Guest blog by Proclaim member, Rev. Mark Erson, pastor of St John’s Lutheran in New York City.
“We are a small congregation with a big mission.” That is my stock line for introducing people to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – a 160 year old congregation in the West Village of Manhattan (literally across the street from the Stonewall Inn) that was coming out of a challenging decade when I accepted a call to serve as its pastor in 2011. Accepting this call meant redeveloping a congregation that was close to death and had had little connection with the neighborhood of the West Village. Neighbors that I spoke with actually were surprised to hear that there was still an active congregation in the building.
Eager to connect with the neighborhood in new ways, and especially eager to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the many in our community who think they are not welcome in God’s church, I jumped at chances to collaborate with folks who came looking for space and support. The needs of the neighborhood were so great and immediate, I did not want to wait for us to grow to a size that could take on issues like LGBTQ homeless young adults or too many people thinking that they were outside the reach of God’s mercy, love, and grace.
Like an answer to a prayer I wasn’t wise enough to utter, Miss Simone (a transgender performer and promoter) came to me and asked if she could host a fashion show in the sanctuary. I was game. The night was filled with women of transgender experience, showing their style and fabulousness, along with a couple doing lip-sync performances. As one of the young women was leaving, she thanked me deeply for allowing this to happen in the church.
I reflected on that short exchange for quite a while. These folks had grown up in faith communities that had either shown them the door or caused them to run out the door before they were found out. They had grown up in communities where music was important and style was honored. On that night, they could bring all those valued parts of their culture and themselves and be in the sacred space of a church as their authentic self.
We had a couple more similar events. We also became known as the church for memorials of noted drag performers and transgender people. In most cases, the family did not want to acknowledge the individual’s true self and/or did not want friends to be present for the “official” funeral. So friends and colleagues would come to St. John’s and ask to provide a memorial event that truly celebrated the life of this child of God. These have been some very moving events.
After one of these events of style and song, I asked the performers if someone would work with me to create a similar event in which presenters would perform gospel music. I got a taker, and we were off.
But what was this thing that we were creating? Where did it fit into the church culture? In LGBTQ culture? We could not call it a drag event, because most of the performers were transgender. So, we started calling it Gospel Divas. But then some guys wanted to join in, who would perform lip-syncing to the tracks of male singers. So we started calling it Gospel Night. Sometimes we even add in a live singer and instrumentalists.
It continues to evolve. When we first started, one of the performers would MC. But now, I am doing the hosting. I use the time in between songs to bring the good news, to highlight lyrics of songs just performed for the sake of teaching of God’s amazing love. I also see that we are starting to borrow more and more from the revival culture of American Christianity.
True confession: I am only starting to speak (and write) about this ministry. I have been shy to even talk to colleagues about it for fear that they will be shocked and judge me crazy. But I think of Boniface transforming pagan tree symbols into Christian symbols that pointed to the God that the missionary was bringing. I think of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in the South Pacific who engaged a culture that had no concept of sheep and so they had to translate the image of Lamb of God into Pig of God, because pigs were cherished and valued most. But mostly I think of that woman of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet much to the dismay and shock of those watching. But Jesus welcomes the shocking behavior of sincere and heart-felt devotion. And, transformed by the one who makes all things new, we have been anointing one another in Jesus’ name ever since.
So it continues to evolve. What to call it continues to be the question of the hour. The newest name: Magnify: An Evening of Music and Mercy. Whatever we call it, whatever it evolves into, it is exciting to see the number of people drawn to this expression of faith and praise, to witness and hear of people being moved by this unique “church” experience. As we continue to sing a new song, may God’s name be praised and may the good news of God’s mercy and grace be heard.
*Editor’s note: A note about “drag” and “transgender.” Within the LGBTQ community there is a wide diversity of expressions of self and identity. We don’t always agree or have the same experience, but it is a value of ELM to create spaces of belonging and naming for diverse identities and expressions. In this article, Mark references both communities – drag and transgender.
By Rev. Mark Erson. Mark – a New York City native, Lutheran PK, and avid traveler – is ridiculously happily married to his high school sweetheart, Scott Jordan. They are blessed with a feisty pit bull-rottweiler mix named Brooklyn. After adventures in the world of theatre and teaching, Mark finally was pinned by the Holy Spirit and led to say “yes” to a lifelong-avoided call to ordained ministry. He was ordained in April of 2009 and currently serves St. John’s, Manhattan.