News from AllianceQ: October 2018

Sharing Their Journey to Open & Affirming as Part of Their 150th Anniversary Celebration

First Christian Church of San Jose in California is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. As Pastor Dana Bainbridge was seeking information about their Open & Affirming journey, Dick Miller, former pastor, shared this reflection on their journey, and his.

As far as I know, when First Christian Church of San Jose, California, called me to become it’s senior pastor in 1989, it was the first time that a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had called an openly gay man with full knowledge that he was gay to such a position. This is the story of how that happened.

When I came out as gay after resigning in 1982 from the church I had served in Silver Spring, Maryland, I determined that I would not ever serve a church again unless it was clear to all concerned that I am gay and that I would not accept any kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of deceit. I conveyed that to the regional minister of Northern California when I then came as a visiting scholar to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley that Fall.

I subsequently went into gardening and lived in the Castro in San Francisco from 1982 to 1987. I did consent to do some supply preaching here and there in that time, and in several of those instances I was then approached by search committees enthusiastically—that is, until I told them I am gay. However, I did consent to do a four month interim in Eureka, California, at First Christian Church there in 1987 with the understanding that the board and congregation would know that I am a gay man. That stretched out into a two year interim.

The revitalization of the Eureka congregation in that time led the search committee in San Jose, I think, to be especially interested in approaching me. Also, it must be said that the San Jose church was in crisis and very much divided not only over loyalties to the preceding clergy couple who had left in unhappy circumstances but between those who wanted to merge with First Congregational UCC and leave the downtown location as First Congregational had relocated to a suburb many years before, those who wanted to leave the downtown location and relocate elsewhere outside downtown, and those who wanted to stay downtown and focus on urban ministry.

The chair of the San Jose search committee contacted me by phone. When I told her that I was gay and would want that to be clear to the congregation in calling me, she said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! My son is gay!” I then drove down to San Jose and met with the search committee. The regional minister Dick Lauer also attended the meeting. The search committee did not have any problem with my being gay except for one member of the committee who was a social worker very experienced in dealing with sex offenders, etc. When she started to ask me some very personal questions about my sex life, the regional minister interrupted and said that the questions were not appropriate and that he would vouch for my integrity, and he also said some very complimentary things for which I was grateful!

The committee recommended me, but a few more visits to San Jose were necessary. The one I remember especially was a congregational dinner to introduce me to the congregation with an open discussion afterward. Though it was acknowledged that I am gay, the content of the discussion had to do with what direction the congregation should take concerning the divisions over whether to merge with First Congregational, etc. The committee had even arranged for me to have a lunch appointment with the minister of First Congregational earlier that day. I said in that evening dinner meeting with the congregation of First Christian Church during the open discussion that I felt the congregation itself needed to decide what it wanted to do but that I was only interested in accepting their call if they chose to stay downtown and be involved in urban ministry and would not be interested if they chose to merge with First Congregational and leave downtown. I did not feel called to that kind of suburban church.

First Christian Church was already a shalom congregation (a part of that peace and justice network), and I made it clear that I saw the LGBTQ issues as part of the same commitment. I was then called by vote of the congregation after I had returned to Eureka. I understand that there were a few members who left the San Jose church because of the congregation’s decision to call me as an openly gay pastor but that the attitude of the congregation was that they could not be held back by the homophobia of a few. Some of those who left, by the way, eventually came back and in doing so even offered me their apologies.

Thus, the decision of the congregation to be open and affirming was made in choosing me in 1989 to be their openly gay pastor and to support inclusion of and justice for LGBTQ people everywhere. As soon as we found that there was an open and affirming network, we announced that we were a part of it. We also advertised and presented ourselves as an open and affirming congregation.

By the way, in terms of the division in the congregation over whether to merge with First Congregational or stay or relocate, upon my arrival for my first Sunday as pastor I was told that the board had decided that there would be a vote on my second Sunday on what to do and that those who chose to stay would stay and those who chose to go would be commissioned with a service of blessing to become the Disciples at First Congregational Church. No one seemed to have any idea how many would leave for First Congregational. As it turned out the group going to First Congregational, though a real loss to First Christian, was not large in number.

The congregation of First Christian Church grew in membership, attendance, and outreach during the years I was pastor. The first transformation is that it became multicultural. We also developed a considerable ministry led by lay people to the homeless population in downtown San Jose, and eventually we gained an appreciable number of gay and lesbian members.