In April of 2000, I traveled to our nation’s capital as a cub reporter for this publication to cover the Millennium March on Washington. I had been on the job less than a year and I was off to D.C. for only the second time in my life. Not only was I going to witness and chronicle what I saw but I would be taking part in a historic demonstration for LGBTQ+ rights.
While there, I was assigned to write about a mass wedding led by Rev. 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 “married” thousands of couples, despite the fact full marriage equality in the country was still some 15 years away.
I photographed Perry and all his MCC chiefs that day, including the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, who would go on to become Perry’s handpicked replacement for moderator of the MCC when he stepped down five years after the march.
Wilson’s path to becoming global leader of the MCC brought her to Detroit late in 1975. She was ordained as a MCC minister some three years earlier in Boston. When the call came that MCC-Detroit (MCC-D), which had been 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 then partner Rev. Heather Anderson answered the call and moved sight unseen to Detroit, where they were instated as the first couple ever to co-pastor an MCC church.
Though her tenure at MCC-D was relatively short — a little over four years — it was an important and impactful time. After all, this was barely a handful of years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Wilson spoke to me about these crucial years, when she was one of a small group of leaders speaking out on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights in metro Detroit, just before she delivered the sermon and accepted the honor of being named Pastor Emerita at MCC-D’s 50th anniversary service Sunday, Sept. 18.
Wilson recalled often appearing on radio — and even once on the local television talk show “Kelly & Company” — only to often be met with open hostility. But this was the only means to get the word out about the church. At the time, there were few LGBTQ+ support groups in the state, no LGBTQ+ community center and no LGBTQ+ community newspaper. There was no internet, no social media. Radio and TV time was essential to let people know that the church existed. “That was important,” Wilson said of her efforts to promote the fledgling church. “That began to draw people out. They began to find us.”
While still in her first year at the church, Wilson vividly remembered the time one of her congregants was killed just after leaving a gay bar. “He was bullied and then beaten and then dragged behind a car.” An obvious hate crime, though that phrase did not yet exist, Wilson was horrified by the murder. But even more so by what happened just after it. Friends of the victim colluded with local police, she said, to hide his sexuality from his parents, going so far as to actually remove items from his home before his family arrived. “Never mind that he was murdered. The worst thing — worst than being murdered — would be for them to find out he was gay.”
Wilson, at that time, saw no other option than to keep the 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 took their own lives. 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 packed a lot into her time here, until Perry orchestrated her election to the international leadership from MCC and she left the state.
By 1980, she was gone from Michigan and on her way to becoming one of the most influential leaders in MCC. She took with her quite a souvenir in the form of Paula Schoenwether, who she met while pastoring the church. The two had a holy union at MCC-D in 1977 and will celebrate their 45th anniversary in November.
I heard Wilson speak for the first time at the installation service of Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, MCC-D’s current senior pastor and teacher, eight years ago, in 2014. She is a gifted orator, and I was excited to worship with her again at the 50th anniversary celebration. Much has changed since her days in Detroit — in her life and in the world. MCC is now a global ministry. As its moderator, Wilson saw much growth during her 11 years in charge. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Three years later, she was recognized by HuffPost as one of 50 “powerful religious leaders … making change in the world” in honor of International Women’s Month.
Following Obama’s re-election, Wilson gave a scripture reading at the Inaugural Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington. D.C. — the first openly gay clergy to ever participate. She has, to date, written several books, 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 has appeared in several anthologies and as a frequent contributor to HuffPost and others.
Today, Wilson is still pastoring. This time at SunCoast Cathedral MCC in Venice, Fla. Despite the current condition of the country — Roe v. Wade being overturned and women’s reproductive rights being in jeopardy alongside threats to marriage equality — Wilson said she is still optimistic about the future. “There’s a group of people who still hate us just as much as they ever did,” she told me. “But I think, and you know, I just may be wrong about this, [that] the vast majority of people in our country have come to a different place, [thanks to] LGBT people coming out of the closet.”
Wilson said now everybody knows someone under the rainbow umbrella and that the younger generation is turning away from fundamentalism and conservative religion. It’s that same generation she finds to be overwhelmingly in support of LGBTQ+ marriage and rights.
Meanwhile, around the world, there are new MCC congregations forming continuously. 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 to Wilson of the change she has seen over the years is the “tremendous diversity and variety that has the freedom to emerge.” She said it was more than she ever imagined, which is saying a lot. Much like MCC-D, Wilson has been blazing trails 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 her face throughout our interview. “I think he was surprised, too. I just sometimes shake my head and I think, ‘I can’t believe all of this has happened.’”