A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 11: Candle-lit hope

Posted on April 25, 2017

From 1990 to 1993, the AIDS crisis was at its peak in San Francisco, and that was reflected in the ministries of The Parsonage. Headlines of articles and phrases in sermons included “AIDS as the epicenter of our lives,” “a gay decade,” and other similar mentions of the epidemic tied to sexuality. The Rev. Penny Nixon, now a pastor at Metropolitan Community Church, San Francisco but who worked in the Castro district during this time, recently was asked if she could recall a moment when she specifically felt God’s presence in the midst of her ministry in the crisis. Turning the question upside down, Nixon responded, “That’s the only way you could have done ministry — to have felt God’s presence — that’s the only way you could have done it.”

Some 30 people were dying each week in this city, many of whom had funerals at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Grace Cathedral was a place that would hold services for people who otherwise would not have had one, whether because of finances or coming from intolerant communities. Estimates range from three funerals a week to three funerals a day in the worst months of the crisis. It’s hard to find out precise numbers of funerals held at Grace Cathedral for men who died from AIDS — even in death, the stigma was strong. According to archivist Michael Lampen, oftentimes, people listed “cancer or another blanket term for AIDS” as the cause of death.

Grace Cathedral has an extensive history of its own of ministries for LGBTQ+ people, and particularly with people who had AIDS during the crisis. A group that is still active at Grace Cathedral called “Men of Grace” was largely made up of gay men in this time, and did a lot of work with the Names Project quilt and members were present for regular healing services held at the cathedral. Ron Johnson has been part of this group since the beginning, and the block of the quilt currently on display in the AIDS memorial chapel in the cathedral includes his partner’s panel. Recently, Johnson remembered a time where he felt God’s presence so clearly during these years. It was during one of the dozen or so funerals he has been to for people who died from HIV/AIDS. “The homily at the funeral focused on the [Paschal] candle. I remember [the preacher] saying, ‘when we look at this candle, this is a symbol of hope, this is a symbol that Christ is alive, that death is not the final answer.’ The preacher continued, ‘Gazing at the candle, the Paschal candle, with the light, should be a reminder to all of us that no matter our situation, no matter our status of life, and no matter where we are in our journey, there’s always hope there is life beyond.’” It was in this very moment and practice of gazing upon this candle that Johnson recalls seeing and feeling God. “It’s on this huge stand and it’s so tall and it just had this visible presence, you couldn’t miss it.”

Over the years, the Men of Grace has lost between 70 and 75 of its members, many of whom succumbed to AIDS. At the Bishop’s Ranch, the Men of Grace built a treehouse, and on October 9, 1993, dedicated it to the memory of those who had died. Inside, brass plates with the names of the people to be remembered were installed. A couple of years ago, the original treehouse had to come down because it was built on a tree that could no longer support it. There are plans to rebuild the treehouse and reinstall the brass plates when it is completed, but in the meantime, all of the brass plates now reside on what looks like a piece of the original treehouse in the back of the chapel of St. George at the Bishop’s Ranch.

 Many years ago, though, before it came down, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lane, who did a great deal of work with Oasis, California (the ministry for gay and lesbian people that would form after The Parsonage’s closure), was on retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch and took this photo of the treehouse:

For more of the living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community series, click here.