Skip to comments.Fallen Angel [The Rise and Fall of GayChurch]
Posted on 12/10/2003 7:46:35 PM PST by B-Chan
Under the Reverend Michael Piazza, the world's largest gay and lesbian church soared, only to tumble into divisiveness and anger
BY J.D. SPARKS
People flocked by the hundreds to Cathedral of Hope to hear the sermons of senior pastor Michael Piazza.
Preparation for Sunday-morning services at the Cathedral of Hope resembles backstage on opening night of a Broadway production. The halls bustle with activity as volunteer coordinators and staff tick off their to-do lists. Everything must be perfect, from preparing urns of coffee to ushering in latecomers to ordering multimedia presentations that flash headlines, film clips and still images on a large screen behind the pulpit. Timing is essential. One mistake--a missed beat, a flubbed line or a crying baby--could ruin the performance.
On such a Sunday a year ago in November, minutes before taking the stage, the Reverend Michael Piazza and his assistant ministers gathered in Piazza's office to quickly review the program before taking the pulpit. As eyes scanned the script it became clear that something had gone wrong. A song the senior pastor objected to had made the playlist. It was an instrumental score that included a piece for the lowly kazoo.
A slightly comical mistake, but Piazza was apoplectic. He slammed his fist repeatedly on his desk and screamed that if one of the assistant ministers snickered, heads would roll. So help him, if just one of them deigned to clap after the recital, it would be the end of his or her career. The pastor's usual pallor had turned beet red.
The clergy were cowed into silence. Ten minutes later they took to the chancel, the pictures of serenity and compassion. No one could see the trembling beneath the robes.
One associate pastor who stood onstage that day had an epiphany. The church, it seemed to her, was unraveling at the seams. The gap between what the congregation saw and what took place in boardroom meetings was widening. As church leadership dissolved into bitter squabbles, attendance declined, as did donations. And what was intended to be the church's crowning jewel, the grand cathedral that had been six years in the making, was no closer to breaking ground.
Nearly a decade earlier ministers had stood before a couple of thousand congregants instead of several hundred. Back then, people came in droves to hear the renowned pastor whose sermons were a mix of the literary and the liturgical; a pastor who was known for bringing to life the stories of saints and sinners, their deeds spun with a mix of radical queer theory, old-fashioned morality and gentle, self-deprecating humor--all told with a lilting Southern twang. People drove from miles around to listen to the message of a brilliant orator and visionary: Michael Piazza.
It was a time of tremendous growth and giving. The church needed more buildings, more pews, more parking spaces, more clergy and more services. Money was heaped upon the donation plates. Easter services were standing room only. At its pinnacle, the cathedral implemented a regular third-Sunday service.
To top it off, Piazza had plans to build a massive cathedral designed by premier architect Philip Johnson, the so-called dean of American architecture whose stark modernist style spawned a movement and can be seen in such buildings as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and Pennzoil Place in Houston. The church was glory-bound, but something went terribly wrong.
Of those present for worship that November morning in 2002, few knew of or suspected the battle that lay ahead. The church was hemorrhaging members and operating far in the red. Employees were quitting the church on an average of one every six weeks, and people were beginning to speak openly about what's been whispered about for years--that Piazza's personal life hardly befits that of a man of God. And as for the Philip Johnson cathedral, former church leaders say it probably never will be built and allege that the church has, in fact, misused some funds earmarked for the building.
Piazza soon would find himself under attack when members of his congregation initiated a clerical investigation accusing him of financial mismanagement, insurance fraud and abusive leadership. The investigation would end with the cathedral's separation from the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the umbrella denomination to which the cathedral belonged. The MCC acts as an overseeing organization and provides spiritual and material assistance to churches that primarily target the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.
The Dallas Observer interviewed more than a dozen former church members and clergy and reviewed many of the church's internal documents. Together, they describe how one man's ambition divided the world's premier gay and lesbian church.
The Cathedral of Hope has come a long way from its humble beginnings when a group of 12 friends met in 1970 to discuss forming a church that would embrace the gay and lesbian community. During that first year, meetings were rotated among the friends' homes until the newly credentialed church was established in a run-down neighborhood on Ross Avenue. Over the next several years, membership exploded as word of the openly gay church spread. In just six years membership had grown from 40 to more than 400, and the congregation found a larger sanctuary on Reagan Street in the Oak Lawn neighborhood.
The Reverend Don Eastman served as minister to the church for 10 years. For years he divided his time and attention between the church and its parent organization, MCC, until he could no longer serve two masters and resigned in 1986 to fulfill his obligations as an elder in the denomination, a supervisory position not unlike a bishop.
The congregation of MCC-Dallas, as the cathedral was known then, had been without a senior pastor for about a year when Piazza filled the post in November 1987.
The soft-spoken minister with bright red hair took the helm with humility and graciousness. Though slight of frame and standing well under 6 feet tall, his message was stalwart and delivered with an immediacy that compelled people to return every week, often with friends in tow: Too long have gays been outcast, God's broken children. If the personal is political, what better arena than the church, where one cultivates a personal relationship to God and the universe, to make a statement about social justice? Through Piazza, people saw the chance to heal and make a difference in the world. He called for each member--gay or straight, black or white--to live as radically and righteously as Christ himself.
The congregation adored Piazza. The church experienced a kind of second wave of revivalism as membership exploded. Some wept openly during his sermons, which concluded with thunderous applause and, oftentimes, standing ovations. In a little more than a year the church had gained 100 new members.
Piazza's life revolved around the church. He and his partner, Bill Eure, would invite members of the congregation to their home for dinner and to discuss the church's future.
The Reverend Elder Lillie Brock, Piazza's longtime friend and associate, says Piazza was just reaching the height of his career in the early 1990s. It was during this period that he dreamed up the idea of a cathedral in the historic sense of the word--as a stately and decorous church located in the center of the city, a place of worship and study, ensconced in tradition yet ministering to a changing world, a place where the past and the present fuse.
"The cathedral would be a symbol and a beacon to the gay community," she says. "It was a powerful moment for him."
"Michael is a visionary," former church board member Kathy Harper says. "He dreams great dreams, and that's something that's definitely needed in a leader. The church needs someone to dream the dream; otherwise there's no future to move forward to."
By 1990, Piazza launched a building campaign to erect a new church--not the Johnson cathedral--on roughly six acres between Cedar Springs Road and Nash Street. The ranks of the congregation had swelled to 1,000, and through their pledges the church was able to raise $1 million for construction. It also sold $2 million in bonds to finance the building, nearly all of which were purchased by the congregation. "This building was constructed out of an absolute resolution that none of God's children should ever be excluded from worship for any reason," Piazza wrote for the dedication service.
In honor of this new building and the vision, the church would later change its name to Cathedral of Hope MCC.
Piazza hit his stride when the congregation moved into the Cathedral of Hope in February 1993. Worship services became more professional productions. The church had an orchestra and choir led by a full-time director. The sanctuary was light and airy with eight panels of stained glass spelling out "hope" in English and Spanish. The stone walls were austere but beautiful and drew attention to an enormous cross that stands in relief.
"My reaction to the church was, 'Oh, my God!' It was such a beautiful building," recalls former member Terri Frey. "The combination of the power of the beauty of that building coupled with the quality of the worship experience topped off by feeling surrounded by God's presence brought us--me and my partner--to tears."
The success of the new church was inspiring, yet in a few years Piazza would attempt to make it even grander with the input of Johnson and his team of designers.
Piazza grew up in a large Italian immigrant family in Statesboro, Georgia, where his father worked three jobs to support his family. He declined repeated requests for an interview for this article, but in an interview with the Observer in 1999, he said that as early as high school he felt the call to become a Methodist minister. And while he had many girlfriends throughout high school and had planned to marry and have children, he finally began to deal with his homosexuality when he entered seminary at Emory University in 1978. For the next eight years Piazza worked at a number of churches, most of them Methodist, while pursuing a divinity degree.
Piazza's coming-out process was painful. While pastoring at Haygood Methodist Church in Atlanta, he kept his sexuality secret but spent many of his off-hours working at the Atlanta Gay Center. A fellow student in seminary told him about MCC. MCC offered him a way to continue developing his profession while living an authentic life, since Methodists didn't condone openly gay ministers. The board at Haygood began to suspect their pastor was leading a double life and threatened to take action, he told the Observer. Under increasing pressure, Piazza left his post at the Methodist church in 1980 to become the assistant pastor of MCC-Atlanta.
His stay in Atlanta was not long, and in a couple of years he was offered a post at St. Luke's MCC in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked until coming to Dallas.
During his pastorate, the Cathedral of Hope more than tripled its size. It grew at an estimated 20 percent a year for the first six years of his tenure. At its peak in the early 1990s, the church had built a $3.5 million sanctuary, developed an AIDS ministry, and offered a counseling center and a shelter for gay teens. The cathedral boasted a budget of more than $1.6 million and received accolades from MCC. To continue to spread the message of salvation to wider audiences, Piazza had launched a weekly cable television program as well as a publishing and distribution outlet. His power and presence gained the attention of the national media, which solicited him for comments and interviews on a range of subjects.
Yet even during this time of tremendous growth and praise for Piazza, those closest to him say they saw signs of problems.
Former employees say he was given to outbursts of rage and criticism that led to the alienation of longtime friends and colleagues, many of whom have kept their silence until now.
"I believed and still believe today very strongly in what the church can do for our community and the impact it can have on the lives of individuals," Harper says. "Michael has a very strong personality and a very controlling nature...He very much likes to have his way at the expense of people's feelings."
In a few years Piazza would run for a prestigious seat on the board of MCC elders. It was not his first attempt. When his latest bid failed, he launched his most grandiose plan yet. In 1996, Piazza unveiled a master plan to build a 2,300-seat cathedral designed by Johnson. He would lash the congregation forward on the building project, heedless of his board's warnings of financial problems. The project marked a turning point in his career and eventually splintered the congregation.
Minister's Black Veil
One evening in 1990 after attending an MCC conference, three friends--Piazza, his partner, Bill Eure, and a Cathedral of Hope administrator--showered and dressed and went out to dinner on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, just a stone's throw from the hotel where they were staying. After an early meal, they decided to go out on the town and blow off some steam in the gay mecca of West Hollywood.
The three men shared a rental car. That night they made a deal: The single friend could have the car for the night in exchange for dropping off Piazza and Eure at a club.
As the trio headed the short distance into West Hollywood, the conversation turned animated when the couple began talking about the club where they were going. In fact, it wasn't a bar at all but a gay sex club where men pay an entrance fee for anonymous sex.
The warehouse building was nondescript. There were no flashing lights, no signs that advertised the club's name or venue.
"I was surprised, but I didn't hold a judgment about it," says the administrator, "Neil," who spoke on condition that he not be identified by his real name. "Maybe it was because he [Piazza] was my friend and not my pastor--I didn't have him on a pedestal.
"If he had preached monogamy, then he would've been a hypocrite," he says. "He always said he didn't care what the staff did. 'Just not in my back yard'--not in Dallas and not with the congregation. Power and sex go hand in hand, whether you're a politician or a preacher."
He picked up the couple a few hours later. No one spoke about what happened inside the club. "They didn't go in for tea and crumpets," he says. "But you can't assume they weren't safe."
The MCC's code of conduct for clergy is disarmingly simple and deliberately open to interpretation.
MCC developed its sexual conduct guidelines to offer parameters for responsible clerical behavior without prescribing or prohibiting the form of sexual contact. Sexual misconduct is less about whom one has sex with or what acts consenting adults engage in as it is about the ethics of sex. The focus is on openness and honesty. The types of behavior that constitute sexual misconduct are sex with minors, sexual abuse or molestation, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation or sexual relationships with a person whom one supervises or ministers to.
"There is no prohibition that says a pastor must be monogamous or not attend a sex club," says MCC spokesman Jim Birkitt. "The key for us is whether that person is open to the congregation. At the very least, there must be a clear understanding with the board of directors."
Birkitt says it is incumbent upon the pastor to honestly represent himself to his board, if not from the pulpit. Open relationships and anonymous sexual encounters are not expressly condemned, but MCC does frown upon secrecy and hypocrisy, he says.
"The question to ask about sexual conduct is, is it harmful to anyone? Is it manipulative? Is it coercive?"
Though Piazza didn't tell the board about going to a sex club, he was intolerant of board members whose behavior might bring shame on the church.
Piazza hired a friend living in Washington, D.C., as a consultant. Lillie Brock, who later became an elder with MCC, had led a number of businesses and was an expert in change management. Her advice on running the new Cedar Springs cathedral was invaluable. She traveled to the church four days out of the month, where she met the woman who was the director of discipleship. Before long, the two became sexually involved. Piazza responded by firing Brock. He informed the board of their relationship and reported Brock to MCC in 1992.
(Excerpt) Read more at dallasobserver.com ...
Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.
They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips,
slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them. Romans 1:20-32
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings 2 St. Timothy 4:3 RSV
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. - St. Luke 11:17 RSV
I owe my life to a priest much like this one - he shattered my father's naive notions about the spirit and character of those in service of the Church in a tirade much like this one, and my father not long after decided to drop out of seminary and give up his decision to become a priest.
I am So glad I'm a Baptist!
That's an epiphany? The dingbat didn't realize that a flaming faggot running a 'church' might be involved in a sacrilegious obscene joke untill the crowds & money fell off. She wouldn't know an epiphany if the late Mother Teresa fell on her.
The whole thing is obscenity looking for imagined holy approval.