A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 12: Winding down, taking time, and beginning anew

Posted on May 2, 2017

The Parsonage struggled in the early 1990s, as the AIDS crisis wiped out a large part of a generation of gay men. In 1991, The Parsonage began publishing its newsletter only every other month, and, by 1992, it was publishing quarterly. Events and meetings at The Parsonage had dwindled, from about 75 each month in its heyday to roughly one a week by 1991. By 1992,  events happened only occasionally and on an irregular basis. The women’s support group met from time to time, and a group for men who were HIV negative attempted to get off the ground. Despite the overwhelming evidence that things were winding down at The Parsonage and it would close, each newsletter included a “wishlist” of items, a sign that the people involved in this ministry were still very much hopeful for its future.

After letting the executive director go due to financial troubles, the board had to discern how it could continue living out its mission statement “to advocate justice for Gay/Lesbian people and to witness to the Godliness of Lesbian/Gay love.” On leap day in 1992, the board declared that “The Parsonage News, education events, advocacy on local and national levels, and providing a home for 12-step and community groups in the Castro” were the ways in which it could respond to its call. With the gift of hindsight, it is clear that the newsletter was the most achievable of those ministries.

Since new AIDS diagnoses were just starting to decline, people involved in ministry for gay people had been delivered from what has been described by the Rev. Penny Nixon as the “survival mode” of the worst of the crisis. Figuratively speaking, with time to collectively catch their breath, people were able to take time to write theological reflections and essays that could be published in The Parsonage News. Titles include “Feminist Liberation Theology,” “Reflections on Inclusive Language in a Decade of Evangelism,” “A Spirituality of Creative Marginality,” and a three-part series on “Homosexuality and the Bible.”

On Pentecost in 1992, The Parsonage’s eleventh anniversary, Bishop Swing led a procession from the Castro Muni station to The Parsonage to inaugurate “the portable closet door.” In the invitation to “gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and allies,” it was intentionally advertised as a mystery, and it remains one as there are no mentions of it in the three newsletters published afterwards. It is unclear when the diocese ceased to continue renting the cottage on Castro street, but the last newsletter in diocesan archives was published for the Lent and Easter seasons of 1993. Those who witnessed the last day of packing up The Parsonage and vacating the cottage recall it by saying “it was literally in a shoebox.”

Presumably from the loss of a vast majority of the people doing the ministry and those being ministered to by The Parsonage due to AIDS, there are no records for the year 1994. 1994 was a General Convention year though, so on a national level, Integrity worked to get resolutions passed that called on the US government to extend benefits to same-sex couples, affirmed “the necessity of preventative measures and practices” to reduce the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and encouraged dioceses and congregations to educate parents about matters of human sexuality to address the disproportionally high rate of suicide and suicide attempt among non-straight youth.

In 1995, Oasis, California (hereafter “Oasis/CA”) had its first meeting. This organization was to be a spin-off of the Oasis organization in Newark, New Jersey. At this time, Oasis/CA held its meetings at St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco, and was planning an inaugural event to be held at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, the following January. Their initial goals for this ministry were to create a program and process for congregations to become official “Oasis Congregations.” A congregation with this title would be one that was open and affirming to gay and lesbian people, but the Oasis/CA leaders and board were doing discernment around what that meant. What does a congregation do to say they are welcoming to gays and lesbians? What kind of a commitment do they need to make? What kind of study program do they go through?

As those and other questions were considered carefully over time, Oasis/CA continued to plan its inaugural event and secure grants from many sources to avoid immediately running into the problems that shut down The Parsonage not long before this. The Church Divinity School of the Pacific; St Mary the Virgin, San Francisco; and the deanery of San Francisco all granted funding to Oasis/CA, in addition to individual donations and the Diocese of California giving them a budget. With a clear mission, structure in leadership, and funding, Oasis/CA would be ready to begin their ministry in 1996!

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