LOS ANGELES Well before the national gay-rights movement sprang from the Stonewall riots, West Hollywood Presbyterian Church started Los Angeles’ first gay men’s rap group. The year was 1965.
The congregation launched the Lazarus Project in 1977, sending gay men and lesbians into Presbyterian churches across the country to share their stories of faith and family at a time when the denomination was poised to declare that “homosexuality was not God’s wish.”
The small church just off the Sunset Strip was the faith’s first to hire an openly gay pastor – 27 years before the Presbyterian Constitution allowed homosexuals to be ordained. The Rev. Daniel Smith is still West Hollywood’s pastor.
After decades spent trying to make the Presbyterian faith embrace its gay and lesbian members, West Hollywood has become a pioneer yet again.
Hundreds of congregations have left or begun the process of leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the last five years, joining denominations they believe hew to a stricter interpretation of Scripture.
West Hollywood was the first to leave for the opposite reason – because of what Smith described as the “core-level homophobia in the Presbyterian Church.” The congregation three weeks ago held its inaugural service as part of the United Church of Christ, which ordained its first openly gay minister in 1972.
“We’re the first to go,” Smith said, “but we will not be the last, I guarantee you.”
Even as they supported the move, many of the Presbyterian Church’s more progressive members called West Hollywood’s defection deeply troubling and a little perplexing, given the timing. A year ago, the church lifted its prohibition on gay and lesbian ministers. This summer, its governing body will vote on whether to allow same-sex marriages. The outcome is uncertain.
“Just because there is a rule on the books that says we’re not restricting (ordination), the denomination is still pretty hostile to gay and lesbian folks,” said the Rev. Maria La Sala, who teaches Presbyterian governance at Yale Divinity School. “On the one hand, my heart is broken. On the other, I understand.”
The Rev. Chris Glaser, who founded the Lazarus Project and now is a Metropolitan Community Church minister in Atlanta, wrote a three-page letter to his former congregation. He talked about the church’s history and how hard its members fought to become “good Presbyterians so that we could work within the denomination in terms of LGBT issues.”
“We were a witness in that regard,” Glaser said. “I had hoped that the church would remain Presbyterian…. When all was said and done, I came to the conclusion that they were just tired of the fight.”
West Hollywood’s departure was a long time coming.
During the early part of its 99-year-existence, the church ministered to the neighborhood’s largely middle-class residents, many of whom worked as craftsmen in the entertainment industry. But around 1950, Smith said, the area became a magnet for immigrants. White families fled, and the church rolls dropped.
The Rev. Ross Greek, Smith’s predecessor, started an after-school program to quell racial tensions and launched the Mary Magdalene Project, which ministered to prostitutes on the Strip. The West Hollywood church offered sanctuary to Vietnam War protesters seeking conscientious objector status. The gay men’s rap group gave rise to a worship service for gay men.
“The church kept growing,” Smith said. In 1984, he became “the first gay pastor to serve a Presbyterian Church and be able to stay in the church.”
By that point the most progressive congregations across the country had loosely banded together, calling themselves the More Light Churches and working for the ordination of gays and lesbians. But in 1985, the church ruled that More Light congregations could not even say publicly that they intended to defy official doctrine.
Rather than leave the Presbyterian umbrella, the defiant congregations formed the More Light Church Network and kept working toward their goals. The kickoff meeting was at West Hollywood Presbyterian.
The More Light debacle was the first time West Hollywood talked about leaving; it took another quarter-century for the conversation to turn serious.
In early 2008, the Rev. Lisa Bove and Renna Killen sought to have their 10-year relationship blessed. Bove at one time had been an associate pastor at West Hollywood and headed the church’s HIV/AIDS ministry. The women weren’t asking for a wedding ceremony, which the denomination did not sanction. Just a blessing, which it did.
The event was planned for Jan. 6 at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Smith and the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, longtime friends of the couple, were on board to officiate, along with a Brentwood pastor. Then a handful of churches in the region got together and tried to make the church stop the ceremony.
The Rev. Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian, said he called Brentwood “and said, ‘Don’t do this in the sanctuary.'” The pastors who opposed the blessing brought up charges, which a church court dismissed. The ceremony went on, but the damage to the couple had already been done.
“We never told our kids about the horrible three to four weeks we went through,” Bove said. “We couldn’t find the words to explain to them how their own church was going to keep us out. We were so devastated.”
When Smith told West Hollywood’s church board that he had been brought up on charges, elder Neal Williams asked, only half joking: “How many years do you have until you retire so we can just leave the Presbyterian Church?“
And that, Smith said, “was the first time that the discussion was not if but when.”
Eventually, the Presbytery of the Pacific, the church’s regional governing body, put together a plan called “A Way Forward.” It was meant as a guide for keeping the presbytery together, even as it was growing more divided over issues of sexual orientation.
Under the plan, the presbytery would be split into two groups: churches that would welcome gays and lesbians and those that wouldn’t. Or as Smith put it, “we would have the equivalent of a white people’s presbytery and a colored people’s presbytery.”
That measure lost by two votes, but a so-called gracious dismissal policy passed – creating a process that would allow churches to leave the denomination if they “cannot, in good conscience, remain in union with the PC(USA) given the change in ordination standards as it relates to sexual orientation.”
Most thought that conservative churches would be the ones to bolt; two did leave for more conservative presbyteries. But they stayed in the Presbyterian Church.
West Hollywood was the one that got away.
The congregation went through a period of “discernment,” studying and meeting. Parishioners voted to split from the church and to keep Smith as pastor. The presbytery OKd West Hollywood’s departure, and the United Church of Christ voted to accept them.
That last step happened May 12. And on May 13, the first day in the life of West Hollywood United Church of Christ?
“We had the most fabulous celebration in the history of the world,” Smith said. “We talked about being reborn, baby. It was fabulous. Just fabulous.”