In my continued celebration of LGBT Pride month, I’m sharing a remembrance on the passing of a dear pastor, Rev. Dr. Gayle Felton. I wrote this following her passing.
In the spirit of my previous posts celebrating folks who have been inspirations I connected with “in the communion of the saints”, I would like to share about a dear pastor who is a progressive southern preacher whose example lights the way for me.
A few months ago my wife Kat and I were blessed to go to the memorial to Rev. Gayle Felton, who I knew as one of the pastors at Calvary Methodist Church in Durham, NC. When I shared with co-workers about Pastor Gayle’s passing I was surprised to hear the Methodist chaplains at the hospital I am currently serving at knew Gayle. They did not know her as Pastor Gayle, however, but as Doctor Felton. I found Doctor Felton is a household name to many Methodist preachers. My fellow chaplains knew this woman I knew as a dear pastor as a Duke professor who was one of the leading theologians on Wesleyan theology, who helped renew the Methodist understandings of grace and the sacraments. And what’s more she was one of the ministers really pushing the Methodist church to open wide its idea of open table to not just make room for all people to take the bread and cup but to truly open wide the table of fellowship to embrace all so that people’s sexualities, gender, and gender identities are a gift. She spear-headed organizing the Reconciling United Methodists, a movement of clergy and lay people in the Methodist church working to improve the understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people by the church at large.
I didn’t know all this about her. I did not know her as Dr. Felton the theologian, or even Gayle the advocate, but as Pastor Gayle, the plain spoken preacher at a southern church that was for me an oasis of healing in a time that healing was deeply needed. When I came to worship at Calvary Methodist, it was the year after my wife Katharine and I had to close up shop on a church plant in southern California. That church plant had been our first experiment in progressive church planting – an attempt to reach out with a message of love, inclusion, and grace to the transgender and disabled community of the Inland Empire of California. We had worked our hearts out there. We began that work after seeing a transgender person whom we had come to know and love practically thrown out of a church in Grace Communion International, the evangelical denomination I was a minister within. We poured our heart into the lives of the people in that church-plant, without yet having healed (at least in my own case) from the heartache I felt from seeing the harm the church could do through the ministry I’d been a part of. And, in looking back, though my heart was in the work I was doing, I had not properly counted the cost, and the finances to stay on in California and finish that work did not last and we were unable to stay with that ministry. The shame and pain of trying to begin that good work, with all the best intentions, but not being able to continue on, hit me like a ton of bricks. (The church actually would continue, without us, in the hands of a gifted lady who herself was a part of the transgender community, and last another five years, though I had no way to know that would happen at the time). The heartache of seeing friends I had felt were so close and true from the Christian college I had attended, and the church I had been ordained, distance themselves and look down on me for choosing to welcome “people like that” cut me deep. And the strain of it all stretched my marriage to a near breaking point.
I was a broken hurting man when I began to attend Calvary. I remember, in moving to NC to pick up the pieces, find work, and begin to move forward, not having a clue where I would find a place to worship. I knew, for all the ways I was facing up to how the church had hurt others and hurt me, that a place of worship where I could sense God’s presence was what I needed to have the breathing room, the space to heal, I needed. I saw the website for Pastor Gayle’s church, and saw it proudly proclaim that the ministry there grew out of the inspiration brought by the stories of faith of gay and lesbian Christians, and thought “perhaps this is it”.
The sight I saw at Calvary Methodist – of grand old southern bells, who so reminded me of my own dear grandmother, wrapped arm in arm with young gay couples, singing the old old story that I knew so well, brought tears to my eyes. One of the things I talk about sometimes in my ministry are the words of Jesus in John 3 – “You must be born again”. Nicodemus answers him asking how we can return to the womb when we are old, and Jesus never denies that we must, but instead talks about being born not of water but Spirit. To me that means that, yes, in fact sometimes we have to return to the womb again, going back to the womb of the Holy Spirit who travails like a mother in labor pains to bring forth our healing, our rebirth, our new beginnings.
For me that time at Calvary Methodist was a returning to the womb again, it was a time I could put away my feelings of shame and failure, put aside my experience of rejection and pain, and rest – rest in the loving embrace of the Holy Spirit, letting Her do the work of healing in my life, to allow me to see the world again with new eyes, the eyes of a child.
Pastor Gayle, with her rich southern accent, speaking the words of Scripture which I had learned in an old, old way sitting on a rug at my mother’s feet playing with action figures in the church I grew up in, was a voice of the Holy Spirit to me. Gayle spoke with confidence and strength, speaking the language of faith, the same language I had heard used in so many ways to control, to abuse, to hurt others – and which I was coming to realize had been used in the same way toward me – and revealed in her straightforward way what I had always felt deep in my soul: their true message was freedom.
The way in which Gayle brought out the old language of faith, the old old story of Scripture, and showed it as a path to freedom, fit the image I heard at her memorial of a quiet revolutionary for full inclusion. The way Gayle’s progressive faith was not a tearing down of what had always been, as I feel too often progressive Christianity at its worst can become, but instead a bringing out the riches of the church long forgotten – its sacraments and songs, its liturgies and lived beliefs – fit so well the description of her as a theologian reviving much that had been forgotten in the church.
For me Gayle will always be one of the pastors at the church where I found healing and sure footing to continue my Christian journey, to fall in love with the Bible again as a book of healing, and to see how the best of my tradition as a very southern Christian can be a source of healing and freedom. Bringing the best of southern culture, and Christian tradition to bear as a gift of freedom makes her for me the epitome of the best of progressive Christianity here in the south.
So I tip my hat to her as a progressive redneck preacher, and thank God for the gift her life and ministry has been to me.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,