Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rev. Charles "Chuck" Lewis

Synopsis of an 86 page transcribed Interview by Paul Gabriel
February 8, 1997 (and other dates)
A Part of the GLBT Historical Society's Oral History Project

San Francisco, 1961 ---
Charles “ChuckLewis came to San Francisco when the Lutheran Church offered to let him operate a Mission in North Beach. Hoping to serve the beatnik community (which had already moved on) and charged to provide ministry opportunities for homosexuals, Chuck accepted the position and hired Jo Chadwick to be his assistant (using funds from a severance package from leaving his previous call). The national office in Chicago paid for Jo Chadwick’s salary for an additional year. Then the North Beach Mission folded and Chuck worked part time at the Night Ministry and at the YMCA, until he became the full time Night Minister.

On the founding board of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH), Chuck joined the interdenominational group of Urban Specialist including: Clay Caldwell from the United Church of Christ, Bill Black from Lutheran Church in America, Ted McIlvenna a Youth Outreach worker at Glide Memorial Methodist Church and Bill Grace from the Presbyterian Church. Many of the pastors were veterans of the civil rights movement. Chuck saw his role as that of someone who helps to be a calming voice amongst the fighting between the different gay groups. Chuck created a service of dedication for the 6th street community center opened by the Society for Individual Rights (SIR).

Chuck discovered that he was gay later in life (3-4 years after he moved to San Francisco and was working with the gay community). Chuck unintentionally came out at a Dignity conference and then needed to come out to his family so that he could continue working politically and while doing education work nationally. His friends and family considered it “the worst kept secret in town” when he came out.

The CRH was originally founded in order to help youth and reduce the suicide rate, to educate professionals in order to make life easier for gay people and to prevent discrimination. Chuck’s involvement in CRH includes serving as the treasurer for 4 years and president for 2 years and treasurer again for the last 4 years he was involved. CRH is most well known for hosting a fundraiser ball that was raided by the police, receiving much media and legal attention (though it seems like CRH decided not to pursue the legal battles).

During the ball, Chuck tried to thwart the police who were taking pictures of the guests by taking pictures of the police officers. The hope was that the flash bulbs would ruin the police officers photos. The used photo rolls were stored in Jo Chadwick’s bra for safe keeping. After the dance Chuck was so unnerved by the police raid that he walked home and smashed the flash bulbs (to release the energy he wanted to use to beat up a police officer).

The clergy of CRH received some flack from local congregations about all the public activities, but because they were urban specialists paid by the national church (or by private organizations) they were able to be more visible than the local churches were comfortable with.

When it comes to the youth in the Tenderloin, Chuck believes that a myriad of factors brought them to the Tenderloin. Nationally the Vietnam protests, destruction of the nuclear family and homophobia played a role. Added with the rise of identity politics and the unwillingness of people to stay in the closet create a space for gay liberation to bloom amongst the feminist, black power and hippie movements that were transforming the area. Locally, the construction on Market street to create the BART system and the construction of the Moscone Center had moved the young, predominantly white gay (and gay for pay) hustlers to the Tenderloin.

Alongside the people driven movements was a group of clergy at GLIDE who were able to get federal poverty money directed to the Tenderloin. These pastors, like Chuck, were used to working in youth movements who encouraged self governance. While Chuck did not end up working closely with the Vanguard youth, he was a part of the Night Ministry from its inception where he spent a lot of time doing ministry at night within the gay bars where he would run into the youth and the Compton crowd at a bar called Chuckers. The Compton crew were not silly drag queen types with “mops on their heads and balloons in their bra,” they were true transsexuals and beautiful drag queens.

For the most part, the Night Ministry visited gay bars that were male, because the clergy were male and the women’s bars tended to be defined as a space free of men – rather than about sexuality. But overtime and with gentle pastoral care they became accepted in the female spaces as well.

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