Neil is back on Good God talking about the history of Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, and how it came to be a place for all Christians to find a spiritual home regardless of their sexual identity. He tells wonderful and heartbreaking stories about the life of the Cathedral during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, and his own spiritual journey that started as a British Mormon.
Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.
George: Dallas is home to what was once the largest gay congregation in America and they've been evolving, moving into a more traditional denomination and there are challenges that come with that but also opportunities. How are they navigating those changes? The senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope, Neil Cazares Thomas will be with us on Good God. Stay tuned.
George: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm delighted to welcome to our program today my friend and colleague Neil Cazares Thomas.
Neil: It's always good to be in your company, George.
George: Thank you so much, Neil.
Neil: Great to be here.
George: Well, to introduce you a little further, we should say that Neil is the senior pastor of the Cathedral of Hope church here in Dallas, a United Church of Christ congregation. And it has not always been so, but it has been for the last, well about 12 years now I guess, but the church itself has a remarkable story, a significant place in the history of Dallas and it's religious community. Started in 1970 so you are coming up on your 50th anniversary before long in 2020, right?
Neil: Yes, we are. Very, very soon. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
George: Remarkable. Well, Neil has been the pastor... You've been the pastor here for just, well, it's been three years. A little more than three years, right?
George: So let's talk a little bit, Neil, about what attracted you to Cathedral of Hope and something about its history and your sense of its place in the ecology of religious life in Dallas.
Neil: So as you say Cathedral is nearly 50 years old. It was founded by a group of folks who had heard about a group of people who had started meeting in Los Angeles in California that Reverend Troy Perry had brought in together after his sense of call and realization after leaving the Pentecostal church for numerous reasons that God was speaking to him, that it was time for God's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folk to find religious homes and in that period there were not many churches who are opening their doors openly to LGBT folks. So he gathered this group of folks together in Los Angeles and that particular congregation saw its mission as bringing this to other metropolitan areas in the United States.
George: Right, so it actually began as part of the movement called the Metropolitan Community Churches?
Neil: Yup. Yup. In 1968 and then a group of folks from Dallas went to meet with Troy in Los Angeles and as is Troy's remarkable way he basically said, "Here's a bible, go preach." They returned to Dallas and the 12 of them founded the Metropolitan Community Church of Dallas and from that grew this incredible congregation and for the Metropolitan Community Church as a worldwide denomination.
George: Right, and when you say grew, we really mean grew. I mean this church, which numbers now a membership of about 4,500 or so?
Neil: About 4,500 yep. Yep.
George: Right, it took off in that first generation in a spectacular way and has been, you know, a vibrant presence in the city all during that period of time. But then probably one of the most challenging periods of time of course was during the 1980s. Talk a little bit about the the scourge of HIV and AIDS and what that did to the community and its role in the Dallas.
Neil: If I may just back up just a bit-
Neil: Because the interesting thing is if you believe in for such a time as this, what was incredible about the story of the Cathedral as it emerged in Dallas and in other metropolitan areas and worldwide, but certainly in Dallas, was that there was certain ingredients that really helped its growth. One of it was the religious sensitivities in the south. Religion here, rather than in Los Angeles and rather than in metropolitan areas is of such high significance and a lot of gay and lesbian people weren't ready to give up on their religion.
Neil: So the Cathedral in some ways was the only game in town that they could really possibly be and at the same time, you know, just a few years down the road, you know, HIV/AIDS was about to be a part of the gay community and so the-
George: So I'll delay that conversation just a little more to keep picking up on what you're saying here about the religious culture of Dallas and the fact that so many gay and lesbian Christians were in churches that were more conservative.
George: And not finding that they had a sense of home any longer there and were trying to work out the connection between their spirituality and their sexuality and hold onto their sense of salvation at the same time. I mean, I think that's, you know, for many people that don't experience the existential nature of that challenge this was very real to them, but probably something that people from the outside looking in don't know as much is just how conservative many of these Christians are. I mean, sexuality is one thing, but on the whole a lot of people in the Cathedral of Hope in fact are... This is not a just a bastion of liberal theology, you might say. Like every other group it's a mixed group where there's a spectrum of convictions about things, isn't it?
Neil: Absolutely. I mean, to look out on a Sunday morning and see folks who have very diverse theological understandings of faith and salvation and you know, is it once saved, always saved? Is it faith by works or faith by... I mean, just the myriad of religious experience. We always kind of joke that the two largest groups, former denominations if you will, of the folks who are in the Cathedral are either former Roman Catholics or former Pentecostals.
George: Wow, yes, with a pretty strong group of southern baptists.
George: Southern baptists in there as well.
Neil: Right. Right in the middle there so it's eclectic and challenging as well as exciting.
George: So let's now move to the AIDS crisis and what all of that meant. I mean it was an incredibly important presence to have established a bulwark in Dallas, I would say, of a church like that at the time that the AIDS crisis hit but what a period of mourning and grief and sadness. It was almost a chaplaincy to the city in a sense, wasn't it, Neil?
Neil: It was. It was. And you know, kudos to Michael Piazza who was the lead pastor at that time who really sees the challenge and galvanized the community and provided more memorials than we even are able to account for. You know, this particular congregation was sometimes doing two, three, four memorials a day of men who are dying of AIDS, predominantly gay men who were dying of AIDS. What was interesting again about that period was that in the gay community, lesbians and gay men very much separated themselves. Kudos to our lesbian women who really stepped up in that time because the men were dying and the women stepped up and they became our nurses, our providers, our health care providers, our mentors, our leaders in so many different ways.
Neil: It was just an incredible time of, yes mourning, but also a time of really knowing what community looked like. Every world AIDS day, 1st of December every year I always call upon the memory of our women who did so much. You know, they staffed our helplines, they brought food when nurses wouldn't bring food into the hospitals. It was an incredibly sad, sad time and you know, we really have now lost a whole generation of men who, in the natural cycle of life were the mentors to the young folks who were coming up and who were coming out and that whole generation almost extinct, I mean, almost left us.
George: So it's really of the DNA now of your church in large measure. There's a sense of the lingering history of that ministry and those pioneers and the losses and whatnot that I think continue to be part of that and yet the church keeps renewing itself and keeps finding new life and new hope on the other side of a crisis period like that. So you became part of the United Church of Christ, left the Metropolitan Community Church formally and joined the United Church of Christ. Tell us more about the decision to become part of a more traditional mainline denomination.
Neil: Yeah, and I will say I wasn't around it those in those days. I'm sure there were numerous factors that contributed to that decision, but I think one of the factors was that the Cathedral was in some ways moving beyond just this LGBT identity at that time and the Metropolitan Community Churches as a whole was not. So there was a decision ultimately to say, "Look, we're founded in, but we're moving beyond just an LGBT identity." And so they left the Metropolitan Community Churches, which, you know, I was with Metropolitan Community Church since I was 15 so I knew the Cathedral for many, many years before it left. It was a great loss and it was a great sadness at the time and some animosity I'm sure within the denomination.
Neil: Then this congregation kind of wandered as an independent congregation for a short period of time as it explored where it wanted to sit. Did it want to just be an independent congregation or did it want to be part of something that was bigger? At that point the only other denomination that was really doing any work around LGBT stuff and other justice stuff really was the United Church of Christ. So they began that conversation and say decade or so ago formally were received into covenant with the United Church of Christ and that's where it sat for, you know, this last 12 or more years.
George: So you went from being, I guess was it the largest Metropolitan Community Church to now the fourth largest of the UCC churches, but you have a much broader communion now in a sense, you have the UCC, United Church of Christ has shared ministerial relationships with other denominations as well and you're part of a much broader mainline Protestant tradition. So in a sense you've gravitated toward the center of American Protestant religious life, you might say, while other traditions, congregations and denominations have been moving more also toward you in terms of LGBT inclusion and the like. There's a kind of mainstreaming happening in all of this for everyone in a sense and certainly that's true of our congregation as you know in making that. Part of the real joy for us as a church has been the coming to know you all and we'll talk more about that as we continue but it's been a wonderful healing time and growing toward a kind of center that really is around Jesus Christ, around our common faith in confession and not so much just around issues but around our common faith.
Neil: Absolutely, and I really do believe that, again for such a time as this, that the Cathedral and it's affirmation and reclaiming of Christianity for the LGBT community really has been a gift both through the United Church of Christ as it has also struggled to find its place around LGBT issues and other denominations and other congregations locally who have been on that journey. The Cathedral now kind of talks about itself as a vibrant, inclusive, and progressive congregation. I think that the gift that we now offer, not just as a congregation here in Dallas and broadcasting worldwide but I think also for those who are coming out of evangelical traditions, not because they're LGBT, but for other reasons who are seeking a place where they can reconcile their faith and their often rejection by the church.
George: Right, and it's important to say that while we've used the language of issues like with LGBT, people are not issues and this is sort of shorthand for some of the challenges that we face in terms of negotiating our social convictions in our faith, but as you say, there's a lot more going on in American Christianity today and in people's spiritual journeys where it feels like the floor is shifting beneath us and we're trying to find a place to stand as we negotiate the growing convictions of where would Jesus be in our time and with whom would he be and with whom would he stand?
George: Let's pick this up again after the break, Neil, and I want to talk more about your own journey and and how you've come to this place in ministry. So we'll take a break and promote some nonprofit that is pretty dear to your heart.
Neil: Thank you, George. Thank you.
Jim White: Faith Forward Dallas at Thanksgiving square is a broad and diverse coalition of Dallas's faith leaders, dedicated to the service hope and a shared vision for North Texas. Faith Forward Dallas creates and supports a community of respect and compassion for all, sharing in the mission of the Thanksgiving Foundation to heal divisions and enhance mutual understanding.
George: We're back with Neil Cazares Thomas, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope here in Dallas. Neil, we've been talking about the journey of your church, but that spiritual journey is also in some ways mirrored in your own journey spiritually and I always love on this program to talk about people's sense of call to ministry, their own Christian experience and call, and yours is a fascinating one. Well, each of ours is I suppose, really, if we listen carefully enough. But take us from growing up, actually in England and in the Mormon faith and your family's experience and how all of that happened. I think people would be fascinated by this journey.
Neil: It really is. When I look back it's remarkable that I find myself where I am today. But you know I grew up in England on the south coast in a place called Bournemouth, right down on the beach. My family were some of the early converts to Mormonism in the United Kingdom. People are always saying to me here, "Oh, they have Mormons in England?" I say, "Yes, anything was more exciting than the Church of England at that time." But they were some of the early converts and my mom and dad, I'm one of seven kids. My twin brother and I are the youngest. So we were all Mormons right the way through.
Neil: When I was about two or three years of age, my mom and dad divorced, which was okay in the Mormon church and my mom got custody of the church. So we all stayed in the Mormon church. You know, just like every family, or one parent family, the Mormon Church, I will say were just incredible. One of the things I love about the Mormon tradition is the way that they take care of each other and certainly know how to do that well. We certainly went through a lot of crisis in our early childhood. Mum was a single parent and the church were just remarkable and that I bring into my own life.
Neil: But by the time I was about, I would say seven, eight or nine my mum had met someone who she wanted to marry and she went to the the Mormon bishop and said, "I want to get married and can we have that marriage ceremony here in the state, in the temple?" They basically said no because he was not a Mormon and unless he was willing to convert to Mormonism then there was no way there was going to be a wedding there.
Neil: So they eventually got married in a registry office in England and we left the Mormon church at that point. I think my mum was at the point where it was like, "I've dedicated my life to this particular church, to this denomination," so she felt that rejection. We left the Mormon church. What was ironic about that was that about six or eight weeks later, my mum found out that the man she had married was already married.
George: Oh my goodness.
Neil: The wedding was annulled but the damage was already done. But it taught me a really valuable lesson, George, and the valuable lesson was that churches are made up by human rules and the church can be wrong. I never realized at that point how important that message would be to me later on.
George: Well, because if you just stop and unpack that a little bit, here your mother had to choose between love and the church and the church said that we know best about how you're supposed to express your love and so that will find its way into the rest of your ministry, won't it?
Neil: Yep. Yep. I was not done with my spirituality. I know my mother wasn't either, but it was so wrapped up in identity of church. So we eventually moved up to London and my mum, I think quite frankly, was well over parenting at this point. She had already parented seven of us. I found myself taking myself off to church on Sunday morning. I would go to a baptist, not southern baptist, British baptist and Methodist and Anglican. I just found myself in churches on Sunday morning and at the same time I was coming to a real deep understanding that I wasn't like my brothers and my sister who were all out dating and getting married and that I had same sex attraction and that I was interested in men rather than women.
Neil: Through a whole slew of circumstances, far too long to get into, by the time I was a 14 and a half, close to 15 I was out of the closet. I'd already told people I was gay. I was outed by my twin brother. I always like to tell him that. I found myself just after my 15th birthday, it was like the 15th birthday or the week after, it was very close, walking into my first Metropolitan Community Church back in my hometown in Bournemouth, England.
Neil: I walked in, there was six people. They were renting a room in a Moose hall. It was the most bizarre worship experience I'd ever been to but there was something about this group of people that reminded me of the Mormon Church, reminded me of my roots. I felt home and I stayed in that congregation all the way through my seminary education. You know, I left school and went straight to seminary education. I was 18. I graduated when I was 22.
Neil: Ordained when I was 23 and I actually pastored that congregation-
George: Oh my goodness.
Neil: -For 13 years after that.
George: Gee whiz. What brought you to the states?
Neil: So about 10 or 12... This was also during the AIDS pandemic that hit the UK and so a lot of my time was spent as chaplain and building AIDS hospices and AIDS helplines and at the same time doing a lot of work with homeless folk. I remember vividly being accused by the city council in Bournemouth of promoting homosexuality by feeding the homeless and getting an apology from the city council eventually, being honored by the Queen of England for services to the Bournemouth community. It was such a fruitful part of my ministry and formation of my ministry around justice.
Neil: About 10 or 11 years in I got a call from our denominational headquarters in Los Angeles and said, "Have you thought about coming stateside?" I was coming up on 35 and I thought, well, I'm still young enough to pick up and leave and go and when I was eventually told that they would like me to consider the founding church, the church in Los Angeles where Troy started all and Troy is still a member and still attends every Sunday I was like, "Oh hell to the no." It was like far too big a jump from this small town in England to the metropolitan of Los Angeles. Eventually I was elected and called to that position and I was there for just on 13 years. There's kind of a pattern emerging.
George: Yeah, thirteen. Thirteen.
Neil: Thirteen and thirteen.
George: Okay, you've only been three here now so...
Neil: Three here, so yeah. Well, my plan is to retire out of this congregation.
George: Excellent. Okay. All right. Very good.
Neil: So I went to the MCC in Los Angeles and pastored there and moved them three times for different reasons. Mostly because we outgrew the space or... And then was on a different trajectory. I was not necessarily looking to be the pastor of Cathedral.
Neil: There was some thought in me of becoming the new moderator of the MCCs once Nancy retired. That shifted in my deep prayer.
George: Happily for all of us.
Neil: Well, you know, I just have to say I love Dallas. I mean there's real work to be done here. Los Angeles was great but everyone... People have kind of got the progressive message there.
George: Well and I think you've come to Dallas at a really important time when things are being reshaped in our church and multi faith community and you're very involved with Faith Forward Dallas and with other ecumenical and interfaith and multi faith sorts of groups. This is a really fruitful time for you to have come as we're exploring lots of new paths together.
Neil: I have to say it's a very exciting journey. I can tell you one thing that's, you know I keep saying this and I really deeply mean it. You know, for the first at least decade and a half of my ministry I was the belligerent minister who would always raise my hand and say, "Well, what about us? What about us?" And silence, quite frankly, told that I was going to go to hell but we're tolerating you by sitting at the back of the bus.
Neil: Now, all these years later, I haven't changed that position but I'm no longer being silenced. My voice is being encouraged and affirmed and lived into. I have to keep pinching myself that this happens in a lifetime because for many people this is something that they leave as a legacy and somebody else picks up. I'm living the dream in so many different ways of being able to be influential and to actually make a difference.
George: Well, and you know Neil, it's an interesting challenge that we have when we have conversation with people about these matters because for some this is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit's activity in the church and in the world that the table is getting bigger, that there's more seats at the table, there's more room and it's not just that we're at the table but that we're also actually on the field, we're working together.
George: For others it's a sign of the spirit of the age and of culture diminishing the values and standards of the church. It's hard to work that out with people of faith, isn't it? It's hard to help negotiate that conversation, isn't it?
Neil: It is difficult and I think we live in a particular period of our history in this country where Christianity has been hijacked and Christianity has been hijacked by a political move that is about privilege and is often about white men.
Neil: And I think it's more difficult these days to reconcile watching families separated at the border and watching people go without health coverage and you know, and the Christian Church and I talk now about the dominant voice of the Christian Church, not those of us who are perhaps on another side, but the dominant voice of the Christian Church almost either being silent or saying that this is God's will. I don't know how you read our sacred text, how you worship a Jesus who was refugee born into a manger on Christmas morning-
George: And fled to Egypt as a a refugee.
Neil: And fled to Egypt as a refugee, and not see that the Gospel compels us. I mean it's not a choice. It's a compelling commandment to love our neighbor. Right? I do believe that there's a reawakening in the church and that regardless of where we fall on the sexuality spectrum, those issues aren't really important. The important thing is, did we ... "I was naked and you clothed me. I was hungry and you fed me."
George: It comes down to the very heart of our faith and truly of all faiths, isn't it? That love God and love neighbor, the golden rule, is somehow is at the heart of every one of our faiths and for Christians to hear me say that some, some Christians, they would feel that that's sort of a watering down of the distinctiveness of our faith in Christ. But I think, you know, the radical center and the word radical actually doesn't mean fringe, it means to go right to the center, to the core of our faith.
George: That is what Jesus said was the heart of the law and that's the good news that he has come to proclaim, the fact that that God's love is unconditional and God's grace is for all and that all are welcome through this path of God's irresistible and unconditional grace.
George: It's an extraordinary good news and we're called to live it.
Neil: We are called to live it and you know, when we fail to live it or when we look at Christianity just through the western lens we miss the richness of the great commandment. It saddens me that, you know, we stand up so often in our churches and talk about God's blessing and how we live into that blessing without even realizing that the blessing is only given that we might share it.
George: That we might bless others.
Neil: Yes. Yes.
George: Well, Neil, you are a blessing to me and to our Dallas community and especially to the church. We're very grateful for your ministry and for your being here in Dallas with us now and we have more a conversation in another episode but I'm just continuing to thank God for your presence and for your friendship.
Neil: Thank you, and the sentiment is absolutely returned. Thank you.
George: Terrific. Thank you for being with us.
Neil: Thanks George.
Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy. Good God, Conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.
Jim White: Faith Forward Dallas at Thanksgiving square is a broad and diverse coalition of Dallas's faithful leaders dedicated to service, hope, and a shared vision for North Texas. Faith Forward Dallas creates and supports a community of respect and compassion for all, sharing in the mission of the Thanksgiving Foundation to heal divisions and enhance mutual understanding.