We were grateful that she led us in a conversation in place of a sermon on the Sunday following 9/11.
Though I liked the congregation, I began to feel that formal worship was not the best way for us to be a spiritual community. Then I was given opportunities to serve others spiritually in a way I could not serve Presbyterians. Thanks to OPPC, I stayed on the rolls as a member even as I served Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community and subsequently, MCC, and now as your progressive Christian blogger!
Perhaps my grief is deepened by feelings of loss of the entire denomination, whose timid and tepid “welcome” of LGBT people is much less than hoped for in my 40+ years of activism within it. I am dissatisfied that it still protects the “conscience” of those who oppose us, those same people who refused to protect the conscience of our supporters. Prejudice and bigotry have no right of conscience in my possibly jaundiced view. (Grey Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn said that the advantage of being a “senior” is that you can say what you really think!)
Though the presbytery plans a “re-branding” of OPPC, which makes me think of branding cattle, Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church will also be a hard act to follow. Its members and leaders and pastors should be proud of its ministry and witness and service.
For me personally, the church not only celebrated that “ceremony of the heart,” but supported me through the brokenness of my heart when my relationship with Mark ended and my mother died within weeks of each other.
Churches are the repositories of memorable life events of all they’ve welcomed. That hallows them, and gives us a taste of the eternal.
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Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.