We All Have a Horse in This Race

leopold-photoThe year was 1987.  “A holy union, what is that?” I asked as the outgoing pastor handed me the church keys to my then new appointment at Washington Square UMC.  A few days later, it was Sunday.  I was all set for worship.  Had my Bible in one hand and my hymnal in the other, with the sermon and bulletin tucked inside.  I was surprised when I got to the pulpit and looked at the congregation and saw a memorable sight.  There were 10 people in church.  Yes, count them: 10.

That summer, I did so many “street funerals” that I lost count.  Every one of the deceased had been infected with the HIV virus and there was no medicine that could have been taken to stop it, delay it, no less cure it.  At the time, no one was certain how the virus was transmitted.  There was a lot of hysteria in the media and, as people were afraid to take subways, to use public bathrooms, or even be with a large group in a small office.

When I was out and about in stores and such around my church, I walked by lots of young men with whom I shared something in common.  We were all in our late 20s.  We also had something very different: I looked like the picture of health while so many, many young men were pale and gaunt.

It was as if I was on another planet, amidst the walking dead.

That fall, two men came to my office and asked if I would perform their “holy union.”  Having had so many funerals over the summer, the thought of bringing a couple together for a happy reason practically made me jump for joy.

Although I had gotten the keys from my predecessor, I forgot to ask for a liturgy for a holy union.  So I did what I would do for any wedding: made four appointments for pastoral counseling sessions and to plan the service.  When the time came to plan their service, I went to the Methodist Hymnal and showed them the service for marriage as a template.  We tweaked it.  In the end, they loved, loved, loved their holy union.  And I did too.

There were a great many people at that holy union.  Gradually, other couples came forward and asked me to do theirs as well, and I did.

In time, I did many holy unions.  Dozens and dozens of them.

That fall, I met with then-Mayor David Dinkins.  With the consensus of the church leaders, I converted the first floor of my three-floor parsonage into a homeless shelter for a very specific population: men, with AIDS.  It was “staffed” by volunteers from our church and two churches across the street.  When I didn’t leave church too late, I made it a habit of stopping in to see the men before “lights out.”

That winter, I did a lot of outreach to the local community.  In addition to the homeless shelter, we opened the doors of the church to start or expand many other groups, such as: a peace group, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Meals-On-Wheels (to deliver food to homebound AIDS patients) and on, and on.  I visited with the groups and/or their leaders on a regular basis.

About two years later, on my last Sunday in that church, I looked out and will always remember the last memory of my last service there.  I have often cited this memory to others who worry about the church “splitting.”

The last thing I saw was so beautiful because that Sunday the church was jam packed.  The number of people in church was not 10 no 20 no even 100.  Rather, the number was — over 400.

I had worked very hard on my sermons “for 10 people” and I thought maybe that had something to do with the church growth.  Or maybe it was because our small group of 10 quickly united around outreach that ended up serving over 1,000 people a week.  But then near the end of my pastorate, a parishioner informed me the attendance was increasing because I gained a reputation for “being nice enough to do holy unions.”

“What do you mean,” I asked, “by nice enough?”  He said people thought it was nice because “a straight minister doesn’t have to have a horse in this race.”  We laughed.

And then I looked him in the eye and said “If we’re about peace and justice, then we all have a horse in this race.”

When my successor arrived, I was sure to tell him all about holy unions.  And I gave him my liturgy.

It’s been 27 years since I met that first couple.  I don’t recall their names any more.  But I was always glad for how they expanded my commitment to justice and peace by helping  me to see that it is not only the LGBT community but all of us who have horse in this race.  I hope we cross the finish line, soon.

Phyllis (“P.J.”) Leopold is an elder in the New York Annual Conference serving in extension ministry as the executive director of the Association of Religious Communities.


We Did is a project of Methodists in New Directions (MIND) dedicated to making visible our ministries to LGBTQ people and encouraging others in the UMC to transcend the institutional requirement to discriminate and make their ministries visible, too. It is part of the Biblical Obedience movement sweeping across the United Methodist Church. You can read all the We Did stories here.  We invite you to submit your own story to We Did.