The first time I went to a service at Glide Memorial Church I felt very white and stiff. I stood rigid against a sea of people of various colors swaying to the rhythm of the 100-person choir belting out gospel music. Catholics don’t sway during mass or clap when they sing (and most times they choose not to even sing). Twenty one years of quiet reflection and ritual cemented my feet in the ground preventing any dancing.
I remember the radical invitation the pastor made to the congregation, “If God made you, we want you.” The pastor specifically invited all gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered individuals to join the church. Now that is a statement that I had never heard at mass throughout my 18 years of Catholic schools. I wanted to be a part of this joyful church.
Ten years later I am now in the world-renowned Glide Ensemble. We’ve shared stages with President Obama, Hilary Clinton, Maya Angelou, Robert Williams and U2. I am proud to say that I can now rock it and sway with the best of them.
The members of the choir and congregation are as random and diverse as passengers riding a Muni bus. The choir is a mix of Marin moms, international students, professional musicians, narcotics anonymous members, and small business owners. Homos and heteros harmonize together easily. Believers and non-believers of all traditions and ethnic backgrounds come together to celebrate the message of unconditional love that is the backbone Glide’s message.
This month I sat down with energetic co-pastor Dr. Karen Oliveto who has been a ministry leader to the Glide LGBT community. She is co-author of Talking about Homosexuality: A Congregational Resource. She’s also been in the public spotlight after being under investigation by the Methodist Church for marrying same sex couples in 2004 in San Francisco at City Hall.
Pastor Oliveto spoke about how Glide brings people together. She said, “Glide is a church for people who don’t like church. What we offer to people is community. Through the community they discover spirituality.”
Unconditional love has meant the inclusion of the LGBT community at Glide. Pastor Oliveto pointed out that Glide helped form the Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) back in 1964 after a weekend retreat between religious and gay leaders. The police raided a fundraiser for a CRH-sponsored dance on January 1, 1965 and thrust CRH into the public spotlight.
“Now can you imagine if a church sponsored dance with a group of clergy present was the beginning of the gay revolution instead of Stonewall?” asked Pastor Oliveto. Glide leadership received widespread criticism from the community, but stood its ground to support the gay community. Glide founder and pastor Cecil Williams started marrying same sex couples shortly afterward, four decades before today’s struggle to legalize gay marriage.
Now in 2011, Glide has a thriving weekly Bi/Gay Men’s group and a LGBTQI Women’s Group. The Pride Team also coordinates a float in the Pride parade every year. Pastor Oliveto stated, “our gay Glide members are of our most loyal and active church members.” Case in point is the Springlicious Drag Queen Cabaret fundraiser this Saturday. Now, that sure beats any parish festival I ever attended.
Photo 2: Courtesy of Karen Oliveto