Roy Birchard’s career in ministry, as a cisgender white gay male in the LGBTQ church, overall resembles a newsreel running rapidly in reverse: from high falutin’ ecclesiastical titles with national visibility and weighty responsibility in the 1970’s and 80’s to iffy, peripheral-but-satisfying mission ventures and idealistic crusades in subsequent decades. But the gratifying peripheral careers and causes grew upon the original MCC foundation, and “ministers” must continually adapt to the world in which they serve and learn by doing.
Roy Birchard (me) was born in July 1943, in Middlebury, Vermont, to Adrian Birchard and Winifred Killoran. My parents divorced when I was 10, and I spent the next 40+ years dealing with their unresolved divergent viewpoints on their youthful incompatible marriage while knowing that they and Gladys, my father’s second wife, loved me and I them. This divorce set me up for a lifelong pattern of attempting to “reconcile-the-irreconcilable” with greater and lesser degrees of success.
In addition to surviving as an electrician and rural mail carrier, my father was a talented musician who played drums and saxophone in local dance bands and enjoyed regional popularity. Regrettably, neither of his sons inherited his musical talents. My mother progressed from being a rural homemaker to serving as the full-time clerk and treasurer of our town and treasurer of our church and lived in retirement in a home on the campus of the University of Vermont where she audited philosophy classes and studied theology and Biblical interpretation. After a rocky first marriage to an abusive alcoholic, Gladys Birchard was a successful entrepreneur constructing suburban housing in Middlebury.
My mother and brother especially also had a connection with our neighbors up the road in Shoreham -- Elsie Smith and her sisters Helen and Grace Brown, teachers at the famous Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. and siblings of the Harlem Renaissance-era poet and folklorist Sterling Brown who taught at Howard University where the current occupant of the Sterling Brown chair in the English Department is Ta-Nehisi Coates. This small-town family acquaintance led me to many African-American connections for the remainder of my life and had a big impact in how I see America and the world.
We also lived just down the road in Shoreham from the Congregational parsonage where I was taken under the wing of pastor Louise Drake and her first and second husbands – all three of them graduates of Union Theological Seminary in New York City which explains how I got to Berea College and UTS. Tink Shows, Louise’s first husband, was a professor of comparative religion at Middlebury College with a Ph.D. degree from Basel, while her second Francis Drake grew up in the Drake Hotel in Chicago and was a contemporary at Yale with the “Chariots of Fire “ Olympian Eric Liddell.
My older brother John lucked out with a peacetime early-1950’s U.S. Air Force stint (after the Korean War and before Vietnam) which enabled him to become a career radio personality broadcasting jazz and automobile racing and hosting talk shows, eventually ending up as “the auto guy” with the Voice of America in Washington with an international jazz show audience.
So I graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1965 with an English major after heavy involvement with the student newspaper The Pinnacle and participation in Martin Luther King’s marches on Frankfort, Kentucky (1964) and Montgomery, Alabama (1965). Berea was also host then to a nest of ex-Yale-in-China missionaries and the extended family of a famous KMT-era Chinese Christian agricultural expert, Fu-Liang Chang. But at the time I didn’t know that they all were setting me up for my own future Chinese adventures.
Continuing on the educational path then expected of young white male mainline Protestant ministers, I earned a B.D. (M.Div.) degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1969. I was a country boy who had never encountered a prep school classmate before, much less summered doing cultural things in Europe, and I suddenly went from being a big fish in a small Kentucky pond to being a minnow awash in the scary Manhattan harbor. The only reason I got through school was because the African-American people at my field work church -- Bushwick United Methodist in Brooklyn -- composed equally 50% people from the Caribbean islands and 50% from migrants from the American South with a Black lesbian Southern Sunday School director and a married White male pastor -- clearly “had my number” when I didn’t have it myself, accepted and loved me when I was a useless seminarian, and kept the bigger Gospel picture in view. Since I was ham-handed at every task they assigned me, they finally put me in the choir, and the only solo I have ever sung in my life was in one of their spring church musical Saturday evening concerts.
I was then ordained in my home church in June 1969 by the Addison Association of the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ preparatory to who-knew-what? From age 16 to 26, I was completely in the closet awaiting the presumably-miraculous onset of a heterosexual orientation and marriage which never arrived.
So -- unequipped by what was then seen by mainline Protestants as an indispensable “helpmate” and not knowing what else to do -- I accepted the suggestion of a college friend and returned again to academia beginning a Ph.D. program in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But after a year of “academic fatigue,” depression, and suicidal thoughts, I finally in desperation betook myself to the campus gay-lesbian group and within minutes realized another life might be possible.
At that very vulnerable moment, John P. Rash published an article in The Union Seminary Quarterly Review encouraging “gay clergy to come work in the gay community” so I hitched a ride back to New York City and one June evening looked up John Rash where he worked at the UTS library and accompanied him that evening to the weekly meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea. Camping out in the maid’s quarters of Catherine Shinn’s faculty apartment, I then answered a 1-inch ad in The New York Times headed “Men Of the Cloth” which was actually seeking secretaries (subsequently a copy editor and admin) in the United Presbyterian Church’s Department of Mission Interpretation at its headquarters 1970 to 1975 at 475 Riverside Drive (known to inhabitants as “The God Box”). Fr. John McNeil, S.J., of Woodstock College and I were the only two out-of-the closet employees there of several hundred -- or maybe I was and he might as well have been. John McNeill was one of a handful of people I have known in my lifetime whom I seriously think were saints. Little did I know that being a secretary in “the God Box” would open many other doors in the decades to follow!
After a tumultuous year-and-a-half of being an ecclesiastical gay activist by day and bar-fly by night, in November of 1971 the Rev. Howard Wells, founder and first pastor of MCC San Francisco, arrived in New York as a “missionary” and was given housing at the home of Rich Wandel, then-president of the Gay Activists Alliance, in Brooklyn.
I was one of several New York people whose names Rev. Troy Perry had collected, and on Thanksgiving weekend 1971 Howard and I met at the GAA Firehouse community center in Manhattan. In January, 1972, the group held its first worship service at the Village Independent Democrats clubhouse overlooking Sheridan Square. I served on the board of directors and began editing the church newsletter The Gay Christian. A talented artist working in book editing volunteered as our art director, Jim Ricketson, a “mish-kid” editor at Viking Press and the Hermanson brothers printing company which did work for my Presbyterian employers printed it for us – so the product really had a New York “professional” look far beyond what our budget or my talents would have covered.
A crucial episode for Howard and me came in the spring of 1972 when Bill Johnson, a graduate of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and a friend from Howard’s time at MCC SF suddenly phoned us up asking us to invade the annual meeting of the United Church of Christ’s Council On Church and Ministries in North Carolina. Fortuitously/Serendipitously/By action of the Holy Spirit, shortly beforehand Howard had attended a gay party in Manhattan where he met a closeted professor of homiletics at a nearby seminary who, with his spouse, offered to host us and provide logistical support. The CCM had originally planned to deny Bill Johnson’s request for support, but in response to our “invasion” of their meeting and testimony, a closeted member of the CCM was motivated to expose himself and turn them around and Bill was ordained!
At the end of the first year of MCC New York, however, while I was accompanying a Presbyterian tour group in Southern Europe, Howard who was suffering from burn-out and unrealistic expectations of sudden church growth in Manhattan, announced he was resigning. I then succeeded him as a part-time pastor with a paid fulltime God Box job while he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary where he became significantly connected to professor James Cone, then just at the beginning of his career as a famous theologian.
Concurrently, our several youthful, fledgling MCC churches in the Northeast U.S. organized themselves. While there were a few responsible, middle-aged lay leaders in our congregations, the clergyfolk were generally 20-Somethings. Thus youthful energy and zeal combined with naivete and inexperience to rocket our institution upwards into the denominational firmament -- and also sometimes sideways and in Russian roulette circles. Ultimately, an adult intervention by the Rev. Elder James Sandmire transported four of our clergy to the Los Angeles area, including future MCC Moderator Nancy Wilson.
But in the early 1970’s simultaneously with being a part-time semi-salaried “pastor,” I also foolishly served in a variety of leadership positions in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, including: editor, The Gay Christian (1971-73); Board of Elders (1974-75); First “Director” of the MCC Capitol Hill lobbying office and Ecumenical Relations Director (1975-77); member of the Ministerial Credentials Committee (1974, 1977-81); and even Circuit Rider, MCC Illiamo, Quincy, Illinois (1981-82)! Ah, the zeal of youth!
In hectic congregational service, and fleeing after two years the toxic atmosphere of Capitol Hill lobbying for which I was temperamentally ill-equipped, I then spent the year September 1977-78 as founding pastor of the MCC of Tidewater in Norfolk, Virginia, with a very kindhearted group of local folks and military kids which (finances apart) was one of the most gratifying and heartening experiences of my lifetime. Our social worker vice moderator Jim Downing went on himself to a long MCC ministerial career.
Because of our general youthful inexperience, the MCC denomination had not yet figured out that sometimes what churches need are interim pastors and not pastors with open-end contracts, so over the following twenty years, I pastored a number of strife-ridden MCC “challenging” congregations: MCC of Greater St. Louis (1978-80); All God's Children MCC, Minneapolis (1982-85); MCC Hawaii, Honolulu (1985-87); and Golden Gate MCC, San Francisco (1992-1994). Only with the last of these did I finally insist on a limited, two-year commitment. I had moved “apostolically” too many times and agreed to serve too many “problem” churches without seriously examining the question of whether my identity as a younger sibling lacking a Type-A personality should even be pastoring churches at all! And now the clergy shortage of the 1970’s was over, so there were others to take on those tasks.
In 1980 in St. Louis, I did my first “burn-out” and retreated again to academia at Christ Seminary/Seminex, a theological faculty that in the late 1970s had been driven out of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in a nationally-famous purge of liberals similar to what the Southern Baptists would do shortly afterwards. The Seminex folks were hanging on by serving dissident Lutheran students and had a wonderful student-to-professor ratio but needed more students paying tuition and so welcomed MCC seminarians -- and since I already had an M.Div. degree, I took up with their D.Min. program. I enrolled in the pastoral counseling track since I hadn’t pursued it at Union Seminary and obviously needed it but ended up focusing more on liturgy and spirituality.
As a result, in 1982 I began keeping a prayer journal and following the daily lectionary of Bible readings tucked in back of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and have kept it up ever since. The prayer journals have a “Thanksgiving” section – sort of “Answered Prayers” like the memoir that Truman Capote blew himself up with – but in this case just a set of phrases or short sentences recounting the often-mysterious and unexpected answers to laments about social injustice and personal crises and dilemmas that I have made in other sections of the prayer journal.
LGBTQ people at the beginning of our generation’s activism really were facing a huge challenge that seemed unlikely to be met in our lifetimes. Nevertheless, as Troy Perry was demonstrating, “miraculous” lurches forward were happening all around us. (See his book Our God Too.) As The Book of Acts demonstrates, nothing is too big for God, so I was open to grandiose ideas.
But if I was done with being a senior pastor I was not entirely done with ministry. While serving in Honolulu, the China-related seed which Berea had planted in my subconsciousness suddenly sprouted. A Singapore Airlines steward who visited our church during his layovers twice in succession confronted me: “When are you people coming to Singapore?” He appeared at the coffee hour twice in two months, each time confronting me directly. The first time I had the presence of mind not to ask, “Where is Singapore?” and the second time I simply lied to him and said, “We’re working on it.”
“We” weren’t, but I realized “I” personally could, since what MCC Hawaii wanted was a woman pastor and I wasn’t qualified at that. Relocating to San Francisco in September 1987, I committed to trying to get answers to the man’s question. From a rational point of view or even a bureaucratic one that might appeal to MCC leaders, the idea that I would explore LGBT ministry to all of “China” had to seem absurd, so they weren’t going to endorse me. Still, in 1987 I was 44 years old and open to new ventures, so I agreed to see what God might do.
In the meantime, Rev. Dusty Pruitt at MCC Long Beach informed me she had a parishioner who had felt called to Singapore and had gone there cold turkey to start a church, so I called him up on the phone. I no longer remember his name but I did get him on the line and it appeared things there were rather grim and he was trapped in his hotel room experiencing paralyzing culture shock. I never heard of him again. So I got a series of temp jobs in San Francisco and decided to research the challenge more.
One of the things I did was re-contact my former Presbyterian mission strategy fellow employees at the God Box. One of them pointed me in the direction of Frank and Jean Woo. Jean was running the Presbyterian China program while Frank ran the one for the National Council of Churches. Frank grew up in San Francisco Chinatown and was due to visit their seminary in San Anselmo soon, so he invited me to lunch up there and I duly showed up with my unlikely “Macedonian call.” As it happened, he and Jean were leading a tour group to the People’s Republic of China soon and invited me to join it, so in 1997 I did.
In the meantime, the era of email communication had arrived. I had an English-professor contemporary friend Louie Crew who had founded the Episcopal Integrity group and was married to an airline steward Ernest Clay with spousal travel rights, so Louie was then teaching English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Louie explained that the Ten Percent Club there had formed a religious discussion group which morphed into an independent congregation called The Blessed Minority Christian Fellowship, and he put me in touch with the young pastor, Nelson Ng. Not long after that, in the gay press I learned that Tuck-Leong Lee and a small group of Singapore gay activists had “exorcised” the fervidly Pentecostal Anglican St. Andrew’s Cathedral of homophobia in a tastefully-lurid activist gig, and I established contact with one of them, as well as the Rev. Elias Tseng of the newly-formed Tong Kwang (Light House) Church of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. Gay Tongzhi mission flowers were blooming around the Pacific! Soon Nelson Ng and his lawyer spouse Roddie Shaw asked for my help in acquiring an American gay marriage in, I think, New Hampshire, so I helped them facilitate that.
One of my God Box bosses had worked in Madison Avenue advertising in New York and had had me xerox newspaper clippings of relevant news stories for distribution to top Presbyterian mission bureaucrats, so I began a LGBT activist email news service for these Trans-Pacific pioneers. It was all great fun and not too demanding and some of us later moved it to Facebook.
The Woos China tour began in Hong Kong where we were briefed by Philip Wickeri of the China Christian Council’s Amity Foundation, so after the tour I decided to go back to Hong Kong and look up “the Blessed Minority.” The first thing that became clear when I did was that they had excellent clergy mentors in the liberal Protestant community there, especially Louie Crew’s friend the Anglican Fr. Fung Chi-wood, who when a youthful firebrand had served in the Hong Kong legislature and introduced a gay right bill there. Fung and other top-drawer social activist clergy like him were providing the mature mentoring that was essential to young radicals. So they didn’t need “missionaries” from “Exceptional” America. But they did seem to appreciate having specific friends from North America who would take them seriously, come at their own expense, and listen to what they were doing. Actually a number of these folks in Hong Kong and Taiwan and subsequently Singapore had either studied in North America or visited there on business and dropped in on MCC congregations, so they already had a good picture of us. Michael Chan, an elder at BMCF, had gone to college in Canada and enthusiastically welcomed me. A BMCG member who was a translator for the law courts in Hong Kong and who had editorial skills was helping them produce books and booklets for mass distribution. It was quite exciting to meet these folks and a blessing to get to kibbitz on people working harmoniously along paths we had been on maybe 20 years before them.
Over the course of the next 20 years, a group of LGBTQ ethnic Chinese churches arose, maintaining local congregational authority but affiliating with each other informally and with the MCC congregations in the Philippines and holding annual gatherings, often in conjunction with the Taiwan Pride celebration in October. With them, I marched in two Hong Kong Pride parades and with the help of the Encounter Missions International group in Long Beach, California, I visited Tongzhi congregations in both Kaohsiung and Taipei, Taiwan. When I met with the head of the social justice head of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan at their headquarters in Taipei, who came smiling through the doorway with him but Pastor Joseph Chang an employee and Tongzhi congregation founder!
In addition, the MCC denomination itself hosted for a number of years an Asian-Pacific American support group; we enjoyed for eight years the excellent and irenic leadership of the Rev. Elder Hong Tan, a Singaporean-Brit AIDS health administrator; and it continues to provide ministerial credentials to several trans-Pacific Chinese ministers. The associate pastor of MCC New York where I started out is the famous journalist and sociologist the Rev. Boon Lin Ngeo (in Mandarin O’Young Wen-Feng), the first openly-gay minister in Malaysia who has his own Trans-Pacific peripatetic apostolate.
This completes the overall survey of my MCC ministerial career. Deferring to the wisdom of my district coordinator Jim Pierce in 1997 and having arrived at the 20-year mark I “officially” retired from MCC ministry but continued on in the China endeavor until 2003.
I have not touched on my personal involvement with the AIDS crisis which affected over 100 personal friends and acquaintances, including my partner John Yeh who died in 1993. The Golden Gate MCC which I joined and led for a time ultimately merged back with its parent, MCC San Francisco in the time of the Rev. Jim Mitulski, and persons interested in that agonizing saga of should consult the several historical accounts arising from it and especially the works of Lynne Gerber.
MCC ministry led me onwards to other justice and peace endeavors: to involvement for 20 years with the Fellowship of Reconciliation for U.S.-China peace and a decade (2004-2014) editing a justice and peace email calendar for the dozen S.F. Bay Area peace and justice centers; to private study of academic missiology and the history of the pre-1949 “China Mission Endeavor” by Westerners; to Occupy San Francisco and the global economic justice issues highlighted briefly by the Occupy movement. In all these cases, unanticipated “Answered Prayers” and “opening doors” have followed. Though justice and peace issues are innumerable and overwhelming from the human point of view, God’s grace is greater, and in the end it is God’s show, not ours. Though goals may seem the grandiose dreams of idealists, the results are in the nitty-gritty of life.
I want to close with special thanks to my friend and partner Brett Lutz. We met in 2003 at the Freedom in Christ Evangelical Church in San Francisco though both of us had lived in SF since 1987. He has accompanied me and ministered to me through three cancer surgeries, and in 2017 we moved to his hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Special thanks also to MCC of the Quad Cities and its pastor Rich Hendricks for their welcome and longtime peaceful, warm and welcoming witness to the area.
(This biographical statement provided by Roy Birchard.)
Photo courtesy of Abraham LIAO Hao-zhang; taken at exterior of GinGin LGBT Book Store in Taipei, Taiwan.
Biography Date: May, 2006; rev. July 2021