May 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Four decades of faith

Metropolitan Community Church of Washington celebrates 40 years this month. (Blade file photo by Callie Marie)

The memories come flooding back for Candace Shultis when asked about her 25-plus years on staff at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, the District’s largest mostly gay church.

She’s been gone a few years now having left to pastor a St. Petersburg, Fla., MCC church. But so much of her ministry was in Washington, on the occasion of the church’s 4oth anniversary — the festivities kick off tonight with an event at Human Rights Campaign headquarters — she waxes nostalgic during an hour-plus phone chat from her new parish. Her memories run the gamut of human emotion — from tedium and tragedy to laughter and tears of joy.

She remembers one anniversary weekend where outside festivities were planned at the old M Street location. Members asked her to pray for good weather — “I guess they figured I had a closer connection to God about such things,” she says — only to have it rain the entire weekend. The joke for years was never to have her pray for weather again.

She also remembers feeling ridiculous blessing the current Ridge Street building with former pastor, the late Rev. Larry Uhrig, who died of AIDS in 1993, going around the new building with a plant he’d brought from Hawaii throwing water at the building, again in the pouring rain.

It never takes long, though, for talk of MCC’s history to come around to the AIDS crisis, which took a staggering toll on its members and which Shultis admits defined much of her ministry there, especially in the 1980s and well into the ‘90s.

“I think in many ways my time there, certainly for a good bulk of it even early on in the pastorate, was defined by HIV and AIDS,” Shultis says. “You just can’t say anything but that. It was just real clear, this had a huge impact on the community and we lost a lot of people. Not all from AIDS — some had heart attacks, Bob Johnson, Bob Hager, there were a couple who committed suicide. I even remember our first member who died, James Vincent McCann, Jim McCann. We named a ministry award after him … but we lost so many. We became kind of known as the place where you could come and we would do your funeral … it was just really hard on the congregation.”

MCC-D.C., as it’s casually known, is part of the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a liberal Christian denomination with a vastly, but not completely, LGBT membership. The D.C. church’s roots go back to 1970 when a group of gay believers started meeting as Community Church of Washington. The church was chartered as an MCC church on May 11, 1971.

Rev. Troy Perry, the denomination’s founder, remembers vividly the D.C. church joining the Fellowship.

“We said right away, yes, we’d love to have them,” Perry says by phone from Los Angeles where he’s lived for 48 years. He resigned as the Fellowship’s moderator in 2005 but is still active among the church’s 250 congregations around the globe.

“It was one of the briefest dedications we ever did,” he says, a Southern accent still palpable in his voice even after decades in California. “We got there and it was like 22 degrees. It was so cold I thought my jaws would fall off. So it only lasted about 15 minutes.”

MCC-D.C. is one of the largest churches in the Fellowship. Shultis says it’s always in the top 10 in terms of weekly attendance and often in the top five.

Perry has visited most of the denomination’s churches and says visiting the Washington church is always a highlight and blessing for him.

“They absolutely believe in wonderful worship services,” he says. “They’re known widely for their gospel choir and they’ve sung at all our marches on Washington. I’ve preached there many times and I always go pray there the morning of the marches. We’ve had five so far. … They do wonderful things there.”

But not all has been easy in recent years. After stabilizing its membership and attendance after the advent of anti-retroviral therapy, the church experienced a boom era around 1999 and 2000 in which it wasn’t uncommon for 500 faithful to come through the doors on an average Sunday morning. It’s about half that now.

Shultis, who became senior pastor in 1995, remembers that “it was nice not to have as many funerals” for a change, but also remembers there was rarely a dull moment.

One of her most poignant memories started around rather banal circumstances. After settling into the magnificent Ridge Street building, a series of properties around the new church became available and members sensed a rare chance to purchase them and eventually expand the parking area. But the logistics were dicey — purchase had to be approved by the congregation and involved three contracts, the failure of any one of which could sink the whole project. They also had to move fast.

“This involved taking out, like a $700,00 or $800,000 loan and so we had a very large congregational meeting and I couldn’t believe it, the vote to do it was unanimous,” Shultus says. “I had tears in my eyes. I thought, ‘Golly gee, we’ve worked so long and people really understand what we’re trying to do here and support it.’”

Rev. Candace Shultis, center, and the late Rev. Larry Uhrig, both former senior pastors at MCC-D.C., at a groundbreaking ceremony for the church's current Ridge Street location in 1990. (Blade file photo by Doug Hinkle)

The D.C. church, as with the Fellowship as a whole, has long sought to be a place of refuge for gay Christians chastised by the churches of their youth. The church offers classes on its interpretation of the scriptures that many Christian churches use to condemn gay sex.

Longtime member John Dewey, the church’s lay delegate who represents the parish at denominational meetings, says an underlying theme woven into nearly every sermon is that “God loves and accepts you no matter who you are.” He says the scriptures need to be considered in their proper historical context before there was any notion or understanding of sexual orientation.

“We take a non-judgmental approach to Christianity that welcomes people exactly where they are,” Rev. Dwayne Johnson, the church’s current senior pastor says. “We welcome people’s doubts and our core theology is really God’s unconditional love.”

Johnson, well respected within the Fellowship for leading a Houston MCC church through a period that saw its attendance double, succeeded Shultis in early 2010 after a lengthy national search. He volunteered at the D.C. church from ’89 to ’92 and has high praise for both Uhrig (whom he calls “incredibly passionate — prophetic in the best sense of the word”) and Shultis (“strength, integrity and grounding” in Johnson’s words).

Despite the adage that Sunday mornings provide the U.S. with its most segregated hour, MCC-D.C. is widely known for its healthy interracial mix and array of ages. Shultis says it wasn’t always that way and in its early years was dominated by white gay men, a trend she was eventually concerned about.

Shultis put her neck on the line during a heart-to-heart with Uhrig when she was still assistant pastor and said, “You have got to pay more attention to women, more attention to people of color, the music had to change, the attitudes had to change … it took a lot of time to change the ratios but I think he really listened. Things began to change after that.”

Shirli Hughes, the church’s minister of music since 2001, says it’s important to honor the church’s past, a reason she’s excited about the bounty of anniversary festivities that are planned throughout the year.

“It’s taking all of that rich history of what has been our past and all those saints who have gone on before us and the sacrifices that so many have made to make it possible to be where we are today,” she says. “It’s taking that collective wisdom and energy and using it to propel us into a new vision, to really embrace the limitless possibilities of the future.”

But now with so many mainline Christian churches opening and welcoming LGBT believers, is MCC-D.C. in danger of becoming an anachronism? Has the decline in attendance been partially due to that trend?

Johnson says no.

“The difference is we’re not just an affirming church, it’s hard to find the right language,” he says. “I don’t want to bash any other churches by any means, but I think it’s because of MCC in a lot of ways that other churches even started opening their doors [to gays]. There were many, many years when it was just us. And many others are still fighting that battle internally. … Other churches may welcome and affirm you but we are you.”

Sue Elliott, an Upper Marlboro, Md., resident who’s been active in the church since the early ‘90s, knows what that feels like first hand. It’s a big reason she’s been in the church choir and on the church’s vestry council for so long.

She says the 40th anniversary comes as no surprise considering how much the church offers.

“I never thought for a minute it wouldn’t be here to see 40,” she says. “I’m excited. We’re moving forward and have a lot of new things planned. I never doubted for a minute that it would last. I just thought we’d grow together in dynamic and exciting ways and we have.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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