In honor of Greg Dell

October 25, 2012

Blog post by Robin Miles, from the group M.I.N.D. (Methodists in New Directions) in New York


Greg Dell at We M.I.N.D. event

This post is in honor of Greg Dell. I realize you probably have no idea who that is. I’m sure there are others who feel the way I do about him; that he is one of the most genuine human beings I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and I miss him.

Growing up my family never went to church. It’s not that my folks were atheist; it’s just that religion was never a topic in our house. Both of my parents went to Sunday services when they themselves were young and living at home but they both stopped attending. My Mother stopped going to church when she was 16, right after her father committed suicide. Once my Dad was old enough to help his father on their farm, he quit as well. Like my father and his family we worked on the farm on Sundays.

I knew other kids in my class went to church. I knew there was a book called The Bible, but I had never seen a copy in person, touched or read one. Somehow my parents had instilled in me the difference between right and wrong; that you treat others how you want to be treated, you do not lie and a belief in that hard works pays off in the end; all of these morals and more without opening a Bible.

One morning after a sleep over at my best friend’s house, her parents asked me if I would like to go to church with them. I said sure, why not. I followed my friend and her family down the aisle and slid in next to them in the pew; knowing all along that everyone else had their eyes on me. I come from a very small community where everyone knows everyone else and it was no different in that church. I knew the people there. I saw Mr. J., the man having an affair with the bank clerk. Over on the other side of the aisle was Mrs. B., with her husband and two children. I remember being so surprised to see her looking so put together. I couldn’t understand how that woman who was drunk every afternoon by the time the bus dropped off her kids could sit there upright, bright-eyed and conscious. Both of them along with the majority of the other parishioners had a look on their face when they saw me that seemed to say, “Oh look, there’s the M. girl. What is she doing here? They don’t go to church.” They all seemed to have that ‘we’re better than you’ air about them.

Then, all they had to do was repent and everything was okay between God and them. Oh, really? That seemed way too simplistic to me. No one could explain to me how someone could be a cheat, a liar, a drunk or even a shady business man/woman Monday thru Saturday, then repent on Sunday and somehow that made everything okay between them and God. Did they not think God cared about how they acted or treated others the majority of the time? That still doesn’t make any sense to me. I decided I didn’t like church. And then I had that whole lesbian realization thing happen and you all know how most churches felt, and some still do today, about that topic. I was afraid of bursting into flames just walking through the doors. I stayed away as much as possible.

Then one Easter, I was invited to the Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago by a couple of friends of mine. (Shout out to you, C. and R.!) I wasn’t too keen on attending but I adore my friends so I went. As soon as I entered the building someone greeted and welcomed me. In just a few seconds along with a couple glances around the room, it was clear I was among ‘family.’ I had never experienced anything like that before. It was nice.

Once the service started I saw this middle-aged man, balding, glasses and a little on the short side. There was absolutely nothing distinguishing about him. And then he spoke. He had a way of speaking that made every member of that congregation feel as if he was talking directly to them individually. At the end of his sermons, if I wasn’t in tears, I felt like applauding. He was the first person to invite me, along with others like me, up to the table to take part in communion. Not only was I gay, good Lord, I wasn’t even baptized, did he know what he was doing? Yes, he did.

His church was a place to celebrate. We celebrated God. We celebrated God’s diversity. Each Sunday started off with the mission statement. In those words, all those that had been condemned by others were welcomed and celebrated. Have you ever seen a child or an adult who feels invisible, for whatever reason? It could be because of their skin, age, sex, culture, gender, economic status, mental / physical obstacles or sexual orientation. And then they are recognized, maybe for the first time. There’s surprise and maybe trepidation on their faces but once they realize the recognition is true, they beam. They are called, they are welcomed and they are celebrated for what they are and what they bring to that table.

Reverend Dell, as it turns out, had been a man seeking social justice for many years and for various members of our society, including attending a local Dr. King march as a teenager. When he came to Broadway in 1995, many members of the congregation were, and still are, gays and lesbians. He was already championing the LGBT cause to the United Methodist Church and society. In 1998, he became national news fodder for performing a holy union for two gay men. A complaint was filed and in March of 1999, Rev. Dell was found guilty of disobedience of the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church. He was suspended indefinitely.

Rev. Dell refused to sign a pledge to stop performing same-sex unions. He appealed his sentence and the committee reinstated him after serving a one year punishment. I can only imagine that year had to be one of the hardest of his professional career. I don’t know for sure but when you have an individual whose voice is their weapon to fight injustice and you take that away from them, you take away their reason for being.

This is a man who proudly wore his rainbow flag pin during the entire month of June wherever he went. It didn’t matter if him and his wife went to see a movie, he pinned it to his shirt every day. This is the man that showed up at one of the lesbian support group meetings, when we invited him, in a flannel shirt, jeans and boots. When we called him out on his attire, he replied with a big grin, “Oh, I just wanted to fit in.” This is a man who went to the denomination’s General Conference each time promoting inclusion for the LGBT community in church doctrine and to sanction openly gay and lesbian ministers.

In 2007, Rev. Dell announced his retirement. As sad as we all were, I’m thrilled to see his is still actively fighting for justice. He was the featured speaker at the 2011 MIND (Methodists in New Direction) annual conference, the title they selected was ‘Celebrating Intolerance.’ I’m including a part of his speech here. Rev. Dell is describing an email he received while he was awaiting the verdict for his trial in 1999. He said:

The e-mail had been carefully prepared and sent in such a way that I couldn’t determine its precise origin or know a way to return a response. Here, is the content almost word for word of that e-mail:

“Reverend Dell, it makes me nervous to send this e-mail. I am 14 years old. I live in Jackson, Mississippi. I think I am a homosexual. I have tried to get rid of those feelings of being attracted to other boys. I’ve read a lot of articles and listened to my parents and my pastor. Although my parents and my pastor do not know about my battle with this, it was clear to me that their judgment was that homosexuality was sin and a perversion of what God intended for His people. Every time the subject came up I heard their anger and judgment and believed it to be God’s feeling as well. One night I prayed so hard that I was sick the next day and couldn’t go to school. I finally decided that there was no hope. Nothing had helped.

“It seemed certain to me that I was hated or would be hated by God, my parents, and my church and probably everybody else if I was found out. I decided that the most faithful thing I could do would be to end my life. I decided I would do that on Friday after school. That way I thought my death would not mess up other people’s lives as much as it would during the week.

“I came home from school and went to get the bottle of pills that I thought would end it. I had the radio on and was listening to NPR. They had this story about a preacher who believed that God loved homosexuals as much as straight people. He was being put on trial for misleading people about homosexuality. He insisted that it wasn’t he who is doing the misleading but it was those people who said homosexuality was evil who were doing the misleading.

“I thought ‘this guy must be crazy.’ But then I thought what if he’s right?

“I decided that I would wait to see what the jury decided about you.”

The jury, as most of you know, came to the decision that I was in error. I never again heard from the 14-year-old boy in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t know what he did when he heard the verdict.

An institution that supplies a 14-year-old with reasons to doubt his own worth — to doubt that worth to the point of self-destruction is guilty of complicity to commit murder. At that point and in that arena such an institution is my enemy. I believe I am called, in fact I believe all of us here are called to intolerance for that which is so destructive.

Unfortunately, that email he received in 1999 could very well be one written today. I know for a fact that he received more emails similar to this one. In one of Rev. Dell’s most emotional sermons I had the pleasure of witnessing, choking back tears he told the congregation of an email he received from a young suburban teen. This teen was part of a youth group that had stopped by the church during their tour of the community a couple weeks prior to him receiving the email. The young man wanted to know if God loved him. This is unacceptable to Rev. Dell because no one should question if they are deserving of God’s love. There wasn’t a dry eye in the pews. We need more champions of justice. We need more people like Rev. Dell.

I miss Rev. Dell’s presence in my life. To this day, I’m still not a big church goer or religious zealot. I consider myself more spiritual than anything or gnostic, not agnostic. When I do attend a service, I go to recharge my spiritual battery. I don’t feel as if that has happened in a while. I do have a church home here in Canada. This church is also inclusive and very welcoming to all people. So what’s the problem? It wasn’t my first.

You always remember your first. Rev. Dell was the first person of the cloth that told me God loved me for who I am. He affirmed who I was every Sunday. Do you know how important it is for someone who has been marginalized their entire life to hear once a week that they are loved, they are called and they are celebrated? In some circumstances it’s the deference between life and death. He was the first person to show me that you can celebrate God, that church can be a happy place and that each and every one of us are invited to his table. How do you, if it’s even possible, say thank you? You don’t because there are no words. You pay if forward. You invite, you call and you celebrate because you never know when it will be someone’s first.