VOICES of the Oral History Project of GLHSNC 2 Theater.
Interview with Rev. Robert Cromey
By Interviewer: Paul Gabriel
Date: 9/16/96 and 8/7/97
(photo from the photo Courtesy of the GLBT Historical Society, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon Papers, Box 192, Seven Angry Ministers CRH 1965)
Raised in New York, Robert “Bob” Cromey’s father was an independent pastor who worked in big churches with small congregations and little money in the ‘30s that would set up soup kitchens and worked with the homeless. “Incredible, you know, I think to myself I’m doing the same thing now with the ‘90s where we have the most fabulous and wealthy country in the world that my father was doing in the ‘30s when you know, there were what? Thirty-five, forty percent people unemployed, the soup kitchen.”
Bob learned social awareness and about diversity from his father, who “made it very clear in our household, you didn’t talk about niggers or fags, that these were human beings that were friends of ours, and we had black people, they were acquaintances that my father would help out in the days of the ‘30s and the ‘40s of homeless people in Brooklyn where I was born and raised and Manhattan, in churches they had in these areas. And they would be around the house, mostly ordinary people, mostly particularly black people. But even then my father was interested or even knew a lot of gay people and they were around, this was part of our life. And you just didn’t say the N word or the Fag word or, you know, you didn’t put people down. So I had a kind of sharpening of social conscience, if you will in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
A student of a prep school in Long Island, called St. Paul’s School. Bob was told he could have gone to Harvard, but he “never thought of it.” So he went to Colgate University in Amherst and hated it: “It was all male, I didn’t have a lot of money, my father didn’t want me to hitchhike – he was terrified that I’d be killed on the road or hurt. I was very lonely and I also was shocked again at the fraternity system, the way they talked about kikes and niggers openly.” After deciding not to be part of a fraternity system, Bob became a social outcast. Though he was a jock playing football and basketball, he didn’t make the top level team, so he transferred to New York University (NYU).
Bob was also exposed to diversity as a student of NYU (1949-53): “In those days it was called N.Y.Jew because practically eighty percent of the students at NYU in those days were Jewish and bright and smart and aggressive….” The most important organization on campus at the time he attended was the Young Communist League in the ‘50s. Bob was a member of the Canterbury Club for Episcopal students at NYU. “It was a small group but the priests who led that were very avant-garde, very concerned about social issues and that what they were trying to get us to see is that the Christian gospel had something to do with slums, bad housing, race relations and I was awakened by these particular clergy to the responsibility of a Christian person to the disadvantaged. And social justice issues as being something that we’ve got to connect to all this, all this Jesus stuff, you see. And it wasn’t just pie in the sky, it wasn’t just simple piety. It was if you’re going to be involved in what’s going on in the world, not out of the world.”
He went to seminary at General Theological Seminary in New York City in 1953 and graduated in 1956 and was ordained an Episcopal priest in December 1956. With his ordination Bob gained social status. Bob wanted to be a brighter star than his father, he strived to be the rector of a large parish and become a “bishop with a fancy, fancy hat.”
In 1956, Bob was curate (associate rector) at Christ ‘s Church in Bronxville, New York. It was a nice church, “but they were very racist and very anti-Semitic and I was shocked by the kind of attitudes that these wonderful people were expressing. They were wonderful towards us, but then they’d talk about niggers and kikes and Jews and this and that.” After a couple of years, Bob became a rector of a church in the Bronx. In this congregation, he heard prejudice about the Catholics (in reaction to the Kennedy election). Bob names this as the time he started to gain class consciousness.
Bob moved to San Francisco, in part because it was the ‘60s and what he called the “greatest trek in the history of humanity.” With a desire to live in another metropolitan area outside of New York, Bob wrote to Bishop Pike (pictured on the left with the Rev. Martin Lutheran King Jr at the Selma march - Photo courtesy of the Bishop Pike Papers at Syracuse University), whom he knew when Bp Pike was the Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. When a job came open, Bp Pike invited Bob out and paid his expenses in order to get a talented pastor from New York who could handle the inner city. So in 1962, he came to San Francisco, which “helped radicalize me a good deal. I worked for a very famous man, the very famous James Alan Pike, who was the Bishop of California then in San Francisco, and I was his assistant for three years.”
Bob participated in two major sit-ins that protested all-white work places (GM and the Sheraton) in 1965, the same year that he participated in the march in Selma with the Glide Memorial contingent. During the time the civil disobedience sit-ins were practically choreographed. The protesters would refuse to leave a space then they would be arrested by the policy. Radical protesters would go limp and also resist arrest, but the clergy would just walk to the paddy wagon and have lawyers and others waiting to bail them out so they would be released within a few hours.
The Selma march, lead by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (MLK), went to Montgomery, Alabama: “the police waded into them and beat the people in the march, beat them up with clubs, you know, there was blood and it was to stop the march, you know. And they beat people up mercifully, mercilessly.” They also released dogs, so MLK asked clergy to come to Selma “and thousands of us went, rabbis, priests, ministers descended on Selma, Alabama. It was just incredible.” During the event, a Unitarian minister name James Reba was beaten up and killed and the march didn’t go through. Later the clergy came back and they were able to successfully complete the march. During the second march, Bob was the stringer who fed the local media reports of what was happening in Selma.
“It was very exciting, and I just felt this is what I want to do with my life. One way or the other, this is the side I want to be on. I don’t want to be in the middle, I don’t want to be on the right, I don’t want to be a negotiator, I want to be on the right, I don’t want to be a negotiator, I want to be a demonstrator, I want to be a person that will just make the noise and let the chips fall where they may. I’m not interested in worrying about what this, that or the other one is going to think about it. So, yes, it was very exciting, and life-changing, I mean, no question about it, it change my life, happily. “
Bob continued to use his contacts with the media to benefit CRH. He says it was because he was uninterested in meetings: “I wanted to be in more direct action things, more things where I was in direct relationship with people and activities and the media, where I could say something specifically. And so that the role I took, and took a step back, and then became a parish minister, which meant I had liturgy and my parishioners to worry about more than the larger issues.”
Bob participated in many anti-Vietnam war marches “One, I think I carried a sign that said “Fuck War” on it. “ Bob and other clergy members went down to Hunters Point in their vestments during a riot and talked to individuals and also supported a lot of picket lines. Bob attended the meetings of the NAACP from ’64-66 on behalf of Bishop Pike as part of his work as “a kind of urban work specialist.”
Bob became involved in gay issues when Bishop Pike didn’t want to go to the Folsom Retreat Center where the Glide Foundation gathered clergy and gay and lesbians (where the Council for Religion and the Homosexual or CRH was formed) and he asked Bob to go. “So I went to that long weekend where I met Phyllis and Del and Don Lucas and Hal Call and, you know, a lot of people who are leaders of that… And so I came back and I told him that, you know, this gay rights stuff is really important. Homosexuals are human beings and we can’t just have this anti-gay attitude. And he read all this stuff I brought back and he changed. And just said you’re right, you’re right! We got to support gay rights. And it was incredible, I mean, I’ll take credit for having made the conversion. Anyway, the great thing that he did was he went out and found four or five of the clergy that he had gotten out of their jobs because they were gay, got them to post – that means they couldn’t function as a priest anymore, and he got them reinstated. He got them jobs in the church.”
After participating in the CRH Dance that was raided by the police, Bob became very active in the gay community speaking at the Daughters of Bilitis Conference and Chairing the 1968 North American Coalition of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) conference in Chicago. Bob talked about learning about issues he had never thought about before. Bob continued to work with the gay groups until he was no longer needed proclaiming: “I’m not involved anymore very much in the larger community’s efforts. I would be if I were asked. But again, now a days gay people are leading those organizations, lesbians are leading, and should be.”
Some say one of the first picket actions by a gay group happened when gay picketers protested the fact that Bob’s salary was cut in half for supporting gay issues. “there was an attempt on the part of the bishop and myself to change my job description a little bit because he was going to be away and there was a lot of criticisms of me as the bishop’s assistant because I had been arrested in the civil rights movement and I had besmirched the name of the Episcopal Church by being pro-gay, you see. And I had a huge amount of criticism. So in this attempt to shift the job, the Counsel of the Diocese of California cut off the job. Said we really don’t need it. That meant I only had half a salary because by then I was going half time in the church up in Diamond Heights and it didn’t have much of a population so the diocese was supporting me. But suddenly here I was a married man with 3 young children and they just squeezed, you see, this committee squeezed. And half my salary was gone. So I forget how the picketing came about, but I was quite delighted and surprised. I was at St. Aidan’s that Sunday because I was taking the services there, but because the Cathedral was the focal point of diocese and where the bishop’s throne is, a group of the gay people got together and picketed. I heard about it, the Dean of the Cathedral called me, “did you know about this,” “I heard about it.” I was delighted. It appeared in the church papers all over the country carried stories about it. And it was their protest saying that because Cromey was involved in the gay rights stuff obviously he lost his job because of that. And of course the Counsel of the Diocese people would say, oh no, no, we didn’t have enough money for this job and this job. The usual corporate dance around why you get rid of someone who is a noisemaker, a troublemaker.”
Bob divorced in 1969, and with his marriage family counselor’s license he set up a practice and made a lot of money. Bob was much less of an activist in the ‘70s, moved to Europe for a year and “spent a lot of time nursing my wounds after the divorce and spending a lot of time traveling and seeing my children… And so the ‘70s, that was more quiescent. Although I kept a high media profile. I was doing interviews in the newspapers and lots of radio and television stuff. I was on all the talk shows with some regularity in the ‘70s. And in those days, you had local talk shows on television.”
The ‘60s was a time when religion was very public and appeared in the media. Bob believes this change didn’t happen because the newspapers changed, but “it disappeared because churches weren’t saying anything anymore. They weren’t on the cutting edge. They’ve gone back to saying the same old things and as newspapers say or TV, oh we heard that before; that’s not news. Bob believes that religion became public because America needed it . “The average lay person who goes to church, they don’t give a damn about you or I believe about the Trinity or that incarnation of Jesus or resurrection, you know, they go to church because it somehow connects them to God or some sense that there’s something beyond themselves.” Bob believed that only a small percentage of the church cared about the traditional tenants of the church and that pastors were being lazy or “glued in their mind” who didn’t want to be bothered by social issues.
Bishop Pike helped Bob to open up theologically, “But I feel free to say I have a lot of trouble with the notion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I really think there’s some kind of after life but, you know, people are getting quite used to me saying that; they don’t care, you know. ‘Cause I’m not telling them what they have to believe. I’m saying these are options for us to believe.”
Bob’s theology can be seen in his participation of the sit-in at the Cadillac dealership on Van Ness with the NAACP, where six white male clergy members (three Presbyterians: Bill Grace and three Episcopalians: Donald “Don” Gedamey, Lane E. Barton and Bob) participated as followers rather than leaders. The blacks lead the march and then invited the clergy to participate in the sit-in, where they were arrested with about 300 others. “The motivation was if were clergy in The City and we were trying to support the blacks and Hispanic people, we had to identify. We had to be part of them; we couldn’t be aloof.”
Another dynamic during the 60’s was that the denominations worked together and had Urban Specialist pastors who had the financial freedom to be radical and respond to the real needs of Urban life. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians met regularly to talk about strategy: “The idea was to identify, that the church has got to be involved with what’s going on with the people in the street. And it had to deal with the jobs and it had to deal with employment.”
Bob believes the denominations decision to stop supporting the Urban Specialist pastors caused them to become out of touch with the needs of the world. “The churches on the denominational level since the ‘60s have pulled out and no longer finance people like the independent clergy that they had in The City in doing social service and social activism. Our diocese has nobody like that now, nobody. I don’t think the Presbyterians, Methodists or Lutherans do either. Probably the Night Ministry is one of the few programs left from those days when the clergy were actively involved… Most of the young clergy think I’m some kind of a nut when I raise issues connecting the Gospel to these issues. I’m regarded as an old fart, you know, ‘cause this is past.”