He once fought church, now it's Parkinson's
June 10, 2007
By Margaret Ramirez, Chicago Tribune religion reporter
The voice of Rev. Gregory Dell has inflamed emotions from inspiration to outrage in his relentless push for gay rights in the church. At his congregation, Broadway United Methodist, his words became his witness, whether he was delivering a spirited Sunday sermon on inequities at Wal-Mart or quietly counseling a church member in his office.
But, like a cruel joke, the pastor's passionate voice now occasionally stutters and sometimes fails him completely.
Last month his congregation heard the heartbreaking news: Their pastor had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and the symptoms had progressed so quickly that he could no longer lead services or preach.
Dell, who never backed down even when the United Methodist Church convicted him in 1999 of violating a ban on blessing homosexual unions, is being forced into retirement by his condition. Next Saturday the church will host a farewell event for Dell as he abruptly ends his career two years earlier than planned.
The crippling neurological disease has caused Dell, a pastor for nearly four decades, to question his own words on the power of faith. In frustration, the pastor asked himself: Do you really believe what you've been preaching? Do you believe that God is dependable, even in the worst of circumstances?
“This has pushed me in terms of my faith,” Dell said during an interview in his office. “First, this sense of anger and loss. Why is this happening? How dare the universe conspire to take away my last two years? Not God, but the universe! So the challenge for me, then, was to be open to what I've said in my preaching for 37 years and that is: God doesn't cause human suffering. But in the midst of it, God always works to open another door or another window.
“I'm at the end of one rope, but it's more like a trapeze, letting go of one and looking for the next one that's coming toward me.”
Part of the struggle in facing the disease, Dell said, is that clergy are usually trained not to be angry or grieve. They are taught that God's got it all under control. “Well, I don't see it that way,” Dell said.
“I think anger and grief are signs of how precious life is. Precisely because life is precious and valuable, we should be angry and we should grieve when life is assaulted. I remind myself that there is legitimacy in being angry. But not to get stuck there. To be open to that next door, that next window that might be beginning to open.”
Dell's 1999 conviction sent repercussions throughout the 8 million-member United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, leading to deeper divisions on homosexuality and talk of schism. He was suspended from ministry indefinitely, but an appeal limited the suspension to one year and he returned to Broadway United in July 2000.
Even after his highly publicized church trial and suspension, Dell continued to allow gay couples to affirm their unions in his church, almost a dozen times in the last seven years.
To abide by church law that bars Methodist clergy from marrying people of the same sex, Dell says he does not marry the couples. Instead, he provides couples who already consider themselves wed an opportunity to share their vows in the church.
“I often talk about ministry of the loopholes,” Dell said. “But it's not the kind of thing that makes headlines because technically we're legal.”
With his exit this month, it is uncertain if those ceremonies will continue.
Dell, 61, said his first Parkinson's symptom appeared last summer: a slight hand tremor. Dell's general physician said there were several possible causes and suggested the pastor see a neurologist. Dell decided to see two, and the second, a Parkinson's specialist, made the initial diagnosis. He notified his congregation immediately, yet believed he would be able to continue as pastor until his planned retirement in 2009.
But in January, the tremors suddenly worsened and more symptoms developed. Usually energetic, Dell became fatigued easily. He began to experience micrographia, a symptom that causes a person's handwriting to become smaller and smaller until it is illegible.
But of all the symptoms, Dell said the most frustrating is aphasia, when he suddenly loses his ability to speak. At unpredictable moments he finds himself unable to talk, sometimes for as long as five hours. Dell says the words are in his head but his brain cannot process his thoughts into spoken words.
“There have been a couple of times when my speech is gone, I can't handwrite, and my tremors are so bad that I can't type on the keyboard. So that's pretty miserable stuff,” he said.
Dell's wife, Jade, whose mother also has Parkinson's disease, said she is familiar with the symptoms. Still, she was surprised by how rapidly the disease advanced in her husband.
“Usually it progresses slowly. So, we had just started getting books and reading about it, and then in January everything started happening,” she said. “It's a little disconcerting to see someone like Greg who is known for speaking with such great force [have] moments when he can't talk. That's just hard.”
By February, Dell decided he could no longer lead services and the associate pastor, Rev. Vernice Thorn, began preaching on a temporary basis. The plan was for Dell to work his way back to the pulpit by Easter. But that proved impossible, and last month Dell received word that the United Methodist Church had approved his request for disability leave as of July 1.
At that time, the Dells will move out of the pastor's housing near Broadway United and into an apartment in Logan Square. The new pastor of Broadway United will be Rev. Jenny Weber, who served as Broadway's interim pastor when Dell was suspended and is currently associate pastor of Geneva United Methodist Church.
Thorn, who is organizing next weekend's farewell dinner, said the congregation is devastated. Many members broke down and wept when they learned Dell would be leaving.
“We're all trying to process our grief,” she said. “But even though it's a difficult time, the way that he is sharing his feelings is what keeps us going. He taught us how to process these emotions. We don't deny this is painful. We just keep moving.”
Church member Charlotte Lill said Dell's courage in fighting for every member of the church will be his legacy.
“He firmly believes in inclusion. He was on the cutting edge of that in his ministry,” she said. “He's just so honest, to himself and honest to what he believes.”
In the years since Dell's trial, the Methodist church has affirmed church policy asserting homosexuality is contrary to Scripture and upheld the ban on gay ordinations and same-sex marriage. Still, Dell believes the struggles of the gay community mirror those of the civil rights movement and that the church will ultimately change.
“God's not going to rest simply because the church is resistant,” Dell said. “God's going to keep on, as God does, for full inclusion, full celebration of all the diversity we have. No question in my mind.”