My Memories of Washington Square United Methodist Church 1981-2005
The Washington Square Church… the name still stirs in me a feeling of liberation, hope, radicalism and passion. Though I was never a member, several of my friends pastored there, I attended church services numerous times, led worship and preached there, and I went to many meetings there, for church planning and for healing. It is very much a part of my life, and of my ministry.
In the Fall of 1981, my husband Chris and I had sold our house and business in Ithaca, NY, and we moved with our three children (Melissa, TJ, and Ben) to Madison, NJ, for Chris to begin studies at Drew University School of Theology. We could not afford for both of us to matriculate, but I had the wonderful fortune of auditing classes, which was one of the great opportunities of my life.
Before leaving Ithaca, I asked one of our pastors, Nelson Reppert, if there were any NYC United Methodist churches which were gay-friendly, since many of my friends were LGBT. Nelson told me about the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), but he told me that in the Methodist Church, the one person I should definitely speak with was Paul Abels at The Washington Square Church in NYC.
It was in 1982 that Chris and I first went to visit Paul, and there are some things that I clearly remember:
- Paul was a warm and welcoming man, bright with enthusiasm and joy in his church. He showed us around the church building, proudly telling us about the history of the church. When I saw the basement, I commented that it looked like a good hiding place to be used in the Underground Railroad. He said that there were stories of exactly that history! Many people found sanctuary within the walls of Washington Square Church over the years. For many people, it was known as the Peace Church, because of its support and protection of those in Civil Disobedience during the Vietnam War.
- When we sat down to talk about the ministry to LGBT people, he shared his story. He first came to be pastor of the Washington Square United Methodist Church in 1973. He’d publicly come out in 1977 and had already been openly performing holy unions. Of course, there were people within the denomination who were outraged and who called for him to leave; he declined, and eventually he was declared by the Bishop to be in “good standing” and in “effective relation,” and he was able to continue serving his congregation.
- At that time, Chris was working as Student Pastor in a large “More Light” Presbyterian Church in East Orange, and he and I were the intermediaries between the host church and a small LGBT church that was using one of its chapels for worship. Paul told us of Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns (the forerunner of Reconciliation Ministries). With Chris’s background as a United Methodist seminarian, his social justice passions and interest in LGBT rights, Paul asked Chris if he would serve as Affirmation’s Northeast Region’s coordinator.
- The other clear memory I have of that first meeting with Paul was his talking about music. Though he himself wrote and published his own music and was a skilled pianist and organist, he told us about Paul Knopf, the talented jazz pianist who was the Washington Square music director. He told us about a new hymn that was often sung as the church’s favorite hymn…he gave me a hand-written copy of it, since it was not yet published in a hymnal. The three of us sang it together, and it brought me to tears. It was James K. Manley’s Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness, which is now in The Faith We Sing, on page 2120. It speaks of the historical journey we are all on towards living the Kin-dom of God…ever evolving, as we are moved along by the Spirit, “coaxed up the mountains from the valleys of sleep.”
After that initial meeting, I would sometimes skip the service in East Orange to go into the City and worship at Washington Square. I was amazed at the diversity of the congregation… gay/straight, young/old, rich/poor…but all to the extreme, it seemed to me! There were very pretty men, strong women, intellectuals, funky artists and musicians, dignified old church ladies and gentlemen and drag queens. On this backdrop, eccentric Paul Knopf and his oft-designed cacophony of jazz, was the perfect cherry on my Washington Square sundae experience. To my as-yet-un-citified eyes, it was quite a funky scene! But the messages I received there and the programs I saw offered there, gave me hope for the United Methodist Church.
Paul Abels is known as the first openly gay minister in a major Christian denomination. He served until 1984, until his resignation from the United Methodist Church, just before the national church conference that voted to bar from clergy all “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” He moved back to his home in Rensselaerville, NY with his partner, Thom Hunt. Sadly, in 1992, Paul died from AIDS.
I had begun going to Sunday evening services with a friend at Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) New York, and I eventually had dual membership in that church and the United Methodist Church. MCC met in the sanctuary of Metropolitan-Duane United Methodist Church. Ironically, soon after long-time pastor of MCC, Rev. Karen Ziegler, ended her NYC post in 1988 and Rev. Pat Bumgardner took over, MCCNY moved from Met-Duane to Washington Square as their host church. I remember one evening, as I was arriving for service, the minister at the time stopped me and asked me if I could suggest someone I might know from my days at Drew University who might be an appropriate person to take over the unique radical ministry at Washington Square. My immediate response was Schuyler Rhodes, who had been a close friend to Chris and me. I was thrilled to later learn that he had been invited and had accepted. He served there for over nine years.
My own ministry, as a lay person, had been emerging. For several years I was doing a lot of guest preaching as a certified lay preacher in the NJ Conference. In 1984, my main work began to focus on the AIDS epidemic. In the Spring of 1987, I had just completed a year of Clinical Pastoral Education in hospital chaplaincy and had been accepted into my second year. However, my marriage had ended that May, and I had moved into the City. I was then at MCC as student clergy, facilitating the weekly support group for people with AIDS at Bailey House. Because of my work in the AIDS field, I had been asked to preach at Washington Square for Pride Day. I took the opportunity to come out in my sermon…and prayed that the Church would soon realize that its ban on LGBT clergy was a mistake…that its history and its heart, based in social justice, would soon turn lovingly to reason. As we know, this did not happen…in fact, it became more fractious, more divisive in its views of sexuality.
My church life at this point took a long hiatus. I missed the United Methodist Church but felt that I could not serve in laity where I was not welcome as clergy. I gave up on the church all together. Then my daughter Melissa and granddaughter Cassie became active at the Washington Square Church. They invited me to join them, and I would occasionally go to service with them, and I could see that the Spirit was still very much alive in that congregation. When the decision to sell that building was made in 2004, and services were held across the street at the New York University chapel, I visited there a couple of times, as well. By the time of the 2005 merging of the three smaller churches into The Church of the Village, fortunately Melissa and Cassie moved along into the new church. When I was again invited by them to visit, I was obviously healing in many ways and almost ready to reopen my heart to church. When my wife Katie and I came to the Church of the Village in 2007, we loved the message of radical inclusion and the very warm welcome we received…and we have stayed ever since, totally involved in the ministry of this blessed church. The Washington Square Church… the name may still stir in me a feeling of liberation, hope, radicalism and passion…but it’s the Church of the Village that does so even more, and it is the Church of the Village that I now call home.