It’s a Sunday spring morning, and the Rev. Da Vita McCallister wakes rested and ready to share her story. She considers what she will say to the 125 or so worshipers who will gather at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit. She promises herself that she won’t cry when she divulges a secret that she has kept from the congregation she has grown to love. But she knows that she will cry — and they may cry too.
McCallister is not the only one who will tell her story this cool March day. It is Women’s History Month, and two others will also share their personal journeys. But McCallister will go last. She and the other clergy and staff planned it this way, knowing that the petite pastor with the short swirled knots of dark hair may shock and anger some in attendance. Some may even walk out, feeling betrayed. But no matter what happens, McCallister and her confidants are sure that Central will survive. After all, the church had spent the last few years confronting the divisive issue of whether to be a “reconciled church” and grant gay members the same rights as heterosexuals. It wasn’t an easy process, but in the end, the congregation got through that as it would get through today.
Sitting near the pulpit in her white frock and purple satin stole, McCallister waits to face those who have come to hear her preach. Listening to the other two women, she reflects on her own journey and how she became an associate pastor here.
McCallister comes from a family of believers. Her great-grandfather was a Baptist minister who preached 65 years at two small rural churches in northern Florida. Her parents raised their two daughters and a son in a black Baptist church in Alexandria, Va. But McCallister says her desire to be a minister came from God — and was fostered by a particularly pious aunt.
“She was the kind of woman that had scriptures on everything” — including the toilet paper, says the 30-year-old minister about her dad’s sister Irma.
Aunt Irma became a religious zealot in 1983, after a miraculous healing. Suffering from what she was told was an inoperable brain tumor, she attended a Pentecostal camp in Ashland, Va., where a camp pastor laid hands on the ailing woman and cured what doctors couldn’t.
“The family was having to deal with what that meant,” says McCallister, who was 14 at the time. “We were very religious, but we didn’t believe in speaking in tongues and miracles.”
Aunt Irma cajoled McCallister’s other family members to attend the Pentecostal camp. The reluctant adults sent their kids — young Da Vita and a cousin — instead.
“It was nothing like I had ever experienced,” she says.
Hundreds of blacks, whites and Latinos were packed in an outdoor amphitheater where drums and guitars, trumpets and horns, clapping and singing rose to the heavens. They stood, raised their arms and shouted, Amen! Alleluia! The young McCallister watched in amazement at the contrast to her subdued suburban church.
The frenzied devotion seeped into her skinny body and bones. At the children’s service, McCallister and a handful of others scrambled to the altar to give thanks. Most uttered only a few words. Then the bony girl with the dark, shoulder-length hair took her turn.
“I got that mic and started witnessing and preaching and walking the aisle, and kids were coming down to be saved, and people in the camp were telling me to lay hands on folk and it was just an explosion,” she says.
That evening some gathered around the child to pray. They prophesized that she would be a minister and “do things that no one else had done,” recalls McCallister. They told her to spend the remaining four days of camp praying at a small, white clapboard chapel on the grounds.
She fasted and prayed, hands clasped for hours each day. On the last day, she walked to a world map tacked to the church wall and traced her thin fingers along the brightly colored borders of each continent.
“I could hear God saying, ‘The word that comes from your mouth will be heard in these places.’ And I just had this sense that ministry was going to be my life,” she says.
The earnest child returned home declaring that she would spend her life preaching God’s word. Though supportive, her parents’ eyes rolled when she shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!” and “Alleluia!” at their very reserved church.
“And I started witnessing to my parents that they had to get their lives together and come to Jesus,” says the young minister laughing. “I think my father was tired of being witnessed to.”
McCallister focused on preparing for the ministry, reading the Bible, attending services and joining the church youth group. But her yearning to be close to God was clouded by a secret part of herself. Since she was about 7 years old, McCallister has felt attracted to girls.
“I had a girlfriend in the third grade, but it didn’t occur to me that there was something different about it,” she says.
By fifth grade her parents made it clear that they — and God — considered homosexuality a sin.
“And then I knew I was in trouble,” she says.
Throughout adolescence, McCallister felt conflicted about her desire to be with girls and her desire to walk with God.
“I would kind of have a relationship and then have a religious experience and break up,” she says. “I spent my teenage years choosing whether I was going to be gay or going to be called. There was no sense that the two were compatible.”
McCallister’s internal struggle continued through undergraduate school at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., where she majored in religion and psychology.
“I was very much closeted,” she says. “I dated women, but no one knew it and I felt shame about the relationships.”
But in 1993, a little United Methodist church in west Michigan provided the first safe place where the young woman could share her secret.
After her junior year, McCallister spent the summer with her sister and brother-in-law in Battle Creek. Her brother-in-law’s best friend was a Methodist minister at a small, all-black congregation. He needed someone to fill in for him for the three weeks of a family vacation. Her brother-in-law suggested McCallister.
Apprehensive, the aspiring preacher ticked off reasons why she wasn’t ready. But the Methodist minister quelled her fears and for rest of the summer, McCallister preached and led Bible studies.
“I was hooked,” she says.
The congregation was so pleased that the minister asked whether she would consider being ordained. About the same time, McCallister learned that the denomination was beginning to openly talk about homosexuality.
“The opportunity to be part of a denomination that was at least engaging the issue … that was great for me,” she says. She said yes.
Ordination, a stringent process that involves psychological and physical exams, interviews with head clergy and a graduate degree, takes about five years. It also requires applicants to take on a leadership role at a Methodist church. In 1995, after graduating from college, McCallister returned to Battle Creek where she spent a year leading the church’s youth program, ministering to the needy and falling in love, as she puts it, with the church and the ministry.
Attending her first annual conference of west-Michigan United Methodist Churches — where policies and issues are discussed — she “felt God saying this is a place for me.”
Still, McCallister struggled with her sexuality. She shared her secret with the Methodist minister in Battle Creek; he counseled and prayed with her, and thought it best not to tell the congregation.
After all, a married pastor from another church in west Michigan had announced that he was gay only to see half the congregation leave the church. Yet, there were signs of progress too. As a result of a study on homosexuality put together by a panel of theological scholars, congregations had begun talking about the subject in the past decade.
This inspired the Battle Creek church to hold a forum of its own on homosexuality. McCallister recalls a white couple whose gay son was dying of AIDS. They described how the church they belonged to for years responded by casting them out. Other churches also turned a cold shoulder.
“They thanked us for just being a church willing to talk about it,” says McCallister.
Though the forum was also painful for her — with some damning homosexuals as wicked sinners — McCallister was proud that the little 100-member church in Battle Creek welcomed the couple and the conversation.
“That congregation didn’t come out at the end saying, ‘We’re going to throw open our doors to gay and lesbian persons, y’all come,’” says McCallister. “But they had honestly dealt with the issue.”
In the fall of 1995, as part of her ordination process, McCallister entered Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary. Before school began, she met with the Methodist clergy as required — and she confessed that though she once considered herself gay, she believed God had “healed” her. The clergy questioned her and accepted her to the seminary.
“I went to the seminary fully believing that I was heterosexual and was going to get married and have children and come back and pastor at a church,” says McCallister.
She breezed through her first year, pulling down top grades and garnering professors’ praise. But the next year, McCallister’s world unraveled: She encountered professors who — based on their interpretation of Scripture — did not consider homosexuality a sin.
“At first, I’m shocked and horrified. How can this be?” she says; it had been ingrained in her that homosexuality is an abomination.
But the Bible also says that eating shellfish and wearing garments made of two different fibers are abominable acts.
“I’m like, What are you saying? That eating shrimp is the same as having a relationship with a woman? I know preachers who have been eating shrimp their whole lives,” shrieks McCallister recalling the betrayal she felt.
McCallister didn’t know whether to believe her new theology professors or the views her parents instilled during her childhood:
“There are these two very different gospels being preached to me and I’m smack-dab in the middle feeling like I’m being ripped in half.”
She stopped going to class and to church. Her grades plummeted. She was overcome with crying spells. Having cut herself off from gay friends, she could confide in few people.
That winter a friend asked McCallister to preach at her church. Though deeply depressed, the poor student agreed, knowing that the work would put a little cash in her pocket. The night before she was to deliver the sermon, McCallister cried until morning and confided in her friend. After many long hours, her friend suggested that McCallister ask God for guidance.
“You tell me what your parents say and what the church says and what your professors say, but have you ever asked God?” the friend said.
“I can’t ask God that,” a terrified McCallister cried. “I could accept my mother rejecting me, I could accept the church rejecting me, but if God rejected me, I don’t think I could go on living.”
The next morning, McCallister rose from bed with tear-swollen eyes. The fledgling minister typically spent weeks preparing a sermon. This time she had no idea what she would say to the all-black congregation in a small rural town outside Atlanta
“Every time I go to pick up the Bible, I hear God telling me, ‘No,’” says McCallister. “And I’m like, ‘How in the world can you tell me no? I have to go preach. What am I going to say?’ And God says, ‘I’ll tell you what to say when you get there.’”
During the 45-minute drive, McCallister says she heard God again. He told her to preach about Christ’s request for water from the woman at the well in the Gospel of John. Unsure of herself, she entered the modest country church. She didn’t know that the sermon she was about to deliver would set off a surge of emotion among the parishioners — and transform her relationship with God and herself.
“And what I say to the people is, this woman, when Christ asked her for water, is fussing at him because he is trying to encroach upon an area in her life that she is trying to keep to herself, which is how she relates to men,” says McCallister.
The woman, she told the congregation, had been rejected by her community because she had married several men in turn and was living with another. Though the woman refused to give Christ water, he offered it to her. The water, explained McCallister, symbolized God’s nourishment. Jesus hoped to nurture the woman, whose life had become “dry and cracked” because of her relationships to men and the community’s rejection of her.
“All of us have areas of our life that are dry ground. I have a dry ground,” admitted McCallister to the 150 or so worshipers before her. “I know preachers usually come and preach stuff after they worked it out but dang nabbit, I’m in dry ground right now! I have this area of my life that is dry ground, and I don’t want God anywhere near it.”
“Now, I’m crying, and the pastor of the church is crying, and my friend who drove me there is crying,” recalls McCallister.
With teary eyes, the aspiring minister invited the congregation to pray for each other and ask God to nourish their dry ground. When the service ended, McCallister headed to the church pastor’s office to wipe off her smudged mascara. On the wall was a dingy, cracked mirror.
“And I look into this mirror that is cracked and tarnished and smudged and kind of tottering. And for the first time in my life I see a gay woman looking back,” says McCallister.
Shocked and frightened, the young pastor stood waiting for a thunderbolt to strike her dead.
“And instead I feel God’s overwhelming and overpowering love for me. And I hear God telling me, ‘Look in this cracked, dirty mirror and see the woman I see.’ And God didn’t say no. God said yes to me.”
After that, McCallister refused to hide her sexuality from anyone, including her parents and the church.
“I later called that my coming-out tour,” she says grinning.
That fall, she officially sought approval of the board of ordained ministry for the western conference (Michigan has two conferences, a western conference and a Detroit conference, each made up of hundreds of churches) and honestly answered questions about her sexuality. She suspected that was what led to her being rejected, but she applied again. This time the board approved. There was one more step. About 400 pastors from west Michigan must vote on the board’s recommendation at their annual conference. Typically that is a formality. But McCallister was hardly a typical candidate.
That the Methodist Church was possibly going to ordain a woman it knew was gay was potentially big news. Bishop Don Ott, who oversaw all the churches in Michigan before he retired last year, and the head clergy feared that the event would turn into the kind of media circus they had seen in the past.
Since 1997, when a Methodist minister in Omaha, Neb., married a lesbian couple and was nearly stripped of his religious credentials, the 8.5 million member denomination — the third-largest in the country — had been in the spotlight. Homosexuality within the denomination became a major battleground, with some churches fiercely split over the subject.
But in the fall of 1999, McCallister, the bishop and head clergy were not concerned with debating the issue. They merely wanted to ensure the conference would not be disrupted if the media showed. Though only a few reporters showed up — and only a few articles appeared — the conference was nonetheless trying.
About nine candidates, including McCallister, were before hundreds of clergy who would vote on their ordination. The clergy voted without hesitation on each of the prospective pastors — until they got to McCallister.
“Just before we get to my name, someone stands up and asks, ‘Bishop, I understand there is someone who has identified themselves as homosexual,’” recalls McCallister.
Though some homosexuals have come out after they were ordained ministers in the United Methodist Church, the denomination specifically states that it will not ordain openly gay men and women, according to church doctrine.
The conversation over whether to ordain the openly gay McCallister became heated with some ministers objecting. Others argued in support of her. The debate continued for about 35 minutes. “And I’m sitting there listening to all this and knowing if they vote yes, these are the brothers and sisters I will be in contact with,” recalls McCallister.
They took a final vote — and this time God said yes, as McCallister puts it: The clergy ordained her as the first openly gay minister in the United Methodist Church.
When the bishop called for a 10-minute recess, McCallister dropped her head in her hands, not sure whether she should cry or rejoice. But when she opened her eyes, she saw her new peers swarming toward her.
“They embraced me,” says McCallister, surprised by the response. “They apologized. They welcomed me to the covenant ministry. And they thanked me for my courage.”
But even having won so much, there was no western Michigan church with a full-time opening that was willing to accept or even interview McCallister, knowing she was gay. Hurt and frustrated, McCallister decided to return to school in Atlanta to get a second master’s degree.
While McCallister spent several years on the west side of Michigan trying to find a place in the Methodist Church, a congregation on the east side of the state was immersed in a struggle of its own. In 1997, members of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit approached their senior pastor, the Rev. Ed Rowe, about becoming a “reconciling congregation.”
Within the Methodist Church, says Rowe, this means that gay parishioners would have the same rights as heterosexual members: the church would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring staff, would respond to the needs of gay members, and commit to changing United Methodist policies against same-sex marriages and ordination of openly gay persons. Since the movement began in 1982, about 171 United Methodist congregations have become reconciled, according to the Reconciliation Ministries Network, a reconciliation movement within the denomination.
Rowe, who has been the head minister at Central about seven years, says he was thrilled. A lifelong Detroiter, Rowe had been drawn to the church’s peace-and-justice tradition — including the Rev. Henry Hitt Crane who preached pacifism during World War II. That continues today. Some examples: The church feeds hundreds of homeless people, provides clothes and other goods to the needy and on-site HIV/AIDS testing. Central has worked hard to embrace folks of all races and backgrounds, including many gays. But to formally accept this community is what church is all about, says Rowe. National church leaders created a formal guide to help steer congregations like Rowe’s through the process.
Rowe and about 10 others formed a reconciliation task force in 1998. Each Sunday Rowe would invite the full congregation to participate. Bible study was a principal tool, says Rowe.
In the first two years, the church held about 30 sessions where members gathered to explore Scripture with regard to homosexuality. The congregation struggled with the subject, but the meetings were never hostile, Rowe says. Some left the sessions with a new perspective, but others did not. And there were times when Rowe wondered whether he would stay at Central should it vote against reconciliation. But conflict within the church was not new to the outspoken pastor, who took some heat from some of the congregation for publicly criticizing the Detroit newspapers — and being arrested at a protest — during the five-year newspaper strike. He chose to see how the reconciliation vote came down before deciding whether to stay at Central.
A June 2000 vote was set, but the reconciliation task force felt the congregation needed more time. The task force decided to have Bible studies at members’ homes rather than at church; hosts and facilitators were trained to nurture discussions. Rowe says the less-threatening atmosphere helped people open up.
“People came who wouldn’t come to the other meetings, and they brought a list of questions and Bible verses they wanted us to unpack,” recalls Rowe, who declined to facilitate interviews with those who participated in the process.
Some minds and hearts were changed, says the bearded Rowe. “But other people said, ‘Well, at least I have the assurance that everybody in this debate is trying to discern … what it means to be faithful to God. And if I can trust that, then I don’t need you to believe everything I believe.”
A couple months before Central’s home Bible studies got under way, United Methodist churches around the country were gearing up for their general conference where every four years clergy and lay people meet to set policies. In 2000, a major controversy was brewing over whether to ordain openly gay members and allow preachers to perform same-sex marriages; Central was among the churches favoring these policies.
At this same time, McCallister, who had retreated into her studies, was nudged by professors and friends to return to active participation in the church. McCallister also felt a need to return. She told Ott that she wanted him to appoint her to a church. At the time, there were no more positions available on the west side of Michigan, where she was ordained. But the east side had a few — including at Central.
For years Rowe, who is white, had been asking the bishop for an associate pastor, particularly an African-American. With a congregation that is 60 percent black, Rowe insisted that the church also have an African-American pastor.
“If the church wants to have credibility, it cannot be a white island in the middle of an African-American city,” says Rowe.
The bishop suggested that Rowe call McCallister. Rowe told her of the turmoil his church was experiencing with the reconciliation process, and she told him about the pain she endured seeking ordination. Rowe felt that a miracle was at work and invited McCallister to Central.
“God used a troubling situation and the disease of homophobia to give Central a great gift,” says Rowe.
Though the votes came down against same-sex marriages and ordaining gay ministers, Rowe left the conference optimistic — and ready for what he and McCallister could face if she joined Central. For one thing, Rowe knew that clergy around the state could try to expel the gay minister from the denomination. Despite this, McCallister visited Detroit and met with Central’s head clergy and about 20 volunteers who help run the church; Bishop Linda Lee, who replaced Ott when he retired, also attended the meeting.
“It was this wonderful profound conversation,” recalls McCallister. “We spent 80 percent of the time dealing with issues of the church. How do you feel about Christian education? How do you feel about children and youth programs? What do you think of the Bible? What do you think about God’s people?”
But during the conversation, she noticed an elderly African-American woman who hadn’t said much sitting in the corner. Used to African-Americans coming down hard on homosexuals, McCallister expected the worst. But when the woman finally spoke she said exactly what McCallister needed to hear: “Now look here, we ain’t going to bring her here if we can’t support her. Because I will not be a part of hurting this woman. I will not do it. And if we aren’t serious about this and about her and about her ministry, we need to stop right now.”
The elderly woman then looked over at the bishop and clergy and said, “And we don’t want any trouble out of y’all either.”
There was one last hurdle. McCallister joined the church as a full-time associate pastor last July, but the congregation still had not taken a vote on reconciliation. The staff decided to take the vote and give the congregation time to know McCallister before disclosing her sexual orientation.
In September, the congregation was ready to vote. About 90 of 260 church members showed. In the end 77 voted in favor of reconciliation; 11 voted against. Central became one of only four Methodist churches in Michigan to be reconciled.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
“It’s good to be in the house of God this morning. Amen?,” shouts McCallister to the quiet congregation this Sunday morning.
“Amen,” the timid parishioners hail back.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but I believe I am ready to shout today,” bellows the young cleric.
“I’m here this morning to do one thing and one thing only and that is to proclaim God’s eternal, unconditional, never-ending, always-graceful, ‘Yes.’”
Parishioners have come to love the young woman who opens every sermon by asking them to greet one another with a hug. It’s a tradition they cherish. And when Rowe or associate pastor Frank Leineke forget to follow suit, the parishioners fuss at them until they do.
“And I tell you it’s necessary to proclaim it because the world in which we live says, ‘No.’ No to what you believe, not to what you do. Can I tell the truth?” asks McCallister.
“No to how you look. No to how you dress, no to who you’re dating, no to who you let go and no to who you picked up.”
The congregation chuckles. “But God’s response to each and every one of us is yes. And it’s hard for us to comprehend because we’re so conditioned to not only saying no to each other, but to saying no to ourselves,” she continues. “It makes sense to us that God would say yes to the poor woman who was raped, but we cannot understand how God would say yes to the man who has raped her.”
Looks of puzzlement cross the parishioners faces.
“It makes sense to us how God would say yes to the woman or man who has been abused and beaten and discarded and mutilated, but we can’t understand how God would say yes to the perpetrator,” says McCallister.
The message begins to sink in.
“It is acceptable to us that God would say yes to the poor and disenfranchised, but you know them rich folks, you just can’t trust ’em. We don’t understand how God would say yes to them,” shouts the preacher.
Applause erupts in the church.
“There is a lot of folks who buy into a world that divides us all. Everything is black and white, there are no shades in the middle. You are either right or wrong, you are either gay or straight, you are either rich or poor, and where you fall along the lines determines your worth! Yet God stands, sits, lays, extends God’s hand from the throne of grace and mercy proclaiming in every situation in every life circumstance, yes, yes. … Yes, just as you are,” she says.
“I woke up this morning, and I said I wasn’t going to cry, but I knew it was a lie when I said it,” said McCallister, starting to weep.
“I woke up this morning and my mind began to fill with all the people who told me, ‘No.’ My mind began to fill with all the times I told myself, ‘No.’ And in every situation I could hear God saying, ‘Yes.’ Yes when my parents said, ‘It’s not natural to be like that,’ yes. Yes, when the preacher preached, ‘You are an abomination,’ yes, yes. Yes when the church said we have no place for you and your call, yes, yes, yes. … Yes when they said we need to come up with an alternative route for you to get in here, reverend, because when they find out we are going to ordain a gay woman, they may come after you, yes,’” says McCallister, as tears run down her face.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” she whispers.
“Yes! Yes!” parishioners echo back.
“There are those who said, no, to the call of God on my life. There are those who said no to my ordination. There are those who said no to my appointment, but God said, ‘Yes.’ God said, ‘Yes,’” says McCallister.
“Thank God,” shouts Rowe.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” bellows the congregation.
“So I stand before you this morning to our knowledge, the only out and ordained and appointed lesbian or gay person in the United Methodist Church, nationally and worldwide.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” more shouts resound from the church as many stand, crying and clapping — even some who voted against reconciliation.
“We need to be the church that tells everybody that God has said yes. God has said yes to you and to you and to you. That is what it means to be a reconciling church, Central.
“It doesn’t mean becoming a gay church. It doesn’t mean being a church that only speaks of issues of peace and justice. It doesn’t mean being a church that only deals with issues of poverty,” she says.
“Yes,” call back the faithful.
“It means,” proclaims McCallister, “standing up and saying as loud as you can … God says yes, to whoever you are.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]