FERNDALE – Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, senior minister and teacher of Metropolitan Community Church-Detroit, put together a special sermon and presentation for the MCC General Conference, which took place in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in July. He recently showed a video of the service, which weaves together a semi-fictional narrative centered on a drag queen named M. Butterfly, at MCC-Detroit. Parishioners were interested to see that Stringfellow played the leading role himself, complete with a dress and a wig.
“My role was the coordinator of all the worship services for the conference,” Stringfellow explained. “We had nine worship services to do in five days – basically a morning and an evening service each day – and each of the worship services had a different theme. For this particular service, I wanted to capture the ballroom culture, as well as just kind of highlight some of the people who the late Ruth Ellis touched during her life.”
In addition to exploring the ballroom culture, Stringfellow attempted to recreate a traditional Sunday tea dance.
“Many people would go to the club on Sunday afternoon and there was dance music mixed with gospel music,” said Stringfellow. “For people who were excluded from churches, this is where they went to have church.
“At many of these tea dances you’d normally have a drag queen who served as the mistress of ceremony,” Stringfellow continued. “I was hoping to find someone to be that mistress of ceremony. And I did but it was kind of too late, and as we got closer to the conference I realized I wasn’t going to find anybody. So I said it’s going to have to be me. I’m going to have to do this.”
Never having done drag before, Stringfellow’s husband, Jerry Peterson, and Brian Londrow, MCC-Detroit’s minister of music, helped Stringfellow dress and prepare for the role.
“I bought the makeup, I got the dress and the wig, and I decided I was going to preach in drag,” said Stringfellow. “That’s when I decided to take on the persona of a person who was reflecting back on his life, including the time when he got kicked out of the house by his mother and Ruth Ellis took him in.”
From there, the fictional character moves to New York and participates in the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
“After that, I moved to New Orleans and became a member of the MCC there,” Stringfellow said. “That church met in a bar and one day someone locked the doors to the bar and set it on fire.”
The Upstairs Lounge fire took place in 1973 and killed 32 people. Following that, Stringfellow’s character questioned whether God was angry with the MCC members for worshiping in a bar.
“Troy Perry [founder of the MCC movement] helped me understand the difference between what is secular and what is sacred,” said Stringfellow. “And these places many people look at as being secular can be sacred when we enter into them. We’re in the presence of the living God. Thus, anyplace we go can be a sacred place because we bring our full selves there. Whether it’s a bar or a club, if we can get to a place where we are fully ourselves, God is pleased and thus it’s a sacred place.”
After the horror of the Upstairs Lounge fire, Stringfellow’s character “remembered the words of Ruth Ellis, who said not to allow bitterness to bubble up inside of us. She said that each of us had a light inside that we should always let shine and that we should never let the darkness overtake us.”
Stringfellow said he was worried about staging the production as the date grew near. The nation was still reeling from the massacre in Orlando and the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. On top of that, the MCC general conference was experiencing difficulties as well. Attendees were supposed to elect a new moderator or president at the conference and were unable to come to consensus.
“A lot of people were disappointed with that decision,” said Stringfellow. “So I was really wondering if I was even going to do this type of worship service. It was very edgy and outside the box. It involved dancing. It was basically a rave.”
In the end, Stringfellow said he was glad he went on with the show.
“With all of this disappointment around us I questioned how could we sing if we knew that much heartbreak,” he said. “But I felt people saw it in a cathartic way of just relinquishing their pain. One woman came up to me after the performance and said she had just fallen in love with her church again.”