Synopsis from the GLBT Historical Society’s Oral History Archive
Interview with Lewis Durham
By Interviewer: Paul Gabriel
Shedding A Straight Jacket
Date of Interview: 7/18/98
Lewis Durham’s father was a pastor who worked in Methodist, Presbyterian and Southern Baptist congregations, primarily with youth or with mentoring programs connecting youth and adults. His funeral was attended by hundreds of youth gang members who were affected by his ministry. Lewis’ mother was a machinist in the War.
After serving in the Navy, Lewis attended college to become an accountant. After seminary, Lewis became a Methodist pastor and served as a Youth Organizer at Westwood, a church near UCLA. Lewis worked for eight years at the National Headquarters in Newport for the Methodist Church. During this time he began working with young adults as part of the interdenominational National Youth Organization which focused on the growing needs of the baby boomers. This work not only led Lewis to work as an educator about sex and drugs with the Navy (who wanted education for the bored sailors with too much time on their hands in submarines), but also brought him to Glide Memorial in San Francisco.
Through his work with the National Youth Organization Lewis helped to create a young adult project, run out of Tennessee by the National Council of Churches [which included United Church of Christ (UCC), Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptist and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA]. The youth project created programs in metropolitan cities across the country. The San Francisco program was created because a poll of hitchhikers showed that most youth wanted to head to San Francisco.
Lewis and Ted McIlvenna were sent to San Francisco and began working at Glide. Lewis primarily focused on the Council and the Foundation though he also did some work with the Mission Rebels, a local gang. McIlvenna focused on youth organizing, but also used the connections cultivated by the National Youth Organization and National Council of Churches to start the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH).
Radical Ministry Despite Political, Media and Ecclesiastical Backlash:
When Ted and Lewis joined the Glide staff in 1962, Glide had lots of money from an endowment, but no programs. This made Glide an ideal location for the new program. An additional benefit for having the youth work at Glide, was that it had a foundation with a separate board. This separation protected the National Council of Churches, the Methodist Bishop and other congregations, when donors, congregations, the media, police and others complained about the radical ministry taking place at Glide.
John Moore was the pastor at Glide when Lewis and Ted began working there in ’62. A year later Cecil Williams joined the staff and in ’64 he become the head pastor when John Moore left.
Lewis worked with the board of directors (which included the Methodist Bishop) to educate them about the work they were doing in the neighborhood. This not only allowed the board to stay informed, but also enabled them to defend the ministers when conservatives, pastors, donors, press and the police tried to scandalize, defrock, arrest or shut them down.
One of the many times the Glide pastors needed support was when Vanguard, which Lewis describes as gay prostitutes, had a dance in the sanctuary (which was a gathering space for lots of gay organizations). A reporter published a column in four hundred newspapers “talking about this awful thing that had happened in Glide where young men were dancing cheek to cheek.” As a result telegrams were sent by Sothern bishops and conferences in Texas and Alabama to [the Methodist ]Bishop Tippett demanding that he to [sic] defrock [the Glide pastors]. The Bishop picked up the telegrams and letters and said “Lewie, you answer them. I haven’t got time.’”
Cliffard “Cliff” Crummy, who served as the district superintendent, also served on the Glide board and was supportive on their work. Cliff helped calm down conservative lay folk in the area and even took on large donors. One such occasion was when the President of Chevron and high level corporate bank executives who funded the National Council of Churches “passed the word down they were going to cut their funding unless the Council of Churches did something about Glide. Well, the Council of Churches doesn’t have any leverage on Glide at all, you know, just no way that could they have done anything about Glide, you know, except make us feel bad or something. But [Cliff] … said don’t worry, Lewie, we’ll find a way around this and he helped turn them onto some funding sources too.”
Lewis also talks about how Glide was harassed and tracked by both the IRS and the FBI. The IRS investigated allegations that Glide was not actually a church and the political nature of their activities. In the late 60s the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) began having trainings for clergy, doctors, psychologists and others who were in positions to help decrease the discrimination faced by gay people at Glide. The process for the trainings was to desensitize people through the use of pornographic film.
“Laird would have 16 or 18 projectors going all at the same time. Ceiling and all, I mean, just complete media inundation of a person. And he quite often used Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto and there would be fifteen scenes of people coming to orgasm. He would time it, you know so all the films were coming to orgasm at the same time with this Tchaikovsky music as loud as it would go.”
After the media inundation, the participants would talk about issues like S&M, drugs, gay, lesbian and transgender people in panels that were led by people who lived those lifestyles. This model of sex education was taught all over the country.
At a conference for Lutheran clergy in Minneapolis the FBI seized the pornographic films and began showing them to church folk (presumably as a way to shame or scandalize CRH and the Glide pastors). After being advised by lawyers that they getting their tapes back would look bad in the press (as the names of the pornographic films would be released), the CRH clergy went to the local FBI office in robes and performed an exorcism ritual. Lewis remembers, “We were quite impressive, you know, and there’s pots swinging and we exorcised them, and said, oh, God forgives you taking our films.”
Lewis tells a number of stories about the radical ministry that was happening at Glide. The stories include: hippies; orgies; skinny dipping; preventing riots by paying off gang leaders; encouraging nonviolence at violent protests; civil rights trips to participate in the March at Selma; removing the pews and putting them out on Turk street; a bonfire in the building with nuns and bread fed to drunk passersby; a Joan Baez concert where draft cards were burned on the alter; sunrise Easter services in the streets, urban plunges for young clergy to survive the streets for 24 hours; a coffee house for youth; creating the first 24 hour shelter for runaway youth (it was illegal when it was created); and helping to found the Night Ministry.
Bob Cromey and Lewis married two women and told them they weren’t married in the eyes of the church, only in the eyes of two clergymen. It hit the paper and “Bob made the statement, he said he didn’t care who people made love to, they could make love to lampshades if they wanted to. Well he soon had a garage full of lampshades and I mean, lampshades came in from everywhere.”
Lewis remarks that many of these strategies for ministry were learned from the hippies who taught the pastors how to make statements by doing something unexpected. While the Glide pastors are certainly radical, Lewis notes that they have an easier time being pro sex, then pro drugs, “you’re supporting a positive attitude towards sex and you’re having difficulties with drugs, particularly hard use of drugs.”
The pastors at Glide foundation and the church saw themselves as missionaries, who did the work important to those in the neighborhood. This included working with gays, sex workers, “young chickens,” youth, hippies, gangs, drug addicts and others.
Because the pastors saw themselves as missionaries or “enablers,” as Lewis called it, they listened to the people about what the issues were in people’s lives that the church needed to address. “We didn’t really decide sex is something we’re going to, you know, it came out because people said that’s an important issue. And then it became important when we found out that nobody was dealing with it.”
The theology of the Glide pastors stems from their call to be missionaries who “went out in the world, found out what problems, what people were doing, what problems they had and how they defined their problems not the church, but how they defined their problems, and then you endorsed them and worked with them, all those problems. And it just so happened that, when you’re in the Tenderloin, you’re working with the gay community, or the gay prostitutes or the, you know, whatever, sex is one of the issues and drugs was too. And we got into the drug issue too, particularly with Joel Fort. But sex was more fun that drugs. So we basically followed what the people were saying were the issues.”
Lewis also notes: “we basically worked on the idea of defining areas with the people with the church not being the expert. The church was not the expert. We had to rely on people that knew more about it. But we were the experts when it came to endorsement and validation. And that the role of the church was to validate people …”
CRH and the Police Raid of the Ball at California Hall:
The San Francisco Gay groups threw a ball in order to raise funds for CRH. However, because the gay groups weren’t allowed to rent California Hall, Glide side the rental agreement for the ball. Shortly after the meeting the owners of the California Hall went to the police’s Vice Squad to inform them of the illegal event that would take place.
“Cecil and Ted went over to see the Vice Squad. They immediately pointed to the rings on their fingers and said how can you do something like that and be married men, you know. I mean, they just really started hassling Ted and Cecil, but that’s the wrong thing to do. Those two don’t get hassled, they hassle. And but, you know, it was obvious and they kept quoting Bishop Fulton Shehan… he was a Catholic bishop who made quite a name for himself in the ‘50s and ‘60s as an arch conservative.”
So they knew there was going to be trouble, so CRH got lawyers to be the ticket takers. “The clergy wives, see this was a whole new ball game and here were the clergy and their collars on the steps. There were the police there had cameras and klieg lights. They brought their equipment with them to take pictures of everybody coming in and out. And there were forty-five uniformed and plain clothes cops. And so my wife and some of the other wives got together and got coffee and started serving coffee to the police. And they didn’t know what to do, you know, here were these very middle class, obviously, women, you know, coming around and offering coffee to them while all these gay people were going up and down the steps, you know. And it was really a trip and a half.”
The police arrested one person on the dance floor for lewd dancing and “the three ticket takers. And I’ll tell you, then all hell broke loose. That was real interesting.” Arrested at the event were Nancy May (who was pregnant), Dave Clayton (Rick Stokes partner) and Herb Donaldson.
After the ball Glide’s pastor, John Moore, had his sermon on the Church and the Homosexual on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The California Hall incident changed the way the police related to the CRH clergy:
“But we did notice, for instance, at the California Hall, the police would not have anything to do with the clergy, I mean, they’d leave them alone. If they walked down the hall, they’d give them a wide berth, you know, just kind of respect, we were not sure why you guys are here but we aren’t going to touch it. But comes the San Francisco State strike, several of the clergy got beat, including Clair Nessmith who has a leg brace from polio and he got beat. And there was a whole change in attitude. You know, they were a (p55) little more hostile toward the clergy.”
“They came by and I can’t remember whether an intern, we had interns would stir things up for us. And it could have been this guy, I can’t remember his name or an Ed Hanson or somebody like that. But anyway the Vanguard made their way to Glide and said they wanted a sponsor. They’d started organizing so we gave them an office and telephone a little furniture and they started out. It was pretty rioutus from the word git-go. I think they had a change of officers every two weeks because somebody would steal the treasury. And, you know, it was a very unstable group. But they had a couple of dances and, of course, the word of the dances got around that this wasn’t your typical church youth group. And I can’t remember how long, they were around several months. And then they sort of went off in fragments all over the place. They were some pretty sharp kids, some of them were pretty sharp. But they were always coming in and screaming about somebody running off with the money or something, you know. They were real unstable. And putting on their dances, there would be, you know 80-90-100 out.”
Leaving Glide and the Ministry:
Lewis left Glide after ten years, when he realized he was tired of it all. He saw that each metropolitan area had a Tenderloin and that the problems weren’t going away. He also became disenfranchised by the Methodist churches inability to handle the issues of sexuality nationally. After his experience at Glide Lewis drifts away from the Methodist church.
“In some ways, the one thing that I feel more successful about, is the fact that, you know, the Church did what it can do best and that was it endorsed and validated the gay movement. And a lot of gay movement and Pride and all that thing and self-confidence came because of the initial endorsement the Church gave to people, like you’re okay, you go ahead and do what you need to do. We’ll help you. And so you had people that would just feel better about this.”