Still Blazing Trails for Gay People, Detroit Metropolitan Community Church Celebrates 50 Years
In April 2000, I traveled to our nation’s capital as a junior reporter for this publication to cover the Millennium March on Washington. I had been in office for less than a year and had only been to Washington for the second time in my life. Not only would I be a witness and report what I saw, but I would be participating in a historic protest for LGBTQ+ rights.
There I was assigned to write about a mass wedding led by the Reverend Dr. Troy Perry, who founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) in 1968 – a year before Stonewall – in Los Angeles. Just outside the Lincoln Memorial, Perry has “married” thousands of couples, although full marriage equality in the country is still 15 years away.
I photographed Perry and all of his MCC leaders that day, including the Reverend Dr. Nancy Wilson, who would become Perry’s hand-picked replacement for MCC moderator when he resigned five years after the walking.
Wilson’s journey to become MCC’s world leader brought her to Detroit in late 1975. She was ordained MCC minister about three years earlier in Boston. When the call came that MCC-Detroit (MCC-D), which was founded in 1972 by late activists John Kavanagh, Jim Toy, Larry Hawkins and Joe Aubit, was looking for its first official pastor, she and her partner from the time, Reverend. Heather Anderson answered the call and drove unseen to Detroit, where they were inducted as the first couple to co-past an MCC church.
Although his tenure at CMC-D was relatively short – just over four years – it was an important and impactful time. After all, that was just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Wilson told me about those pivotal years when she was part of a small group of leaders speaking out for LGBTQ+ rights in the Detroit metro just before delivering the sermon and accepting the honor to be named pastor emeritus at the 50th anniversary of MCC-D. birthday service Sunday, September 18.
Wilson remembers appearing on the radio often — and even once on the local TV talk show “Kelly & Company” — often to be met with open hostility. But it was the only way to make the church known. At the time, there were few LGBTQ+ support groups in the state, no LGBTQ+ community centers, and no LGBTQ+ community newspapers. There was no internet, no social media. Time spent on radio and television was essential in letting people know the church existed. “It was important,” Wilson said of his efforts to promote the fledgling church. “It started to attract people. They started to find us.
While still in her first year at the church, Wilson vividly remembered the time one of her followers was killed right after leaving a gay bar. “He was bullied, then beaten, then dragged behind a car.” An obvious hate crime, even though that phrase didn’t yet exist, Wilson was horrified by the murder. But even more by what happened right after. Friends of the victim colluded with local police, she said, to hide her sexuality from her parents, going so far as to remove items from her home before her family arrived. “It doesn’t matter that he was murdered. The worst thing – worse than being murdered – would be if they find out he’s gay.
Wilson, at that time, saw no other option but to keep it a secret. “I just remember feeling so guilty and awful,” she said.
Wilson saw mass vice stings in Hyde Park and men who lost their jobs as a result and some who even committed suicide. She led a vigil when San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, was shot and killed in 1978.
Yes, Wilson did a lot of work during her time here, until Perry orchestrated her election to MCC’s international leadership and left the state.
By 1980, she had left Michigan and was on her way to becoming one of MCC’s most influential leaders. She took with her quite a memory in the form of Paula Schoenwether, whom she met when she was pastoral at the church. The two had a holy union at MCC-D in 1977 and will celebrate their 45th anniversary in November.
I first heard Wilson speak at the installation service of Reverend Dr. Roland Stringfellow, current senior pastor and teacher at MCC-D, eight years ago in 2014. She is a gifted speaker and I was delighted to worship with her. again at the 50th anniversary celebration. Much has changed since his days in Detroit – in his life and in the world. MCC is now a worldwide ministry. As a moderator, Wilson has seen a lot of growth in her 11 years at the helm. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships. Three years later, she was recognized by HuffPost as one of 50 “powerful faith leaders…changing the world” in honor of International Women’s Month.
After Obama’s re-election, Wilson gave a scripture reading at the inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. DC – the first openly gay clergy to participate. She has authored several books to date, including Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus and the Christian Scriptures (LifeJourney Press) and Outing the Church: 40 years in the Queer Christian Movement (LifeJourney Press) , and she’s appeared in several anthologies and as a frequent contributor to HuffPost and others.
Today, Wilson is still a pastor. This time at SunCoast MCC Cathedral in Venice, Florida. Despite the current state of the country – Roe v. With Wade canceled and women’s reproductive rights in jeopardy as well as threats to marriage equality – Wilson said she’s still optimistic about the future. “There’s a group of people who still hate us just as much as they used to,” she told me. “But I think, and you know, maybe I’m wrong about that, [that] the vast majority of people in our country came to a different place, [thanks to] LGBT people are coming out of the closet.
Wilson said now everyone knows someone under the rainbow umbrella and the younger generation is turning away from fundamentalism and conservative religion. It is this same generation that she finds to be overwhelmingly supportive of marriage and LGBTQ+ rights.
Meanwhile, around the world, new MCC congregations are continually forming. MCC currently has churches in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. There are more than a dozen MCC churches in Brazil alone.
Most touching for Wilson of the change she has seen over the years is “the enormous diversity and variety that has the freedom to emerge.” She said it was more than she ever imagined, which is saying a lot. Like MCC-D, Wilson has been leading the way for 50 years. Just days ago, she told me, she spoke to MCC founder Rev. Dr. Troy Perry, with whom she often reflects on the progress that has been made.
“He likes to say, ‘I just started a church because I needed to go to church,'” Wilson said with the same humble smile that had been on his face throughout our interview. “I think he was surprised too. Sometimes I shake my head and think, ‘I can’t believe this all happened.’ »