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Bill Black, Apostle to LGBTs in Cincinnati, Now Rises to Glory

BishopBlack.7.7.13

William Grant Black, 7th Bishop of Southern Ohio, died July 7 of complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 93.

You can read a fine obituary about him here. It was apparently written or commissioned by the family and first ran in the Athens, Ohio newspaper before being reprinted online by the Episcopal News Service.

He served as rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens for 11 years in the ’60s and ’70s, prior to his election as bishop.

Athens is a college town, the home of Ohio University, and the parish is right across the street from the campus. I guess the Black children remember Athens fondly, and consider his ministry there a highlight of his career.

But the obituary they published left out half the story; so I’m going to fill you in.

I left this comment (slightly edited) on the ENS site.

This wonderfully detailed biography of the great Bishop and pastor Bill Black somehow fails to mention the thing he was most famous for in Cincinnati: he opened Church of Our Saviour, Mt. Auburn, to Gay people, decades before the rest of the Episcopal Church got its act together.

Starting in the 1970s, Our Saviour hosted a fledgling MCC congregation, which met there every Sunday night despite the opposition of some in the parish and the reluctant acceptance of others. Some people were members of both churches, and both grew as a result. For years, every time the local LGBT community had a crisis (and they often did, thanks to homophobic politicians and police), someone would call a community meeting at Our Saviour and the place would be packed.

Unless you’ve experienced discrimination, you can’t know how important it is to a stigmatized group just to have a place to go. Every other church in town was closed to us – but not Fr. Black’s church; he welcomed us. How many lives did his hospitality save? How many souls were brought to Christ because of him?

That’s what made his election as Bishop so amazing; “My God, they’ve elected the friend of the queers.” No one expected him to win – but he did. And he used his office to further the inclusion of women and LGBTs in the city, the diocese and the national Church.

I should know; I was one of the Gay leaders he embraced. When the city and the Church went through excruciating Gay turmoils – including the Disease of the Century and a billionaire’s successful campaign to write homophobic discrimination into the city charter – he put us front and center. And where were those later meetings held? In Bill Black’s old church – which to this day remains, under the leadership of Mother Paula Jackson, the capital of Gay Cincinnati.

We revered him. You know that word “reverend” that clergy routinely get appended to their names? It means “revered one.” I have to tell you, I’ve met a lot of reverends in my time, but not so many revered ones.

Bill Black was one – and on his death the heavenly choirs burst into song.

“Forasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my family…” – and that’s what we were, the very least, not even human to some people – “you did it to me.” Hallelujah!

I moved to Cincinnati in 1976, having been fired from my church job in Charlotte, North Carolina for being Gay. I wanted to be back in the Midwest, closer to my mother, and a convent in the Cincinnati suburbs hired me for a year. The next spring I founded a chapter of Integrity, the LGBT caucus in the Episcopal Church; a core group of our chapter members belonged to Bill Black’s church, Our Saviour in Mt. Auburn.

The MCC congregation in town had already started meeting there, and they soon hired their own pastor, a dynamic young man named Howard Gaass, who had an M.Div. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. His was a remarkable hire, because in those days many MCC pastors did not have much theological education, and his call meant that MCC Cincinnati, though small, was moving up in the world.

Within a short time, Howard and I became the first Gay people in town to use our full, real names in the newspaper. The Cincinnati Enquirer was doing a pull-out section on “Gays in Cincinnati,” which they published on Palm Sunday. Naturally the reporting team contacted all the semi-out people they could find, like “the Gay minister” and “the Gay Episcopalian,” as if there were only one.

Howard and I helped lead many events, then he left town shortly afterwards. I believe he’s now an Episcopalian in the Diocese of Los Angeles, while I got appointed to the Diocesan Committee on Sexism and Sexuality by then-Bishop John Krumm, Bill Black’s predecessor.

This committee produced our report, which was viciously attacked at diocesan convention, until… I finally stood up when I couldn’t take it anymore, gave a two-minute speech and turned the tide, followed immediately by a supportive priest who was Gay but closeted, and translated my emotional speech into intellect.

I made the front page of the Enquirer the next day, by speaking out “for my people.” It was a sensation. Shortly afterward, Bill Black got elected bishop in that amazing election.

I didn’t cause it, he did. He fit the times we were in; that’s what wins elections, not five-foot-five-inch flamethrowers.

But the bottom line was clear: my church did right by me, and by all of us. That’s one of many reasons I’m an Episcopalian.

But this didn’t end homophobia and discrimination, of course, in the city or the church. Our enemies mobilized, inside and out. In a couple of years somebody invited a nationally-known lay theologian named Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, who was going to set us all straight on allowing queers in church.

I was also on the program, held at Church of Our Saviour, the Bishop’s former parish. He’s the one who put me on the program, part of the local “B” team, I guess. Paid me a hundred bucks; I wonder how much she got.

I destroyed her with a single remark. It was easy to do; she turned out to be a polysyllabic windbag, trying to win the debate with a snowjob. I still have photos of that day, and the shock on her face is priceless.

She finally left in a giant huff, Bill gathered all the clergy around and dedicated the mass to me. Greatest honor I ever got.

Concerning his obituary, I don’t know or care why his family had it written the way they did. It honors him greatly, as he deserved.

Now I have tried to do the same. Because when a man or woman touches the untouchables, like Bill Black did to us, angels rejoice. He didn’t get the acclaim Mother Teresa did, but it was the same Christian act for the same Christian reason. And while it’s obvious to all that India’s Dalits do not deserve their outcast status, LGBTs are still “controversial” in this country and around the world.

So the truth must be spoken still. Bill Black was one of the greats.++

The capital of Gay Cincinnati. (panoramio.com)

Church of Our Saviour, the capital of Gay Cincinnati. (panoramio.com)

7 Responses

  1. I. Am traveling stateside…I want to publish your remarks upon my return to Guatemala…for some reason I can’t get into my blog on this trip….thanks for this historic tribute to a clearly fine bishop and great man…and of course you too! Len
    Leonardo.

    I have trouble with this iPad too…blasted progress

  2. Publish away, Mr. Lenny. Have a great visit and safe travels.

  3. Josh,

    This was a fantastic tribute and filled me in on much history I did not know. I must say, I am proud to call Church of Our Saviour my home parish!

  4. Amen, Fr. Tom, and keep up your chaplaincy on the great River. (That’s Ohio, y’all.)

  5. Dear Josh, thank you so much for sharing “the rest of the story!” I have been rector of this parish for 23 years now, and not a day goes by without occasion for me to give thanks for the ministry of my visionary predecessor with a pastoral heart. He simply walked through the boundaries others had defined. I thank God for you and so many others who collaborated with William Grant Black to build a beloved community and to create a beacon of hope on Mt. Auburn.

  6. Thank you, Josh. Over the years Bill not only married me to a man (& then called my parents, who had refused to attend, to let them know that it had been “officially done” at COS), but also (later) rejoiced with me, when (after that unhealthy relationship ended) I was able to share with him that I was (& remain) in a healthy, committed relationship (which has subsequently been blessed by our church) with my life-partner, Laura. I did not post this on the official Diocesan “blog,” because not all straight people would understand the details of his love and support. However, I’m tremendously glad that “the rest of the (official) story” has now been documented/told. Thanks again.

  7. Dena, thank you. I seldom use the word pastor to describe an Episcopal priest, but it was the right one to use with Bill, and you’ve just shown it. Mother Paula (above comment) says he had a pastoral heart; that works too. He had a way of listening to people, knowing them and loving them by responding to their needs. And if he did that at COS, he did it in Athens before then and as Bishop later.

    Best wishes to you and Laura.

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