|Jimmy Creech at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, NC. (Photo by Natalia Weedy)|
This post was originally published on my Invictus Pilgrim blog in June 2001. As I mentioned in my last post on this blog, I met Jimmy Creech in April 2011 while visiting my sister in Durham, North Carolina.
In May 1984, a closeted gay man in a small town in southeastern North Carolina went to see the pastor of his United Methodist congregation. The man – “Adam” – was upset and announced that he was leaving the church. When the pastor asked why, Adam replied that he could no longer be part of a church “that thinks that I’m some kind of pervert.”
In the exchange that followed, the pastor – Rev. Jimmy Creech – learned that Adam was gay and that he was upset at the new policy, just adopted by the United Methodist Church, which prohibited the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” “I don’t want to be ordained,” Adam said. “But I don’t want to be told I can’t be because I’m gay. I’m just as moral as anybody, just as good a Christian.”
Before that meeting, Rev. Creech had not known any “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” After that meeting, he would never be the same. Creech later wrote:
“That morning, Adam revealed to me a hidden world of oppression in which people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual suffer an insidious violence disguised as Christian morality that attacks their very beings, their very souls. It’s a reality created and sustained by the claim that gay people are sick, sinful and criminal, a claim that is declared to be God’s truth in pulpits, courtrooms, workplaces and schoolrooms …The cruelest aspect of this hidden world is that gay people internalize these demeaning proclamations and hate themselves for simply being who they are. It’s a world they cannot escape and have little defense against, except to hide their sexuality and pretend to be someone they are not, or to end their lives.”
Jimmy Creech cared enough about Adam that he decided he couldn’t simply sit back and do nothing. He challenged his own conventional education, religious upbringing and beliefs and began an intensive study of what the Bible did and did not have to say about homosexuality and researched the latest scientific findings concerning homosexuality.
As a result of his Biblical studies and other research, Rev. Creech came to the conclusion that it was unjust and immoral for the church to maintain anti-LGBT policies and positions. In the years that followed, he became an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights within his own United Methodist denomination as well as the Christian community generally.
Rev. Creech’s official ministry as an ordained Methodist minister came to an abrupt end in 1999 when he was “defrocked” in the second of two trials conducted by the Methodist Church in the late 1990’s. He was put on trial the first time for conducting a covenant ceremony between two lesbians at the church in Omaha, Nebraska where he was then pastor, and his second trial resulted from him participating in a similar service involving a gay couple in North Carolina.
After he was expelled from the ministry, Creech joined the board of Soulforce – an organization that resists religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people through dialogue and creative forms of nonviolent direct action – where he served as Chairman for five years. Creech remains active in several organizations that campaign for LGBTQ equality and has recently published an account of his life and ministry, Adam's Gift which opens with that meeting in 1984 and culminates in his second trial and its immediate aftermath.
Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Jimmy Creech. I was traveling in the East and read an article about him in a local paper and was intrigued. The next morning, I visited a local bookshop and saw a flyer indicating that he would be doing a reading and book-signing of Adam’s Gift the following evening. I purchased a copy of his book and began reading, looking forward to meeting him the next day.
Speaking as someone who has not only lived in the closet his entire life (until a few months ago) but has also lived the relatively insular life of an active devout Mormon, I was frankly “blown away” as I read Creech’s book, starting with the account of his investigation of the Biblical passages that are usually used to bash gays and of what modern science is contributing to a better understanding of homosexuality.
“It is not behavior that determines and defines a person’s sexual orientation. Rather, sexual orientation is an essential aspect of personality that predisposes a person to be sexually attracted to one-or both, in the case of bisexuals – of the two genders, whether or not the person is sexually active … Orientation does not begin and end with sex acts. It is a constant and vital part of who a person is, encompassing erotic attraction, affection, and bonding, as well as genital activity.”
Wow! To see that in print, written by a ordained minister in a mainline Protestant faith, was indescribably affirming to me after living in a faith/church for most of my adult life that has denied that “sexual orientation” even exists! I felt like I had just gulped in fresh, clean air after having been locked up in an airless crate.
Creech then goes on to describe how, once his intellectual and theological barriers to an acceptance of homosexuality had fallen, he then had to face and overcome another barrier:
“… the emotional resistance of my culturally conditioned assumptions about healthy sexuality, assumptions shaped more by fear and misinformation than by knowledge and understanding. Deep within my psyche, fighting against my new knowledge, as an irrational revulsion to the idea of men having sex with men … It would take much more time and work before this barrier would fall, too. That would happen because of the humanity, dignity and integrity of people like Adam whom I would get to know. Books changed my mind. These people changed my heart.”
|Jimmy Creech at a Soulforce event in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1999. (Photo from Soulforce Archives)|
The people who helped change Jimmy’s heart were initially located in Raleigh, North Carolina. A few years after his meeting with Adam, he became pastor of a large Methodist church in Raleigh. Here, he put his newly acquired knowledge into action. He marched in his first gay pride parade. He helped found the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality. He met and ministered to men dying of AIDS. He worked to make his own congregation more accepting and welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community, but was ultimately dismissed from his position as pastor. He then worked with the North Carolina Council of Churches for several years, focusing on LGBTQ issues, before being asked to become pastor of the large First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
The bulk of Rev. Creech’s book deals with the time he spent in Omaha, including the events that led to his two trials, the trials themselves, and the immediate aftermath of his ejection from the ministry. This account was interesting in its own right, but what I found compelling and incredibly enlightening and empowering were his statements concerning the morality of “heterosexism” – a term used to describe “a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships.” These statements included the following, which formed part of his response in connection with his first trial:
“It is my belief that the position taken by The United Methodist Church regarding same-gender unions, as well as that regarding ‘the practice’ of homosexuality, is wrong, unjust, discriminatory and inconsistent with the spirit of Christ and our Wesleyan and Methodist traditions …
“Sexual orientation is not a moral issue; it is morally neutral. Sexual ethics are simple: sexual relationships should be mutual, non-exploitative, nurturing and loving. What is immoral are unequal, exploitative, abusive and unloving sexual acts toward another person. This is true regardless of the orientation of the persons involved. I believe that sexual activity which is considered moral when practiced by two people of different genders, is no less moral when practiced by two people of the same gender …
“I believe that the sin of heterosexism is no less a sin that that of racism. While some of the dynamics may be different, they are fundamentally identical in nature as an expression of a dominant culture over another.
“Just as it was the church in the South that perpetuated racism so that slavery and white supremacy could have legitimacy, the Christian church has been responsible, more than any other institution, for perpetuating the sin of heterosexism as a form of control over what is feared within all of us: the mystery of human sexuality and intimacy (sexual or non-sexual) with persons of the same gender.”
|Jimmy Creech during the Millenium March in Washington in 2000. (Photo by Chuck Phelen)|
We who are part or have come out of the Mormon tradition think of the term “prophet” in a unique way: we automatically think of the president of the LDS Church, and we usually associate the term “prophetic voice” with a “voice of warning”, i.e., a statement that typically warns of undesirable results if the Lord’s commandments are not honored and obeyed.
In the traditional Christian church, however, there is a different connotation associated with the term “prophetic ministry.” As one definition has stated it, “Prophetic ministry involves incorporating God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy into personal values and actions, institutional structures, and governmental policies. It includes leading congregations to be alternative communities that look and act like God’s reconciled and redeemed community where “the orphans, widows, and strangers” are welcomed at God’s table of peace and abundance.”
Or as has been expressed by Creech’s own United Methodist Church:
“The Church, throughout history, has maintained that faithful ministry must be prophetic. The church must not be afraid to boldly speak its ‘convictions … to the church and the world’ ... Active participation in social ministry and advocacy for social justice are deeply rooted in the history of the United Methodist Church … Methodism's founder John Wesley preached boldly in the public square against slavery, beverage alcohol, war, and economic injustice … In the 19th century faithful Methodist women and men followed Wesley's lead in opposing slavery, and in organizing the temperance movement … In the 1950s and 60s, faithful Methodists demonstrated and worked tirelessly for civil rights for all Americans in a time of widespread segregation and blatant racial injustice.
“History has proven that many positions taken by the church through the years, though often controversial in their day, have been proven with time to be both right and just. As the Body of Christ we are called to be bold witnesses, not just to one another, but to the world; to proclaim the good news of God's grace and call, not just in the church but also in the public square; to witness to society not only when it does right but also when it does wrong. This is our prophetic call.”
It is in this tradition that Jimmy Creech has raised a prophetic voice, calling for equal treatment of ALL of God’s children, boldly denouncing, even at the cost of his calling as congregational pastor, injustice and immorality. It is a voice that brings hope and light to dark places, a voice of love, affirmation and compassion to those who often face misunderstanding, rejection and hate. It is a voice, I would suggest, that reflects the true love of God and a voice from which gay and lesbian Mormons could profit and learn.
Creech concludes Adam’s Gift with a truly prophetic statement that calls each one of us to assist in its fulfillment:
“Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will be successful in attaining full civil and human rights and social acceptance because of those among them who believe in their inherent dignity and integrity and have the courage to let the world know who they really are … It’s a gift that all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have to give. And by giving it, they change the world for good.”
I submit that the voice that Jimmy Creech raises is one that needs to be heard by us who are gay or lesbian and who come out of the Mormon tradition. It is a voice of affirmation and acceptance: one that we are not accustomed to hearing. The perspectives that he shares are ones we need to contemplate; they are ones to which we are not normally exposed. The love that he preaches and the equality that he demands are our birthright; we need to claim them. In so doing, we can change ourselves, our church and our world for the better.
As I mentioned in my last post, Jimmy Creech graciously accepted an invitation to speak at the first Circling the Wagons Conference. Additional information about his visit, as well as links to two of his addresses at this conference, can be found here.