Metropolitan Community Church
2633 Denver St.
San Diego, CA 92110
Heterosexuals are fastest growing segment of San Diego’s original ‘gay church’
By Christy Scannell
Dan Koeshall, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Bay Park, likes to talk about an e-mail he received last month from a woman who had attended a Sunday service at the church with her husband. She explained how they had recently moved to San Diego from New York and how much they had enjoyed their visit to the church.
As Koeshall, 50, recounts the next part of the story, his voice rises a bit. “And then she said, ‘I looked on your website, and please don’t take this wrong, but I noticed it’s mostly LGBT people there. Is there a place for me and my husband?’”
He smiles. “I was so happy to respond, ‘Absolutely.’”
A husband and wife asking to be involved at any other church would perhaps be commonplace or even unnecessary. But for MCC, which was founded 40 years ago as a fellowship for gay Christians, an increase in non-gay attendance is surprising, Koeshall said.
“The fastest growing segment of our church is the heterosexual population,” he said. “We’re still predominantly made up of LGBT people, but we don’t live by labels. At many places it’s ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Here, we like to be ‘we.’ I think that diversity and the genuineness in our love and spirit of acceptedness—people find it all very refreshing.”
Linda Calder has been attending the church for four years. She originally met some MCC members at a Balboa Park organ concert.
“They were having such a good time and enjoying the music that I couldn’t stand it and I had to introduce myself,” said Calder, whose husband of 45 years, Dave, is also an MCC member now. “I knew they were gay at that point. And now (that she attends the church) we’re even better friends. I think it’s a great place to worship and a great place to think.”
Steve Ebner investigated an MCC in Mobile, Ala., when he was working there following Hurricane Katrina. A former Methodist minister who was “burnt out from being a pastor,” he remembered a positive encounter he’d had with an MCC member while hitchhiking in the ’70s and decided to see if the Mobile MCC reflected that conversation.
“I walked in the door thinking this would be a one-time visit out of curiosity and it turned out I felt instantly accepted by these people. And here I was a Yankee straight guy in a gay church in Alabama,” he said. His wife was equally enthralled.
When the couple moved to San Diego in 2007, they immediately sought out the local MCC.
“By being part of this group of people who are being who they are, I am more open to being just who I am than I ever have been in my life,” Ebner said. “In the five years I’ve been attending a Metropolitan Community Church I think only twice someone has asked me why I am there as a straight person. It’s just automatic acceptance.”
The 300-member church’s diversity goes beyond sexual orientation. While basic Christianity is the congregation’s theology, Koeshall acknowledges that can take a range of forms. For some that might mean calling out, “Hallelujah” during a service, while for others it’s a quiet crossing of oneself after communion.
“MCC is just a melting pot of every denomination,” he said. “Everyone has a different idea of how to ‘do’ church and we acknowledge that in what we do.”
An example of that inclusivity, Koeshall said, is how weekly communion is loosely introduced as the body and blood of Christ “as we each understand that to be,” which allows people of all faith backgrounds to participate.
“I want to bring something that’s really meaningful to people, to speak the language of their heart and of their understanding of God,” he said. “When we come together to love each other and be encouraged and celebrate God’s love for us, we are strengthened to make a difference in our community and be lights there as well.”
During its initial years, MCC carefully shrouded that light to avoid scrutiny. Founded in 1970 as the second MCC in the nation (the denomination now includes 43,000 people in 300 congregations worldwide), San Diego’s MCC began quietly with a handful of gay people meeting at night at Chollas View Methodist Church. Troy Perry, who founded the denomination with his church in Huntington Park, traveled south to speak at the San Diego MCC’s weekly services.
“We started getting the word out that we were (meeting for church) and it created some buzz,” said Al Smithson, 70, a founding member. “We even had what we called a bar ministry. Every Friday or Saturday night a little group of us would go around to all the gay bars handing out fliers to invite people to come to church the next day—and I have to tell you, we were not particularly welcomed. The gay community had been so damaged by institutional religion.”
They weren’t the only ones who opposed what MCC members were doing. Pairs of police cruisers were frequently parked in the church’s lot, Smithson said, shining their car lights in a crossbeam church attendees had to traverse to enter the church. Later, when the congregation moved to a facility in Golden Hill, drivers-by repeatedly pelted the church with rocks and trash.
Finally, the MCC members had had enough.
“A group of us sat in the hallway at City Hall outside the police protection and safety office, trying to get on the agenda to talk to the committee about the problems we were having,” Smithson said. “We sat out there all day for our turn. At the end of the day they said, ‘We ran out of time and we didn’t get to you.’”
The fledgling congregation was undeterred by slights like these, Smithson said, and continued to grow. Starting with 10 members in 1970, it had blossomed to more than 400 by 1980. In 1982, the church bought a building and offices on 30th Street in North Park, just north of El Cajon Boulevard, where it would remain until 2003.
Smithson credits then-pastor David Farrell—a “true spiritual leader,” he calls him—for the church’s success. It was also Farrell who led the congregation through the horror of the AIDS outbreak as it escalated during the 1980s.
“It was absolutely devastating,” Smithson said. “We lost a third of our membership (from 1983-1989) to AIDS deaths. We were having a funeral a week. Pastor David identified this early on as a major crisis and began to prepare not only our church but our community and would talk anywhere that would listen to him. It was a huge educational process.”
Farrell retired in 1995 after 20 years. He was followed by Tony Freeman from 1996-2006, under whose leadership the church rebounded to 400 members who pledged $900,000 in a two-year capital campaign for a new facility. But in 2003 when Aztec Bowl on 30th Street was demolished and replaced by condominiums, the church found itself suddenly without a parking lot and moved to The LGBT Community Center for its services—a “temporary” solution that lasted six years. Meanwhile, Koeshall replaced Freeman in January 2008. His first order of business? Help the congregation find a new building.
“But it’s not like churches go on the market every day,” Koeshall said with a chuckle.
Eventually, the Bay Park property was identified but acquiring it wasn’t without hurdles. The departing church’s board initially voted down MCC’s application because of its LGBT congregation. But when Koeshall suggested they read his church’s belief statement online and compare it to their own, they concluded there weren’t any startling differences.
“The basic tenets are the same,” Koeshall said. “I’m sure some of them still didn’t like it, but they couldn’t deny our similarities.”
Part of the property deal included the potential to lease an adjacent parking lot that a nearby Baptist church owns. Although the previous congregation leased it from the Baptists for $600 a month, that deal was suddenly not available to MCC because, the Baptist pastor said, the church was going to be expanding into that space.
“I told him we would be praying for them that their building plans would be blessed,” Koeshall said. “And he just looked at me and said, ‘Aren’t you mad?’ and I said, ‘No, God will provide.’”
That provision came in the way of a lot that belongs to the Best Western hotel across the street. When Koeshall approached the hotel’s manager, she eagerly agreed to allow the church to use the space.
“I asked her how much she wanted for it and she said, ‘Nothing.’” Koeshall smiled. “So the Baptist church is saving us $600 a month.”
The Baptist-owned parking lot remains closed. A locked fence was installed around it shortly after MCC moved to Bay Park in October 2009.
“But everyone else (in the neighborhood) has welcomed us with open arms,” Koeshall said. “We don’t have a rainbow flag or anything like that out front, so we get people all the time who just come in and check us out.”
Many of those, he said, are heterosexuals from the surrounding area who visit out of curiosity. While some leave when they realize the church welcomes gay people, more and more are choosing to stay—and return. However, the MCC will always be committed to the LGBT community, Koeshall is careful to note—from its participation in the Pride parade to hosting gay-friendly events and outreaches. But as straight men and women continue to join MCC, it is slowly transitioning from a “gay church” to simply a church.
“(MCC founder) Troy Perry didn’t know how long MCC would even last because he hoped for a day when there would no longer be a need for churches (intended) for people who were kicked out of their churches for being gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgendered,” he said. “And I want to get to that day that we don’t have labels. We’re not there yet but what’s happening is a wonderful trend.”
Smithson, who was part of that first group to meet in 1970, said it was a “beautiful irony” that gay people are now being joined by straight people in church when for so many years it was the non-gay community that shunned those who were LGBT from their churches.
“MCCs worldwide have changed the way the Christian community looks at gays … and the way the world sees us,” he said. “It was a grand endeavor to give us permission to come out of the closet, out of the shadows, to be who we are. MCC has gone a long way toward letting the general population see us as real people and good people—and people within the Christian community.”Tags: gay-friendly churches, MCC, Metropolitan Community Church, religion, San Diego