Sunday, August 31, 2014

Summer Storytelling Sermon: “A Gentle Man”

Isaiah 56:1-9

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:



As most of yoAllenClassPic3rdGradeu know, I have offered to you this summer for the sermon time, for a change of pace, a feast of stories. Many of them known and loved as stories told at summer church camp. Today is the last Sunday of the summer and thus the last of the Summer Storytelling Sermon Series. I pondered long and hard about what to offer you, my beloved congregation, and finally decided – through the prompting of the Holy Spirit via a couple of trusted colleagues – to offer to you the story that I know best: my own.


First, let me assure you this won’t be either the exhaustive account taking you through all my trials and tribulations, going through the trauma of having acne as a teenager nor my favorite Broadway shows while I lived in New York City. Nor will it be the excruciatingly painful close-up of one moment of my life from every vantage point conceivable, a la Cecile B. DeMille. But, rather, it will quick look at the life of your pastor through one particular lens, the lens that makes me perhaps a bit more unique, the lens that has informed my ministry more than anything else.


Second, let me say this is risky, to say the least. Self-examination can turn to self-obsession quickly, and I fear that greatly. As with all my sermon stories this summer, my hope is to help us all think more critically about our life and ask the questions “Where has God truly been at work in and through me in my life?” and “How can I allMomow the Holy Spirit to blow through me more fully so that I might be an instrument of God at work?” So let us give it a try!


Roswell Post CardI was born in Roswell, New Mexico in January of 1963, three months after my father, Lt. Col. Wesley Dalton Harris died of cancer of the throat. It was humbling years later for me to go through my mother’s correspondence reading words of condolence in the very same letter as words of congratulations. I can’t even imagine what my mother felt like in that time period.


I grew up fairly happy and content in the small southeastern New Mexican town, a location chosen not because my mother had family there, but because it was close to my father’s family ranch and was the location of an air force base at which my father felt my mother could shop and relate to other military folks. Walker Air Force base would close the next year, 1964.


First Christian Church Roswell1979GYCPlanningMtgIndyReally things didn’t get interesting for me until I became a teenager. Two things happened during this time. The first was that I became active in our church, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I was in the youth group, a junior deacon, sang in the choir, and hung around the office as much as I could after school doing anything the Youth Minister or Secretary had for me to do. I was a church geek of the highest order. Of course, this was the beginnings of my call into ministry, undoubtedly! But the second thing that happened was much more internal and gradual. I began to realize that I had rather strong and clear attractions to other boys, to men. And for those who claim that honest clear conversation about sexuality or the presence of openly gay or lesbian persons in a child’s life will cause them to consider homosexuality, I tell you I had neither! Rather, the culture was allowed to define my understanding that being gay was horribly wrong and my natural feelings should be hidden.


AnitaBryantSaveOurChildrenSave_Our_Children_Fundraising_cardOne moment stands out. It was during the Anita Bryant campaign to “Save Our Children.” A television news report on her campaign included a picture of two men on a park bench with their arms wrapped around each other. Something in that picture made me very, very sad. It implied that if I allowed myself to follow these inclinations, I would be forever lonely, that I would never have the things of life that other boys and girls had. In that moment I vowed to repress and, if possible, destroy all those feelings within me so that I could be truly loved by my family, friends, church, and the world around me. It would be ten years – a decade of the most formative years of my life – before I would come out and strive to flourish.


But I did. The summer after graduating from Phillips University. Unfortunately a lot of damage was done by then, include a short-lived and ill-fated marriage to an amazing woman who was my best friend in college. But even coming out to myself did not mean homophobia wasn’t rampant in my life and in my heart. For I was heading off to seminary to be a minister! And in 1985 the church was no where near being able to address the complex issues of sexuality and sexual orientation as it is today… and even that is lacking as we all know! I knew I had to tread lightly.


BriteDivinitySchoolAVHandEleanorCozadCherryholmesMay1989So I entered Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, in Ft. Worth, Texas, in the fall of that year as an out gay man, but who was still closeted for employment. I served for three and a half years at First Presbyterian Church, Grapevine, Texas, first as Minister to Youth, then Associate to the Pastor. It was an incredible experience and so much of who I am is due to my mentor and pastor there, the Rev. Eleanor Cozad Cherryholmes, the only one who knew I was gay. But as my schoolwork drew to a close and my ordination process loomed closer and closer, I knew that it was not in me to go through this process closeted. So I chose to do what I believed was the honorable thing to do. One year before the Commission on the Ministry would have to decide on my candidacy, I asked for a conversation with the Commission to tell them I was gay.


In 1988 you can only imagine what that conversation sounded like. I was accused of burdening the church with my personal issue. I was informed that I would never be able to work with children, youth, young adults, and – oddly enough – young couples. And I was sent on my way so the Commission could do their work. In the intervening year, in which I was given absolutely no information whatsoever of the status of the conversation, I learned that they called in every so-called expert on the topic and, in the end, decided not to decide. For in that year I had also come out to my beloved congregation in Roswell, New Mexico and the Board of Elders had informed me, in a terse letter, that I was a troubled individual who needed counseling, and that they had withdrawn their support for my ordination. And in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) you need two things besides a call from God to be ordained: the endorsement of your home congregation and the vote of the Regional Commission on the Ministry. Since I did not have a congregational support anymore, the Commission informed me that they would not vote and my candidacy ended. So I graduated in May of 1989 with my Master of Divinity degree but no ordination. Not an easy vitae to use to get a job!


In that last year I spent a great deal of time meeting with Regional Ministers, at least those who were kind enough to give me an audience, and realizing time after time there was no chance in hell that they would forward my name and profile to any congregation in their region. I took it upon myself to use those meetings as a chance to teach, mainly older white straight men, what it meant to be a healthy gay man and a faithful one at that. I tried to laugh more than cry, although it was difficult.


1994CraigHoffmanIt was during this summer between graduate school and the great unknown that I went to the General Assembly of the Christian Church meeting in our denominational headquarter city, Indianapolis, Indiana. This was just a few weeks after having met a quirky and cute seminarian from the Boston area, a Craig Hoffman, at the United Church Of Christ’s General Synod in Ft. Worth, Texas. He made sure to call me and let me know that he was thinking of me as I headed off to Indianapolis. How sweet!


But at that assembly I was a crazy man, fearful that my call from God would never be realized, at least within the church that I knew and loved. I wore a suit every day (not the usual attire for most assembly goers, especially my age!) and I met with any pastor, regional minister, or search committee chairperson I could pin down for five seconds or more. On one particularly promising day, I made an announcement from the floor of the General Assembly about the next day’s HIV/AIDS Memorial worship service. At the end of my 1 minute announcement, I tacked on the line, “And oh, by the way, I am a seminary trained pastor who is gay and I’m looking for full-time employment.”


As I walked out of the assembly hall I found a message on the note board waiting for me. It was from the pastor of a church in New York City (New York City?!?) and he indicated that they were looking for an Associate Pastor, and asked would I meet with a few members of that church who were at the Assembly? I did, and the rest was history!


But what a history it was! The church flew me out to New York for an interview, and then went into hibernation. The interview had gone splendidly, much to the surprise of most of the committee! They decided to interview more candidates, assuming another would rise to the top who would be less controversial and an even better fit. None did, and so they called me back for an interview and series of conversations that would last for over a week. Not only did I meet with the committee, I met with every conceivable group the church had, most importantly the dreaded Park Avenue Christian Church Day School Parents. Apparently a wayward Elder had been stoking the fear that having a gay man as a pastor would put the precious children of their elite day school at risk. To this day I have a hard time forgiving people who put such wicked and flawed thoughts into peoples’ minds. But every conversation was warm and kind and nurturing, in both directions.


A few weeks later, after all the dust had settled, I received a phone call from the Senior Pastor, John Wade Payne, inviting me to join him on the staff of Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. The U-Haul was packed before I hung up the phone. I began my ministry there in Advent 1989 – a most appropriate liturgical time to do so. But there was a confluence of world events that would soon overtake me, and which defined my ministry from that point forward in very particular ways.


StopTheChurch1StopTheChurchButtonThe first was the AIDS Crisis, which was bursting onto the world scene, and I was now living in the city that was both the epicenter of the epidemic AND the epicenter of the activism. ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power – was finding its voice confronting the powers that be on their silence in the face of one of the greatest health crisis of human history – because of whom it was affecting most: homosexual men, African Americans, and drug users – all seen as expendable by society. And one of the first campaigns and actions ACT UP did was in December of 1989 – the very month I began as an openly gay Associate Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church – and was focused on the church’s silence and complicity in the epidemic.


“Stop The Church” was the campaign’s slogan, and posters were wheat pasted all over New York City. I remember standing at a bus stop at night with Craig looking at one of these posters horrified that here, I had finally, after years of fear and worry, become a part of the institutional church and my brothers and sisters were fighting the very institution in which I was now fully invested.   To say I had “mixed emotions” would be to put it lightly! Now, admittedly, most of ACT UP’s ire was at the Catholic Church, and Cardinal O’Connor specifically, but as a young gay minister looking at this huge outpouring of anger and rage, I couldn’t make that distinction quite yet.


It became clear to me and to the leaders of Park Avenue Christian Church, that what Christianity needed more than anything else was a model of being church that actually followed the words and steps of Jesu1991GeneralAssemblyLaurieRudelAndAllenHarriss more clearly, honestly, and loudly. And that is what we began to do. The way we did it was to work to become and Open And Affirming Congregation. I would end up co-founding the Open and Affirming movement in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) along with Laurie Rudel, a pastor from Seattle, Washington. Our job was to encourage, equip, inspire, cajole, and support congregations in our denomination to follow the ways and words of Jesus and show God’s love for all people, not just for some. And to be more honest about the complexity of the rest of the Bible that was so quickly and shamelessly used to attack and disparage those who were on the margin and not like the majority.


And it was here that the second great confluence of events would take place. In 1990 the name of the nominee for the position of General Minister and President was put forward for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to vote on at its next General Assembly. It was somehow made known that Michael Kinnamon, and his then wife, Katherine, were members of the Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples Alliance, the organization in which I was a leader and which promoted the Open & Affirming Congregation program. Out of a church in Richmond, Indiana thousands and thousands of letters were sent to every congregation in the denomination – one letter to the pastor and, in a clear attempt to get around us “liberal clergy,” one letter to the chair of the Board of Elders. This letter accused Michael of being a homosexual sympathizer, and made it clear he was an unacceptable candidate for General Minister because he promoted this sinful lifestyle.


This caused Michael, and the leaders of the church, to have to go on a tour of the denomination hosting meeting after meeting, supposedly to give Michael a chance to explain his support for gay and lesbian folks, but in fact what happened was that it gave horribly mean-spirited people a venue to spew their hateful venom at Michael. And since this was also the year that my name was before the Commission on the Ministry of the Northeastern Region as an openly gay candidate for ministry, the story of Michael Kinnamon and my story became interwoven. We would become friends that year and both of us would experience the church of Jesus Christ at its absolute worst and, on rare occasions, at its absolute best.


One story of the church at its worst stands out for me. It was during a specially called clergy meeting in the Northeastern Region, the Metropolitan NYC district, and the senior pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church and several of the Elders, accompanied me for a “dialogue.”   In the midst of the “dialogue” I was summarily castigated and chided for being a homosexual, and an uppity “talkative” homosexual at that. The height of the meeting involved a clergy “colleague” pronouncing me, loudly and with finger pointing in my face, as being worse than a whore, child molester, and drug addict. I jumped from my chair crying uncontrollably and ran from the room. I wasn’t crying for my own sake – even then I was fairly strong in my own self-image and I had heard the accusation dozens of times before – but I cried for the sake of my beloved Elders who had been forced to hear such horrendously deceptive, misleading, and hateful accusations. It was hard enough knowing such wretched misconceptions were “out there,” in “the world.” But having it brought into the very midst of the Beloved Community in front of such faithful, caring people broke my spirit.


1991GeneralAssemblyGLADBoothThe upshot of that year for Michael was that his nomination was defeated by less than one percent of the 67% vote he needed to be elected. This was entirely due to the fact that busloads of anti-gay crusaders arrived that morning before the vote, registered as voting delegates, voted against Michael, and then boarded their buses for the trip home, leaving the Assembly not only with a bloated quorum requirement which endangered all of the business after that, but with a feeling of wretched violation and defilement that ate at the psyche and spirit of all of good will who believed the church could not do such a thing. It was in that spirit of brokenness that – not knowing each other at the time – the Rev. Jim Schimmel and I stood somewhere beside each other – perhaps even holding each other’s hands – and singing out the pain and dogged hope of a church “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”


The upshot of that year for me was that, after an extraordinarily painful and arduous Ordination Interview process, I was ordained into the ministry. What had happened was that the section of the Commission on Ministry that met in Metropolitan New York had had a tie vote (*made* a tie by the Chair choosing to vote, which is not according to Robert’s Rules Of Order!), which then meant I would travel to Buffalo for a complete ordination interview with the section that met there and then travel to Boston for another complete ordination interview with the section that met there. And to say each of the three complete ordination interviews was a “grilling” would be to but it lightly. The votes of all three sections were added up, and I was confirmed to be ordained. The service of Ordination took place on Sunday, May 19, 1991 at a jubilant Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City.


2001AVHInstallationFC3BillAndJim2001AVHInstallationFC3GroupThere is much to the rest of the story, but suffice to say an awful lot of the story subsequent to that date is the story that many pastors share: the ups and downs of congregations at the turn of a millennium. I can say that the call this congregation extended to me on March 4, 2001 was a pure joy and an affirmation that the Church of Jesus Christ can and will choose to follow the words and ways of Jesus over and above the wiles and woes of we human beings. I give thanks for you being a part of my story, and pray to God that my presence in your story has been a gift of grace.

But here is the end of my story, for it is your story.  Not only do I wish for you to seek God’s presence in your story and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, but I want you to be inspired to help someone else share their story.  For you see, if my story ends with me, it is for naught.  The great story of salvation and justice that Jesus proclaimed was never meant just to liberate me, but to liberate us all.  The very fact that this table of Communion here at Franklin Circle Christian Church, to which ALL God’s Children are welcome has welcomed you, does not mean that all feel welcome here!  If liberation, justice, and righteousness mean anything, they mean that once we have found those things we go out looking for others who have yet to experience it, or experience it fully.  Yes, there are those who do not feel welcome at *this* very table!  We need to seek out their stories, hear them fully with every fiber of our being, and offer to be advocates for their justice, their place at the table.  Then, and only then, will our story be complete!

May it be so.