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Resurrections, The Early Years

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WEB SPECIAL

Return to E. Lynn Harris

Partners Gregory Shelton and Steve Brown, charter members of the congregation that became Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, wrote this recollection of the early days of the church for OutSmart.

The seventies were an interesting time for the gay-lesbian community in Houston. A number of gay-lesbian organizations were formed in the period 1972 to 1980. This was a great period of activism where the community started to raise their public exposure and began to have more public pride. Gay men particularly during the period following World War II and into the seventies had been harassed and arrested by the Houston Police Department on a regular basis. Lists were kept, and police would go to known gay bars and copy down tags numbers. But things began to change in the seventies when people started saying we are not going to take this anymore. Thus began the Houston gay-lesbian community’s coming out. Gay-lesbian organizations were formed for various social and political purposes and interest. This was a great period of evolution for the community.

Because a number of gay people felt unwelcome at most Houston churches, there was an attempt to start a gay church in the Montrose Gaze Community Center meeting room on Fairview Street early in 1972.   The effort was then moved to Arnold Lawson’s living room in Montrose. A small group–predominantly men–held Christian worship service there on Sunday afternoons. This early group was known as the Metropolitan Community Church Gay Bible Study Group. This group of pioneers met for almost two years in Arnold’s living room, and then in the early months of 1974 they took the giant step and financial risk of renting a storefront at 2020 Waugh Drive. This small group made a giant leap of faith and paid the monthly rent out of their pockets in the beginning. The decision to rent the storefront by the small, dedicated group was the most crucial step to make possible the church that Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church is today, and they did so at great financial risks to themselves.

These worship services on Waugh Drive were held at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons so that if people wished to go to their regular church, they could do so, and then attend services later on Waugh. These early worship services were led by lay preachers William F. “Bill” Baer and Floyd Brummitt, who alternated doing the preaching on Sundays. William Baer was the worship coordinator from February 1974 until June 1975.   During the first year on Waugh, the congregation grew. The church worship area was simple with a raised platform for the pulpit and metal chairs for the congregants to sit on. In the community, the church came to be called MCC as its unofficial name.

The early church was very poor, and money was hard to come by. There was a great need for additional chairs, and one of the regular worshippers offered to donate $100 for new chairs if the rest of the congregation would raise the other $100. On the Sunday in question the congregation contributed $125 in a special donation, and the donor was talked into matching the $125 instead of the $100. More than 40 new metal chairs were purchased, and there was again room for all people to sit for the worship service.

The congregation grew because there was lot of Christian fellowship for all who attended, and everyone felt a great feeling of positive emotion and love at the meetings. People had found a place to worship where they felt they belonged regardless of their sexual orientation. Words cannot describe the feelings that these early attendees felt. People would drive 30 miles or more just to attend the Sunday services. At the end of the Sunday services for more than 25 years, the congregation would hold hands and sing “Bless Be the Tie That Binds” as a symbol of the Christian fellowship that they felt.

In these early days, the church on Waugh was considered a mission church of the Dallas MCC, because the Dallas congregation offered support. The Houston MCC had moved from study group to mission church status; mission churches had 25 or more committed members. On occasions, one of the assistant Dallas pastors would make a visit to the Waugh congregation. The Rev. Troy Perry [founder of the Metropolitan Community Church fellowship] had visited the church in 1974 on Waugh Drive and led the services on that occasion when it was a mission church. Early in 1975, the decision was made to affiliate and become a chartered church of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which was founded and led by the Rev. Troy Perry. There was some disagreement by some of the early founders who had put a lot of hard work and money into getting the church off of the ground.   Some wanted the Houston church to remain independent. The majority prevailed, and on Sunday April 20, 1975, the congregation received its charter from the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and became an official MCC church with 62 charter members signing the charter rolls. Some attendees that Sunday chose not to become official members. Some of them joined a short time later. The church was chartered as the Metropolitan Community Church of the Resurrection and was known by that name for more than 25 years, when the church was renamed Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church.

One of the memorable services at the church on Waugh for those in attendance occurred on Holy Thursday before Easter in 1975. The service was held by a former Roman Catholic priest from the MCC in Florida whose name is now lost in the mist of time. He wore a simple robe, and he looked like a monk out of the middle ages. The service was special for several reasons.   There were the priest and 12 worshippers at that service. The attendees bought to mind the last supper with Christ and the 12 disciples.   The priest then served the wine to everyone out of his single gold chalice when he served Holy Communion. Those who attended felt a very special holy presence during that service, and they remember it to this day.

After the congregation was chartered, the congregation immediately called their first regular ordained pastor, Rev. Robert “Bob” Falls, on June 15, 1975. The MCC of the Resurrection became more formal, and the two lay ministers were moved aside to preach no more. The church grew, and the decision was made due to necessity to find larger quarters.   By this time, there was standing room only in the church on Waugh.   On Sunday, the chairs were full, and people were standing along the walls. A former print shop at 1214 Jo Annie St. was rented, and the congregation moved. Members of the church remodeled the new church to make it suitable for services. After about a year at Jo Annie as pastor, the Rev. Falls resigned due to some problems with his resume. This was a difficult time for the congregation, and growth slowed. The congregation then selected Rita Wanstrom as worship coordinator, and she led the Sunday services. On January 9, 1977, the congregation called their new pastor, Rev. Jeri Ann Harvey, from the Christ the King MCC in Oklahoma City. The decision was made when the church was on Jo Annie to change the Sunday worship time from 1 p.m. to 11 a.m. Since there was no gay-lesbian community center, a number of organizations used the MCC Church on Jo Annie for their special activities as they did in later years at the other church locations.

In retrospect, there was an amusing incident at the church on Jo Annie. One Sunday, we heard loud bangs on the side of the metal building in which services were being held. A lot of the attendees got down on the floor since they though someone was firing a gun at the building (in fact, the pastor had told everyone to get down). One of the young male members then made a remark about how dirty the floor was, and the congregation broke up in laughter. Service then resumed.   Someone checked outside and found that some kids had thrown rocks at the building, then fled. The particular reason for the concern and fear that someone might be firing at the church was that the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on a vacant lot next to the church and had made various threats against “those gays and their lesbian pastor” in the press and by telephone threats to the Rev. Harvey. There had been some newspaper publicity about the church when the Rev. Harvey had been called as the minister, and it had caught the attention of the KKK.

The membership rolls of the Resurrection MCC stood at 133 members at the end of 1975, 159 members at the end of 1976, 227 members at the end of 1977, and 325 members at the end of 1978.

The church continued to grow, and the decision was made to buy a church building. Money was raised for the building fund, and a building was found at 1919 Decatur St., which a dying independent Baptist congregation was selling. That Baptist church took a $25,000 down payment and financed the remainder with the proceeds to go to a children’s charity that the Baptist members supported. This move to Decatur Street and purchase of its own building was another giant step in the progression and development of the Resurrection MCC congregation. The congregation stayed in the Decatur Street building for almost 20 years.

After Rev. Harvey left on April 24, 1978, to seek a call, Annette Beal served as the worship coordinator from April 1978 until October 1978. The next pastor, Rev. Charles W. Larsen, was called from MCC San Francisco on January 14, 1979. The Rev. Larsen remained until 1985. This was a great period of difficulty for most ministers. Gay men were coming down with the new disease AIDS and dying at a young age. Resurrection MCC lost a lot of members to the AIDS epidemic. Pastors were under great stress as they counseled those with AIDS and the number of funerals grew greatly. The next minister was Rev. John Gill, who was called in October 1985 from the MCC of the Holy Spirit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He stayed for 10 years and left to take the helm at King of Peace MCC in St. Petersburg, Florida, in April 1995. He was succeeded in 1996 by Rev. Wayne Johnson, the current minister, who has been at Resurrection for more than 10 years.   Rev Johnson came to Resurrection from MCC Richmond, Virginia and led the effort for Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church to find its larger, current home at 2025 West 11 th St. in the Heights. There were various interim pastors between the callings of new pastors through the years

Some of the early pioneers of the church were the previously mentioned Arnold Lawson, William Baer, and Floyd Brummitt.   There was Arnold’s lover, Richard H. Laughlin.    There was Herman L. “Ding” Hamm, L. H. “Lee” Hanson, S. D. “Buddy” Brace. Also Charles T. “Clarke” Friesen was an early member of the church board of director’s member and later a moderator for the district of the Metropolitan Community Church fellowship. Joe K. Grantham was one of the charter members. Some of the other early board of directors members were Judy W. Applin, Jackie S. Garner, and Jan Maidens. Some of the early influential women in the congregation were Virginia Galloway, Billy Stoffel, and Rita Wanstrom.   Virginia was an early board member and a very special person who was very influential in the church on Waugh. Billy was an early board member and the highly valued and trusted treasurer of MCC of the Resurrection for many years. Billy’s lover, Dee Lamb, was also active in the early days and later became an assistant pastor of Resurrection many years later.   Rita was an early board member and the worship coordinator from July 1976 until January 1977 after the Rev. Falls left. Women played an important part in the early church, even if they were in a minority in those days. All of the original 62 charter members of MCC played an important part in helping to establish Resurrection as a viable church.

The MCC of the Resurrection has suffered various schisms through the years, when various groups would split from Resurrection and form their own church. Most of these efforts would fail after a while, and some of those who left would then return to Resurrection. Some of the ministers at Resurrection have referred to the “revolving door” at Resurrection, because the membership and attendees had changed so frequently through the years. If Resurrection could have avoided its various schisms and missteps, it would today be much larger than Cathedral of Hope in Dallas (for years the largest congregation in the Metropolitan Community Church fellowship; Cathedral of Hope is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination). The membership of Resurrection MCC today stands at about 800 members.

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