A living history of ministry for the LGBTQ+ community — Part 2: From fear to friendship

Pentecost fell on June 7 in 1981, and in the three months between the lease signing and official dedication and blessing, many groups had already started using space at The Parsonage for regular meetings. These groups included Community United Against Violence, Council for Religion and the Homosexual, Department of Social Justice of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Bay Area chapter of Integrity, and an Alcoholics Anonymous group specifically for gay people. That AA group actually came as a surprise to people of the diocese — on the day of the first meeting, someone put signs up outside of the building announcing a 7 p.m. AA meeting, and “by 6:30, prospective members were streaming in off the street.” Months later, that same group was still meeting at The Parsonage.

Bishop Swing returned the favor of surprise when he arrived at The Parsonage in full cope and mitre for the dedication and blessing service on September 20, 1981. The event drew such a crowd that he could not enter the building and performed most of the dedication and blessing from the entrance. The significance of a bishop walking through the Castro completely vested while welcoming the gay community with love and affirmation in 1981 cannot be overstated — that was the year that the HIV/AIDS outbreak began in the U.S. which affected mostly gay men, resulting in the disease initially being called “gay-related immune deficiency.”

One week after the dedication, the first class of “Parsons” — the people who would run the outreach ministry of The Parsonage — began their training classes. According to the agreement signed with the diocese, Parsons would engage in a listening ministry, and provide church referrals when appropriate. To train Parsons, the diocese invited social workers, physicians, therapists, and clergy to share their skills and training. On October 26, 1981, Bishop Swing commissioned the first class of Parsons at Grace Cathedral, 24 of them in all.

This event drew 250 attendees and lots of media attention — The Parsonage had published a press release prior, advertising The Parsonage as an “alternative to…the bars, baths and the street.” Responding to reporters’ questions, Bishop Swing was quoted saying, “in no way is the Episcopalian Church endorsing the homosexual lifestyle,” which disappointed Rev. Mayes — now publicly out — who shook his head after reading it and said, “reconciliation is such a tough task” to another reporter. Bishop Swing made an attempt to quell concerns within the diocese when he published an address in the diocesan newsletter that November by noting that, while the leaders of The Parsonage and he didn’t see eye to eye about the need for publicity of the ministry, they were “working on a more united approach.”

Despite a rocky start — where relations between The Parsonage and the diocese were played out in the public eye — the first year was a successful one, with a total of almost 1,100 visitors. The Parsons learned that their ministry went beyond the gay and lesbian community; they were also ministers to their friends, family, and faith leaders of other traditions (an entire Roman Catholic sub-committee visited, as did two nuns, a Lutheran pastor from Canada, and an Anglican priest from Australia). One afternoon, someone came in to process witnessing a hate crime against a gay man. Concluding the first annual report, Mayes wrote that, with “resilience and organization,” The Parsonage was able to facilitate “dialogue where before there was silence, friendship where before there was fear, laughter where before there was anger, and smiles where before there were frowns.”

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