Founded in Los Angeles in 1969, Dignity had expanded nationally, including the formation of a Chicago group, within four years, and the organization held its third Biennial Convention ( its first international convention ) in Chicago in September 1977. St. Sebastian Church, then at 824 W. Wellington Ave., was filled for the convention's Mass, concelebrated by 100 priests, as the organization notes on its Web site's Highlights of Dignity/ USA's History.
St. Sebastian was host to Dignity/Chicago's Sunday evening Mass for 16 years, but the group's initial support from some areas of the Roman Catholic Church changed to conflict when, in 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ( now Pope Benedict XVI ) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome issued a Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. The official pronouncement declared homosexuality an “intrinsically disordered” condition and forbade bishops to allow church property to be used by organizations not adhering to the church's official position. Dignity's long-standing and publicly expressed view, that “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with Christ's teaching,” was seen as in conflict with the church's clear pronouncement that homosexuals must remain celibate.
Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin responded to the Vatican's position by pre-empting the weekly Dignity Mass, declaring in May 1988 that henceforth archdiocesan-appointed priests would celebrate a Sunday evening Mass at St. Sebastian for the gay and lesbian community, under the auspices of the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach ( AGLO ) . The result was an acrimonious schism between AGLO and Dignity, with a part of the GLBT Catholic community viewing the officially sanctioned Mass as a step forward in acceptance, while others were unwilling to toe the line of church teaching on homosexuality and homosexual behavior or disband their 16-year-old organization.
Adding fuel to the fire was Bernardin's 11th-hour letter the previous year to members of the Chicago City Council urging it not to pass a human rights ordinance that included sexual orientation as a protected class. The cardinal's letter was widely credited with derailing passage of the legislation.
Dignity/Chicago began holding its Masses at a nearby Lutheran church and currently holds them at 3334 N. Broadway. The AGLO Mass moved to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 708 W. Belmont Ave., after St. Sebastian was destroyed by fire in 1991. Both organizations continue to offer Sunday evening Masses for the GLBT community, and Dignity will mark its 36th anniversary as a national organization in 2008.
GOOD SHEPHERD PARISH MCC
Begun in Los Angeles in 1968 by the Rev. Troy Perry, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches spread a message of acceptance for gays and lesbians, boosted by publication of Perry's autobiography, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay. In 1970, Good Shepherd Parish Metropolitan Community Church was founded in Chicago by the Rev. Arthur Green—the fourth MCC congregation organized and the first church to minister specifically to Chicago's gay community.
Providing gays and lesbians a safe and welcoming home for worship was a priority, but in the mid1970s, Good Shepherd Parish began a more “outward-looking” ministry under the Rev. Kenneth Martin. It sued the Illinois Department of Corrections for access to minister in state prisons, according to The Chicago Gay Crusader. The church also participated in the East Lake View neighborhood's Night Ministry program and in speaking on gay and lesbian issues at other Chicago churches, while maintaining its 24-hour telephone hotline.
By then, Good Shepherd Parish had moved to share Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ's building, 615 W. Wellington Ave., which was to become the MCC congregation's home for 26 years. Membership boomed in the '70s to about 250, and the AIDS epidemic brought new forms of ministry, with a weekly Eucharist celebrated at Illinois Masonic Hospital for 15 years. Membership declined until only one member was under the age of 40. The church held its final service on July 8, 2007.
A new MCC-sponsored church, achurch4me, less traditionally structured than the previous congregation, meets on Sundays at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., with the Rev. Kevin Downer, formerly a Good Shepherd Parish deacon, as lead pastor. Three MCCs continue to operate in Illinois: Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, MCC of the Fox Valley in Elgin, and Heartland MCC in Springfield.
Congregation Or Chadash ( Congregation of New Light ) was founded in 1976 to serve the Jewish gay and lesbian community of Chicago. It has done so in a wide variety of ways, including regular services, special holiday events, educational programming, visibility at Pride parades and much more.
Or Chadash's mission statement says it will “ [ r ] emember that it was founded as an answer to the prejudice that gay and lesbian Jews experienced in other synagogues; [ s ] trive to ensure that no Jew experiences prejudice within our community; [ m ] aintain affiliations with the Union for Reform Judaism and [ the ] World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga'avah; [ and ] [ b ] uild strong ties within the greater Jewish community of the metropolitan Chicago area,” besides dedicating itself to “basic obligations of Jewish life.”
In the 1980s, several Jewish lesbians broke off to form their own group, concerned about perceived insensitivity by some men in Or Chadash. Those who helped to found Havurat Achayot include Elaine Wessel, Dillie Grunauer and Renee Hanover. It continued for a few years.
Or Chadash has had rabbis over the years, most recently Laurence Edwards, who teams with cantorial soloist Judith Golden. The congregation has also “spearheaded groundbreaking changes that allowed gay men and lesbians to be accepted in Jewish synagogues and institutions,” according to the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame's profile of the group.
Chicago was at the forefront of acceptance for gay Episcopalians, convening the first chapter of Integrity before a national organization was incorporated. Less than a year after a national gay and lesbian Episcopal organization was first brought up in discussion, Chicago's St. James Cathedral on North Wabash Avenue hosted Integrity's first national convention.
The August 1975 meeting drew 187 attendees, with seven chapters having been established and nine others in formation, according to a contemporary report in The Chicago Gay Crusader.
Integrity's founding was in the form of a newsletter written and published in Georgia by Dr. Louie Crew, but the Chicago chapter was, in fact, the first chapter formed, according to a history written by Crew. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church issued a statement of support. The initial convention addressed such issues as “Problems in Counseling for Gays,” “Gay Community: Cultural, Social and Religious Involvement and Responsibility,” and “Problems of Gay Parents,” the Crusader reported.
Symbolic of the level of acceptance within Chicago's Episcopal Church, the diocese's assistant bishop celebrated the organization's Eucharist, which drew 300 attendees on a Saturday morning. Dr. W. Norman Pittenger, a noted Anglican theologian who had taught at General Theological Seminary in New York and at King's College, Cambridge, gave the convention's keynote address. Pittenger wrote several of the earliest works urging acceptance of committed gay relationships in the Anglican Communion.
CHURCH OF THE OPEN DOOR
The first Chicago gay-focused church to own its own property was Church of the Open Door, at 5954 S. Albany Ave. on Chicago's Southwest Side. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Open Door served the African-American gay and lesbian community through services, special events, and opening its doors to other organizations. Its founders, the Rev. Karen Hutt and the Rev. Alma Crawford, welcomed many key activists to events inside the church doors, including Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays' annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute breakfast.
UCC AND OTHER OUTREACH
Ronald Wadley, who describes himself as a same-gender-loving man, is active in Trinity United Church of Christ, a prominent African-American mainstream church of which U.S. Sen. Barack Obama ( D-Ill. ) has been a member. Wadley is a leader in that church's Same Gender Loving Ministry, an important group in a church that is among Chicago's largest, at 400 W. 95th St. Wadley, Sherri Jackson, the Rev. Juan Reed and the Rev. Deborah Lake ( of Sankofa Way ) and others are working to change Christian churches, and their efforts have helped to pave a new path to providing gays a seat at the church table.
Rick Peterson and the Rev. Wayne Bradley, partners since 1984, are active in the United Church of Christ ( UCC ) denomination as well—Peterson as a regional leader, and Bradley as minister of music for the First Congregational Church of Forest Glen UCC, 5400 N. Lawler Ave. Bradley previously was a clergyman in the Metropolitan Community Churches, but he turned to UCC as a way to make change within a mainstream denomination. UCC is widely believed to be one of the most accepting denominations for gays and lesbians.
Over time, most major religions have had some gay support groups, or AIDS outreach. For many years, there was an Interfaith group that held joint services with several of the gay religious organizations, especially around Pride Month. Another important Chicago-based resource for religious issues is produced by the progressive Chicago Theological Seminary: The LGBT Religious Archives Network, at the Web site www.lgbtran.org .
With contributions by Tracy Baim
From Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, edited by Tracy Baim, Surrey Books, 2008.