Greg Dell's path to making history

September 16, 2009

By William Burks, Windy City Times


Tracy Baim

The 1998 protest by Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church drew 2,000 people to circle and protect Broadway UMC in Chicago.

A decade ago, Windy City Times became an inadvertent player in the history of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the life of Rev. Greg Dell, then-pastor of Lakeview's Broadway Methodist Church, when it published a front-page news story with pictures of a commitment ceremony held at the church.

Dell, a pioneer in ministry to same-sex couples, had celebrated more than 30 "holy union" ceremonies before the September 1998 event that resulted in his trial and sentencing before a church tribunal.

As Dell described it in a 2007 interview, "Somehow, one of our more conservative clergy members read about that service, and brought a complaint against me that I had violated the Discipline, which is our book of law of the United Methodist Church. And, after some process of that complaint, it was brought to a church trial."

Dell called the trial "the most powerful thing in my professional life and in my life as a Christian. What I discovered very quickly it that I could get out of this whole thing if I would just agree to recant and promise not to do such services again. And I couldn't make that promise. As I said at the time, 'I can save my job, but I'll lose my soul, and I'm not willing to do that.'"

The trial reverberated nationally within the UMC and beyond. Once Dell was convicted, "most people felt [my sentence] would probably be a slap on the wrist. And in fact, the finding of the jury was that I would be suspended from pastoral ministry indefinitely, or until one of two conditions were met: either I would recant and promise I wouldn't do such services, or the rule itself was changed. I wasn't going to recant. I'd made that decision earlier." Nor did he expect the UMC policy against same-sex unions to be changed any time soon.

Upon appeal, the sentence was reduced to a one-year ban from ministry. During that period, despite the ban, Dell tells of being "invited &ndash sometimes at risk to the pastors involved &ndash I was invited to preach. I think I preached 50 times during that one year, which was more than I would have preached if I'd been at Broadway during the year, but preached and spoke to a significant number of GLBT and GLBT-allied organizations, all age groups, all racial groups, all identities, and all across the country. I discovered a couple of things: one is, that there is a passion for people who are involved in the struggle for justice that doesn't go away because of simple defeats."

Dell's bishop subsequently re-appointed him pastor of Broadway UMC, where he served until his retirement in 2007. But his experience and witness inspired others. "His ministry inspired me to return to pastoral ministry," said Rev. Kevin Johnson. "Greg did a lot for bringing healing to people, and also justice. He would say to LGBT people, 'You are not only tolerated, you are celebrated.'"

With Johnson, Broadway UMC founded Bloom in the Desert Ministries as an extension ministry in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2002. That early "Church Within A Church" sought to provide ministry to LGBT and other minorities as a mainstream Protestant church in the Methodist tradition. Bloom in the Desert has also affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), and defines itself as "an inter-denominational, inclusive, progressive-Christian, traditional mainline, liberal protestant church." Johnson sees the focus as being a model for churches so that others will say, "Hey, this can work, so we don't need to be afraid of changing."

As Dell and his wife, Jade, left Broadway UMC in 2007 when he retired on disability with Parkinson's disease, many neighbors stopped by as the church held a yard sale in the parsonage. CWAC Executive Director Cathy Knight said, "I was there, and I can't tell you how many people came up to them just from the street, just walking by, seeing that they were moving, who thanked them for who they were in the neighborhood, for the stand that they had taken. They knew that there was someone on their side at Broadway, in that house, and it was just so moving... that people wanted to say, 'Thanks.'"

This year's "Journey to Justice" conference and banquet honoring Dell will take place at the Ramada Inn, 4900 S. Lake Shore, as part of a weekend conference on "The Journey to Justice," Sept. 25-26, 2009.