Lenard Mace – Spirituality and Religion

“God hasn’t turned from me.”

A man who came to be my best friend, Craig Culvert, had been living in the Tri-Cities. There was an MCC [Metropolitan Community Church] there. He was getting ready to move to Spokane with his business; he had also, in previous years, been associated with the Portland [MC] Church, which Austin Amerine also founded. [Austin founded MCC churches in] Portland, Tri Cities, Spokane, and one in Bellingham. I don’t know that he’s responsible for the Seattle church, but he was very well known in the fellowships. He had served as District Coordinator, I think for four years, prior to coming to Spokane; and he was close personal friends with Troy Perry, who is the founder of the [MCC] fellowship. That was [Austin’s] special forte: starting new churches. He would get them established, and then move on and start another one.

Craig called Austin in Portland, to see if there would be any possibility of getting a church started in Spokane, because he simply didn’t want to live anywhere where there wasn’t an MCC. That [MCC] had been, for several years, a part of his life [in the Tri-Cities]. In September of 1982, Austin came to Spokane, just on a visit. [He] had sent out some little publication things to see if there would be any interest, and found that there was. They started in Craig’s home, holding, basically, informational meetings that turned into services starting in November of ’82. By January of ’83, [services] were too big for Craig’s living room. So they rented space from the Unitarian Church, when they were down here on West 8th [Avenue].

At that time, the Unitarians owned the Glover Mansion and that modern building that sits out in front. The first services I attended, in January of ‘83, were actually in the Glover Mansion. We were running anywhere from 35 to 40 people and got too big for the space we had there. Then we moved down the hill to the Unitarian Church building. We were there probably about three years, as I recall. We grew to a membership of, I think, 85 people; attendances were over 100 every Sunday. Then, at some point, we actually bought our own property. It had three buildings. There was a big church building and a couple of other secondary buildings that were used for offices, social hall, and that sort of thing. That was in the north part of town, up on Lidgerwood, up in the Holy Family [Hospital] area. We were there probably about three years. We just couldn’t afford to maintain it: to pay a pastor, the utilities, the mortgage. So, the property was sold and the church lost their investment. Then, for 15 years we rented space from Westminster Congregational UCC [United Church of Christ] down on 4th Avenue and Washington. Then, for the last four years, we’ve been at Bethany Presbyterian [Church]—five years this coming September.

[I learned about EMCC by] word of mouth, from a man who was a dear, dear friend of mine. He and I were involved in another organization at the time called the Dorian Group. It was my friend Randy, [who] had heard that this church was starting in town. He and I, for a couple of years, had talked about the fact that we were both from in Christian backgrounds. We kept saying we should go check it out. When we first found out about it there was a conflict, because our Dorian Group was meeting on Sunday evenings. Of course, that’s when these church services were. It was several weeks until we finally decided, “Okay, we need to do this.” Then, with the fact of both my friend Randy and I finding a home at the church, I got deeply involved in there, [and] the Dorian Group by that point had kind of served its purpose.

I never would have dreamed I would be called to be the leader of the local church. That was just never anything I really thought about. When it did happen, I looked at the board and said, “Are you nuts? Who? Me?” But that four years of time was one of the most fulfilling of my life—also the most challenging. Ministry is not easy.

[I was the pastor at EMCC from] August of 2004 until October of 2006, and then a year and a half prior to that I was [pastor] for about two years. Altogether, about four years. I’m a charter member. Other than about three years through all that time, when I just needed to not be there, I’ve been associated with them, in a variety of ways.

I’ve been very privileged because, in this fellowship, the belief is that all the members are ministers. So, while they still encourage people to go and become licensed, ordained clergy, that’s not the end if that’s not what you want to do. There are [always] opportunities for ministry. I could have gone a long way with the fellowship had I pursued that. But back then, when you’re struggling, and being a single parent, and dealing with your own sexuality . . . [Laughs.]

When I left in September [2006], I actually left Spokane and went to Boise [where I have relatives. I] did some consulting with our church in Boise, which is older than we are in Spokane but, at this point, is much smaller than the Spokane church. Their pastor, who had been there for several years, died of cancer about four years ago; they really never recovered from that. The woman who is now the interim pastor [in Boise] is just really starting to rebuild. I was there for the convocation of her.

Then, my plan was that I was going on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we have a very large church. A dear friend of mine was the pastor there. I was going to go down there and spend some time working with her. I just thought, “Okay, well, that’s what God has planned for me.” In early December, I just felt very strongly that I needed to come home. I didn’t know why, other than I wanted to come home and see my granddaughter and my family. I look at it now as just a divinely-ordained thing, because I’m now working for a non-profit organization, helping people become qualified for low income housing. I believe everything we do is ministry, no matter what it is. I just feel like, “Okay. This is what I’m supposed to do this time.”

Since I’ve been home, I’ve not gone back [to EMCC] simply because . . . Well, for two reasons. I was extremely burnt out. I didn’t realize that until I left and it hit me just how physically, and emotionally, tired I was. And I think anytime someone new is striving to take leadership, it doesn’t really work well if the old leadership is hanging around. Just for [the new pastor’s] sake, and the congregation’s sake, they need to learn that, that’s the guy now. So, I’m just sort of taking a back seat, and doing some other things for my own spiritual journey, to let that new thing develop there. [I will go back.] There’ll never be a long time that I won’t be associated with them.

But I’m also feeling that because—we’re fortunate in our community—some of our mainline denominations are becoming open and affirming, I need to be part of that process. A dear friend of mine is on staff at Westminster UCC where, just this next month, February 4th, that congregation will be voting as to whether they will become an officially open and affirming church. They have a number of GLBT members who go there. The UCC Fellowship is really moving in that direction but, as in most of these denominations, everything has to be voted on at the lower level. That’s going to be happening. The word is that it probably will be voted favorably. If that happens, I’m really feeling that perhaps that’s where I need to be involved for a while, to help that process get further along. So, there’s great opportunities.

Most all of us, whether we like it or not, we live and work in the heterosexual world. I think it is nice. That’s one of the things our founder of the fellowship of MCC—it was long his dream. He didn’t think MCC would be in existence more than 10 years because, he said, once the mainline denominations pull their head out of you-know-where, and accept the fact that all of us that they threw out are still God’s children, there won’t need to be MCC. Well, 38 years later there’s obviously still a need for it, but we’re now finally on this cusp of other things opening up. More and more that may become a reality, that there won’t always be a need for MCC. Locally, and even at the fellowship level, when I have gone to these conferences, that very thing has come up. Okay, yeah, it’s great that the straight churches are opening up, but it’s also really nice to have a place of our own, because we know we can walk in there and it’s our people. Even though we have non-GLBT people that have gotten involved, which is wonderful, they’re there knowing who we are. So, there are pros and cons to all of it.

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[The MCC is] very progressive, but the beautiful thing about the fellowship is, because we have people from so many denominational backgrounds in the early years, it became a melting pot. Because there were Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Assemblies of God and so on, everybody brought their own traditions with them. At the conference I was at a year ago, in Calgary, there was kind of a comical discussion about, “Why have we tried for so long to hang on to the traditions of the churches that threw us out?” The fellowship is finally now beginning to see that, while we’ve done this for 38 years of history, since Troy founded the fellowship, perhaps it’s time to become more progressive, less traditional.

We’ve always been inclusive, as far as our language, changing even scripture that is read or recited so that it’s inclusive of all genders. But there’s always hung around some of those old traditions from other [denominations]. It’s still a large conglomeration of all those things. With new people now moving into positions of leadership, I think the fellowship itself is on the verge of seeing some really exciting things.

Troy, a year ago, stepped down as the moderator. For the first time ever, a woman is now the moderator of our denomination—the first woman ever, anywhere. Nancy Wilson is a really dynamic woman and has been with the fellowship since the beginning. Then, under her are the Board of Elders that represent all seven regions around the world. . . . We’re seeing younger people get into these positions with wonderful new ideas. At this point, it’s all women in those positions—with the exception of one person—where 20 years ago it was all men. There’s been a complete switch over in power, if you will.

We find that even in our local churches. Often it will depend on the gender of the pastor as to which way the membership goes. It’s strange to me, but when we’ve had women as our pastors, the bulk of the [EMC] Church becomes predominantly women in attendance. When we have men [as pastors], it often times goes predominantly men. I think now we’re pretty much at a real even spot. The church currently [is] pretty well balanced between men and women. In the early years, comically, because it was new, a lot of people came just to check it out because it was the new pickup place—which was okay, but, if you had more serious spiritual things in mind, that got to be kind of an annoyance. I think that’s true with anything. There’s always a curiosity. People come to check it out. And the ones that have stayed are the ones that are seriously committed to their faith.

It’s been a difficult journey for the [EMC] Church, because many people in the GLBT community want nothing to do with anything—church, God, religion—because that is who turned us all away. [In the late 1970s] I was going to Inland Empire School of the Bible here in Spokane. They were a subsidiary of Moody Bible Institute out of Chicago, and Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland. They are both pretty big. This was kind of a local chapter of that. They didn’t take very kindly to me. [Laughs.] Very fundamentalist. [To become a minister,] I would have eventually had to go to either Multnomah or Moody to go through seminary, become licensed, and ordained—which at that time was my goal. I was thrown out of Bible college and the church I grew up in, once it became clear that I was living a gay lifestyle. That was devastating for me. Some people, unfortunately, have never recovered from similar experiences. My personal struggle with that was it took me about two-and-a-half years from the time I was “uninvited” to my church and thrown out of Bible college to the point when MCC went off and became [unintelligible] church. For me, that was like finding home, because my whole life was called to ministry. That needed to be a part of my life. So it’s been hard.

Somebody asked me . . . I think it was probably Mike [Schultz] from the Stonewall, when he was interviewing me last fall. He says, “How many lives have you touched?” Do we ever know how many lives? I mean, I have no clue, because I’ve been involved with so many different aspects of this community. When they did the tribute to me [on] my last Sunday at the church, there wasn’t enough tissue. It was just so emotional for me to have people talk about how I touched their lives. [There were people] who came to that service who I hadn’t seen in years. You know, I’m very humble. I don’t think anything I’ve done is all that spectacular. I think that is the key. I’ve always been the same person I’ve always been. If I’ve touched lives, all I can say is, “Praise God.” All I’ve ever really done is share what my journey has been. Because of that, I’ve been so blessed, with so many wonderful friendships and the opportunity to go into places that I probably never would have.

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It was very difficult for me. I basically had been raised believing that who I was, was an abomination, and that’s hard to overcome. It took me, probably, the first 10 years of my involvement with EMCC to get where I was finally able to say, “You know, nobody has the right to tell me what my relationship with God is. God hasn’t turned from me.” I still, to this day, cannot and will not debate or argue all the scriptural arguments, pro and con. All I can talk about is my experience. My life has been blessed because of the presence of God. I don’t think it would be, if I were truly what the fundamentalists say that I am.

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Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson and Katya M., 2007; held in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.