At the height of the AIDS epidemic, leaders at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church noticed the glaring lack of resources for people affected by the disease.
In 1986, to help fill this void, Bering Memorial UMC launched a support group for people with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. A year later, the church founded the Bering Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit volunteer organization, and the Bering Dental Clinic, to help meet the medical needs of those living with HIV/AIDS.
In 1988, Bering UMC opened the Bering Care Center, the first adult daycare center in the nation for people with HIV/AIDS. And Bering Omega Services Foundation, Bering’s partnership with the Omega House, was the predecessor to Avenue 360 Health & Wellness, which now provides health services to underserved populations in Houston.
“Neither the government nor the institutional church wanted to do anything about the epidemic, but Bering stepped up and responded,” says the Rev. Diane McGehee, Bering’s senior pastor. “Our ministries have continued to shift with the challenges that our city faces.”
On November 3, Bering will celebrate its 170th anniversary with a presentation of Heaven Can’t Wait, by openly gay playwright Fernando Dovalina. Proceeds from ticket sales will help fund Cafe Queer, Bering’s new ministry for LGBTQ Latinx young adults and their families, as well as the creation of an immigration advocacy team serving Houston’s migrant and refugee communities.
Bering was established in 1848 by German-speaking immigrants who were unwanted in other places of worship. The church was originally situated Milam and McKinney streets in downtown Houston, before moving to Montrose in 1926.
During the yellow fever epidemics of the late 1800s, and the flu pandemic of 1918, the church organized nursing teams. In the ’70s, Bering set up a temporary homeless shelter on its campus.
After many LGBTQ Houstonians moved to Montrose in the 1960s and ’70s, the church’s administrative board decided that everyone would be welcomed, without discrimination or prejudice. In 1991, Bering’s membership voted to become a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist group that seeks justice for LGBTQ people.
Every four years, the United Methodist Church (UMC) debates issues such as LGBTQ inclusion at its General Conference. The denomination’s Book of Discipline currently does not allow gay clergy or same-sex marriages.
In February 2019, the UMC will again debate whether to become fully LGBTQ-affirming at its General Conference in St. Louis. Bering plans to send a bus full of members to the conference to advocate for and bear witness to full inclusion.
“Our mission is to share the gospel in a way that actually changes people’s lives,” McGehee says. “In many churches, people are placed in categories that are used to exclude them, but those categories don’t apply here. At Bering, the fact that someone is LGBTQ is something that we consider to be God’s gift to them or to the community.”
Dovalina, whose husband is a member if Bering, loosely based Heaven Can’t Wait on the church’s history. The production is a play within a play that depicts members putting on a church benefit. Heaven Can’t Wait features the love stories of two couples who get into a automobile accident on their way to rehearsal. Other actors in the play worry when the couples don’t show up, but the director explains that the show must go on by recounting Bering’s legacy of community service.
Bering will kick off its anniversary weekend with a reunion for members from the ’80s on Friday, November 2, followed by Heaven Can’t Wait on Saturday, and McGeHee’s anniversary sermon on Sunday.
The living current and former pastors of Bering — Ron Pogue, Don Sinclair, Marilyn Meeker-Williams, Andy Noel, Ernie Turney, and McGeHee —will attend all of the anniversary events.
“Heaven Can’t Wait will be an excellent performance and its proceeds will go to much-needed work in Houston,” McGehee says. “Please join us and support a worthy cause.”
For more info on Bering, go to beringumc.org.
What: Heaven Can’t Wait
When: 7:30 p.m., November 3
Where: Bering Memorial United Methodist Church, 1440 Harold St.