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Community remembers LGBTQ ally Rev. Gregory Dell
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-11-03

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When people attended one of Rev. Gregory Dell's services at Lakeview's Broadway United Methodist Church ( BUMC ), no matter what their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic background or level in society, the first thing they heard was "we don't just tolerate you, we celebrate you."

On Oct. 30, Dell passed away in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 70 years old.

After Dell was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and retired in 2007, his successors at BUMC Rev. Vernice Thorn and eventually Rev. Lois McCullen Parr took up their own version of Dell's welcome.

"We are black, brown, white, tan; all the colors of God's creative rainbow," Thorn and McCullen Parr told BUMC's congregations. "We are lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual and straight. We are intersex, trans, male, female, gender nonconforming. We're living with illness, in recovery, with addictions. We're living in many different economic locations, many different spaces in our lives, many different ages with many different kinds of families. It's important to us to name who we are because we believe the truth that we're named first by God. We claim these identities as beloved for all who are here and we're here to praise the God who made us. Welcome, beloved community."

In every word, it was true to the ministry at BUMC Dell built over 22 years using the bricks and mortar of compassion and dignity.

He created an island of inclusion there that was surrounded by what he once called "stormy and unpredictable seas" and the light from its steeple arrowed toward heaven attracted the unwanted, disenfranchised and those who simply wished to celebrate their faith in harmony with each member of the "beautiful rainbow" as Dell called the accumulation of humanity that was both in his congregation and his community.

"Even those who are most hateful and most frightened are still caught by their own identity to be expressing love in ways that are most meaningful and consistent with their own identity," Dell asserted during a 2007 interview with Tracy Baim for for CHICAGOGAYHISTORY.COM . "Don't violate the nature the character and nature that God gave you. It is something to be treasured, loved and expressed."

What Dell has bequeathed to the generations to follow him extends far beyond the walls of BUMC.

It has been taken into the world by each of the people who heard his sermons or were counseled by him and has also steadily grown the ranks of the Reconciling Ministries Network which today boasts more than 33,000 people in 802 communities who "mobilize United Methodists of all sexual orientations and gender identities to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ's inclusive love."

"Because of the work he was constantly doing himself, he taught me how to do my own work around my identity," Thorn told Windy City Times. "He helped me discover some of my own challenges around being a Black woman. He taught me how to create my own identity and my own voice and he gave me space to do that. He would step back and push me forward."

"Greg's ministry and teaching inspired us," McCullen Parr said. In every fiber of his being, Greg really believed in the love of God having the kind of power that can overcome earthly power. Greg helped the reconciling movement. It is huge and much of that growth is because of Greg. His witness has made a difference both transforming one person and in the larger story of the movement for inclusion."

Lambda Legal Midwest Regional Director Jim Bennett joined BUMC in 1996. It was there that he met his now-husband Terry.

"I always feel close to Greg in the church," Bennett said. "He always believed that the church was a reflection of whatever was going in in the community. He intentionally wanted diversity in the pulpit. So many of the members who are still there are members who went there specifically for Greg and that ministry survives."

Scott McGowan attended Dell's services and remembered him as "a beacon on love and inclusion."

"Greg's sermons were awe-inspiring, blending scripture with current events and person[al] experience then bringing it home to the scripture," McGowan wrote to Windy City Times. "I used to think of them as the trifecta sermons and looked forward to all three parts."

Amy Matheny was not actively searching for a church when she met Dell and first heard him preach in 1998.

"It's the house that Greg built," she said of BUMC. "I don't know people who were not changed by meeting him; the people in the neighborhood, the 12-step recovery groups and the volunteer groups that met in that church. The About Face Theatre group began some of their earliest rehearsals back in 2000 in the [BUMC] basement. When I met Greg, it gave a clear signal to me that I wanted part of my work to be about bringing conversations about any spirituality to the LGBT community."

Dell was born in South Side Chicago's Blue Island neighborhood in 1945. The family relocated to the suburb of Midlothian and, with a United Methodist Church a block away from their home, Dell received his earliest spiritual education as a Methodist.

It was in that church that Dell also learned about the world its pastor envisioned—so very different from the one around him.

"Growing up in that predominantly almost all-white environment in which there was a lot of racism, it was an interesting dynamic to have a pastor of the church which we were attending be so strong on civil rights," Dell said. "I became convinced after listening to him that the gospel, that which was giving life to people, was really expressed in the civil-rights movement and its insistence on justice and fairness for all people regardless of their identity. Injustice in any form was injustice in all of its forms."

It was a belief that would be inscribed into Dell's life and career.

As a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in the tumult of the early 1960s, Dell fought for increased Black enrollment and protested South African Apartheid. It was also where he met his wife Jade and began a relationship with her that Bennett recalled as a "beloved fixture in the [Lakeview] neighborhood."

Dell always made sure that the victims of injustice were heard through his voice even when it meant his own arrest on numerous occasions. He saw it as a duty rooted in the history of the UMC.

"Its national position as a denomination has been pretty strongly on the side of worker's rights, women's rights and others," Dell said.

In 1983, when a pastor at Wheadon United Methodist Church in Evanston, Dell turned the church into a sanctuary for refugees fleeing El Salvador and asked members to do the same with their homes.

"The sanctuary program became a very powerful force in our congregation," he told The New York Times at the time.

Three years later, Dell was arrested after he chained himself to the doorway of the office of the UMC's pension board to protest their business connections in South Africa.

When Dell took an appointment as the pastor of BUMC in 1995, he faced a monumental task. It was one that he never expected.

"The church was not in very good shape," he recalled. "It was torn apart by internal dissension. All of the marks of institutional strength were eroded or eroding. In fact, my wife and I talked about leaving after the first three months but we were convinced to stay. I think that turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. We had a beautiful building in a wonderful neighborhood and we had a core of people that were very excited about the possibility of a ministry that was fully inclusive. It was reborn very quickly after we came there. If it hadn't been for the diversity of people who were committed to an expression of faith that was different than mainstream, it would not have happened."

Most people have never forgotten the first Dell sermon they attended.

"He was about the responsibility of a church to be in service with its community," Bennett said. "He kept talking about the corner of Roscoe and Broadway that we were on and how our responsibility was to serve the neighborhood. He defined it as an LGBT neighborhood that was struggling with issues of race that had some of the wealthiest people and the poorest and we had a responsibility to address that. I was sold and it was very easy to start coming back. Greg had an ability to very consciously declare what the church was. Everyone felt welcomed. Everybody felt like they belonged."

"I had never heard anybody in a Methodist Church talk the way he did. He sounded like what my God would talk like," Matheny recalled. "He talked about the fact that we were all invited to God's table and, even if we think we don't belong at the table to take communion, we do. He said 'we all feel broken, we all feel unworthy but we take communion and it makes us whole.' I burst into tears and started going every Sunday."

"You could tell, when he was talking about anything, that justice was always a first priority for him," Thorn said. "My first experience with justice ministry was through Greg. He really had a heart for justice. They were not just words for him. It was his way of life. Everything was about justice and equity for him. He used his privilege as a straight, white man to challenge oppression and inequity all the time. He encouraged people to claim their ability and their voice. He knew that it was real because he lived it every day."

"He understood intersectionality long before people were talking about intersectionality," McCullen Parr added. "He always saw the connection between racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, poverty and war. He was a brilliant person who read all the time. He saw the ways in which these things were connected to one another and that, when power was abused, it led to oppression."

But behind Dell's passion for the work, his love for his community and his unwavering belief in the unlimited potential for change that his church could have on it was a sense of humor and an easy-going manner which put everyone at ease.

So his congregation came to know Dell as they would a loyal and cherished friend.

McGowan recalled Dell's love of summer tomatoes and martinis.

Matheny said that Dell's enjoyment of both flying and scuba diving ensured that "to the depths of the oceans to the highest skies, he was there."

Thorn remembered his fierce appetite for fried chicken.

"We used to have a potluck every Wednesday night before Bible study," she said. "Me and Greg would go out and get fried chicken. There would always be a fight at the end as to who would get that last piece of chicken. I would often look at him and say 'don't even think about it.'"

Thorn met Dell in the Summer of 2001 when she was interviewing for a student pastor position at BUMC.

"I come from a pretty conservative background when it comes to church," she said. "Greg met me at the door in Bermuda shorts and sandals and I said 'I'm here to meet with the pastor.' It became a long-standing joke with us."

"He had the ability not to take himself too seriously," McCullen Parr asserted. "He was funny as all get out. His sense of humor and the twinkle in his eye. Everyone who knew Greg could tell you about that expression. He had the ability to take meaningful things seriously and maintain a sense of humor and a lightness about himself personally."

"He wasn't a loud, boisterous personality," Matheny said. "But he didn't sugarcoat anything."

Bennett said that Dell looked up to politician and activist Sargent Shriver; a man who once noted that, "It is well to be prepared for life as it is, but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is."

They were words that seemed at the core of Dell's personal mission to serve others even if it came into conflict with UMC doctrine.

Dell was no stranger to speaking out against UMC policy. Both before and after his own trial for marrying a same-sex couple, he protested UMC conferences about the church's position on the LGBT community, once arm-in-arm with the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Dell was arrested on at least two of those occasions.

"It was a strong word to our church but also to the society that this is not just some small little issue that can be marginalized around the edges," Dell said "This is a central issue of justice, human rights, and fairness for all people. It was a way of saying that the voice of the lesbian gay, bisexual transgender communities and their supporters will be heard even if the church doesn't want it to be heard."

Once Dell began to transform BUMC in the late '90s, members of the LGBT community like Bennett and Matheny were drawn to a new spiritual home until at least a third of its membership were gays and lesbians.

"There was a rainbow sticker on the church sign," Bennett said. "I knew the Methodist rules against the LGBT community so I was sort of intrigued. It was the first week I had moved to Chicago and, when I heard Greg preach, it was amazing."

"The denomination's policies at that point were really focused more on excluding folks from ordination and not providing denominational support to those groups that were promoting the acceptance of homosexuality," Dell said. "In 1996, the denomination passed a piece of legislation that prohibited clergypersons from celebrating holy unions. It wasn't clear whether that was binding"

Dell had presided over same-sex holy unions for at least 18 years before he arrived at BUMC. He continued the practice 32 times at BUMC before August 1998, when the UMC judicial council sent down a prohibition against same-sex holy unions that was explicit in its restrictions to all member of the clergy.

"One of the things that so impacted my life was when we were doing premarital counseling with a same-gender couple," Thorn said. "One of the partners said [to Greg] 'I don't understand how you can put your livelihood at stake just to marry us.' Greg burst into tears and said 'I can't do anything different. My religion says that I'm to serve all people. I can't serve some and not others.'"

Dell went ahead with his 33rd same-sex union for two men Keith and Carl on Sept. 19, 1998.

It led to what Windy City Times Publisher and Executive Editor Tracy Baim would call in her book Out and Proud in Chicago "One of the most powerful events of the 1990s."

In October 1998, UMC Chicago Bishop C. Joseph Sprague read an article about Keith and Carl's union in Windy City Times and filed a complaint with the church against Dell stating that "[Dell] did knowingly, as a stated act of conscience and pastoral ministry, fail to uphold the Order and The Discipline of The United Methodist Church."

Dell wrote a letter to BUMC's members.

"People have asked me if I regret the interviews that led to the article or if I regret the article itself," he said. "My response has been that, for over 35 years, I've been involved in justice work where we have been desperate for media coverage. However, this is one time when its welcome was not without ambivalence. I'm glad for the witness it has made in the gay/lesbian/bi and transsexual community and in the church. The service and the article apparently were words of real hope and good news to a lot of folks who had not only given up on the church and in some cases the faith, but in some cases on themselves. Nothing can erase the importance of that. Keep Jade and me in your thoughts and prayers."

While Dell's congregation rallied around him, unfortunately Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church also took an interest in his case and arrived at BUMC one Sunday morning in late November 1998 to engage in their brand of vitriolic, hate-filled pickets.

"Some people said the best way to react was to ignore it," Dell told the Chicago Tribune. "But we've got a very substantial gay community here ( and this comes at a time ) very close to what happened to Matthew Shepard. So, the one option not available was ignoring it."

"Greg grounded himself in the kind of love that would [emulate] Jesus when he said 'love your enemies,'" McCullen Parr recalled. "He knew how to do that in a way that was quite a powerful witness; to love people into being their best selves."

But Dell was not alone.

"Dell's supporters from the Lakeview Action Coalition and dozens of religious organizations surrounded the church with a 'Circle of Care' estimated to number at least 2,000 to confront the eight picketers consisting of Phelps and his family across the street," Williams Burks wrote in Out and Proud Chicago.

"All these churches from every denomination encircled our church so we could have our service," Matheny recalled. "Jewish, Catholic, it was incredible. They were arm-in-arm the entire service. We were surrounded by people who knew our home was being attacked."

"Dell noted at the time that Phelps' actions show that 'the power of evil is real,'" Burks wrote, "and he remarked on the difference between using the Bible as 'an instrument of injury' and 'a source of healing.' Church member Brian Savage called that Sunday 'the most overwhelming day of my life.'"

Dell's trial began at 9:30 a.m. on March 25, 1999 at First United Methodist Church in Downers Grove, Illinois.

It was presided over by Bishop Jack Tuell of Washington.

Maple Park United Methodist Church pastor Larry Pickens acted as Dell's counsel.

"I do have a defense strategy," Dell said. "But if that fails and I'm found guilty I don't feel that the die is cast. Penalties range from removing my orders as a United Methodist pastor to censure. The trial jury will decide. I also have the right of appeal."

"When he was put on trial, members of the church were asked to write letters about what he meant to us," Bennett said. "Terry's letter was almost 13 pages long. It cited from the Bible and had footnotes. Mine was a page long and I had written it the morning of the day it was due. One day, during marital counseling Greg read us the last paragraphs of each of our letters and they were almost identical. Greg told us 'these are the two letters that I kept with me during the trial and if people tell you that you're not compatible because you're so different, remember you came to the same conclusion.' It had such an impact on us because we were struggling. It was an incredible moment for us."

"Not only is the decision expected, it is actually welcome," Dell said of the trial which he also called "an occasion for the Church to consider this matter in the context of real ministry with real people. The love that God offers is not theoretical. The Church must decide if it truly wants to declare that its affirmation of God's embracing, celebrating acceptance is available to some but not others who want to live in faithful relationships of commitment and love."

Dells defiance reverberated around the world.

"We had CNN, ABC and other national news organizations in our church," Matheny recalled. "It became such a big story. Greg was very conflicted about not leaving the United Methodist Church and making change from within. He never shied away from saying 'this is just wrong.'"

"Greg's trial and the witnesses to the kind of pastor he was and Greg's own talking about being a pastor transformed one of the bishops who was on the trial court," McCullen Parr asserted. "His status as a hero of the movement was elevated during the trial and the national publicity from that."

However, after two days, UMC ruled against him in a 10-3 vote. Dell was suspended in July 1999.

"Most people felt [my sentence] would probably be a slap on the wrist," he told Windy City Times. "The finding of the jury was that I would be suspended from pastoral ministry indefinitely, or until one of two conditions were met: either I would recant and promise I wouldn't do such services, or the rule itself was changed. I wasn't going to recant. I'd made that decision earlier."

After an appeal, Dell's suspension was reduced to a year.

Yet Dell was not so easy to silence.

He recalled to Windy City Times that he was "invited—sometimes at risk to the pastors involved—to preach. I think I preached 50 times during that one year, which was more than I would have preached if I'd been at Broadway during the year, but preached and spoke to a significant number of GLBT and GLBT-allied organizations, all age groups, all racial groups, all identities, and all across the country. I discovered a couple of things: one is, that there is a passion for people who are involved in the struggle for justice that doesn't go away because of simple defeats."

At the invitation of Matheny, Dell was also able to preach on Chicago's LesBiGay Radio.

"I wanted to give him an opportunity to speak to an even bigger crowds than our congregation," Matheny said. "He was on every Monday and we called it Minister with a Message. It was just a fantastic way for us to have a conversation about any topic from a spiritual angle that might be challenging to the LGBTQ community. He knew who he was speaking to."

On July 1, 2000, Dell was reappointed as pastor of BUMC.

Both during his trial and after, its membership increased exponentially.

"I loved hearing his voice and there was a physical joy about him when he preached," Bennett said. "When he baptized a kid he would hold that kid up above his head like in The Lion King and walk through the church. Everyone would clap. I would cry every time he did it."

The year 2000 was also when Dell performed a holy union for Bennett and his husband Terry.

In January 2001, the United Methodist Church Council voted for "Constructive engagement with the United Methodist denomination. This includes allowing designated giving and continued support of national movement such as the Reconciling Ministries Network."

According to BUMC, it was one of four options provided to them by the Broadway Future Taskforce which had been created to deal with conflict resolution within the UMC.

"Greg in his ministry believed and believes that the church 'rite' of marriage ought be provided 'for all,' despite the fact in the United Methodist Church today, it is only 'afforded to some,'" UMC Rev. Gil Caldwell would later write on the Reconciling Ministries Network. "I am suggesting that The United Methodist Church develop a 'Ritual of Apology' that embraces Greg Dell and others. In that Ritual, we as a Church ought say in more than one way, 'Greg you were right and we were wrong.'"

In February 2007, Dell announced to his congregation that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

"The congregation is very clear," Dell said. "We had the time to grieve, be angry and be sad together. But they're going to move on and so are we and so will this struggle. It doesn't depend on a few people, it is a struggle of many people of all of God's diversity."

"Parkinson's literally robbed Greg of his voice," Bennett said. "He couldn't speak or recall specific words. He would start to do a sermon and have to stop. He wasn't even able to give his last sermon. He ended up getting two other shots at it. He got the Equality Illinois award and much of his speech was pieces of that sermon that he had always wanted to give."

In 2008, Dell was inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as an ally. He eventually moved to North Carolina to be closer to his children.

"A friend of mine from North Carolina has been very active in protesting House Bill 2 every Wednesday," Matheny said. "This summer, I saw this news clip with her in it. There was a man there, sitting in a wheelchair. It was Greg. He was still out there on the front lines."

Meanwhile both the BUMC Dell left and the Reconciling Ministries Network of which it is a part are thriving.

BUMC states that it is "a community full of life & activity. Together we worship, study, offer community service, sing, and play. We strive to be a multi-cultural church and have proclaimed our commitment on the journey as an anti-racist institution."

"Greg's spirit was still a tangible presence at [BUMC]B because of the impact that he had there." McCullen Parr said. "His influence is still really powerful on the ministry that is going on at Broadway."

Jacqueline Boyd has been the BUMC's director of music for the past five years.

"The culture there has been in place since I started," she said. "It's very much tied into recognition of Greg. When I started, there was a lot of storytelling not just about Greg but the movements that happened around his work for LGBT rights and racial justice. As a queer Black person, it's pretty amazing and revolutionary to have a place that believes in those things equally and is really trying to make a difference in both areas. Putting faith to action is a huge piece of what he gave the church."

Dr. Dana Brown was BUMC's choir director during Dell's ministry and composed the song "Until the Table Extends to Us All."

According to Boyd, its words encompass the heart and soul, life and work of Gregory Dell.

"The times are changing slowly, not fast enough for me. To live a life of freedom without apology. The day of judging others will soon pass us by. Until the table extends to us all, until the night knows no darkness to fall, until the privilege of freedom includes mine, until religion is sanctioned by love, until justice rolls down from above, until dignity's restored to every soul, I will sing my song."

According to his family, Dell's "parents, Anthony and Jeannette (Bingham) Dell preceded him in death. He is survived by spouse Jade (Luerssen) Dell, son Jason Delborne, daughter-in-law Tonya Delborne, granddaughters Olivia and Ramona, and sisters Gloria Dell Filebark and Laura Dell."

A service of memorial and celebration will take place at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 20, 2016, at the Alice Millar Chapel, a non-denominational center on the campus of Northwestern University.

The address is 1870 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Illinois.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Dell's honor may be given to the following organizations:

Church Within A Church Movement, PO Box 578524, Chicago, IL 60657, www.cwac.us/contribute

Resist, PO Box 441155, Somerville, MA 02144, www.resist.org/donate

See CHICAGOGAYHISTORY.COM: CHICAGOGAYHISTORY.COM/BIOGRAPHY.HTML .


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