‘A part of our souls was ignited…’ by Martin St. John
In a rare show of national gay togetherness, memorial services were conducted throughout the United States the weekend after the holocaust at the Up Stairs bar in New Orleans.
Ironically, the closest thing to a national day of observance heretofore was the celebration in many cities of Gay Pride Day the last Sunday in June, the day the New Orleans tragedy occurred.
Gay historian Jim Kepner, speaking at the Los Angeles service, expressed what seem to be a common feeling among mourners everywhere when he said, “Inescapably, for each of us, a part of our souls was ignited, and a part charred, in the Up Stairs bar last Sunday.” He then went on to rebuke the millions of Gays who ignored the services, “to whom this awful massacre seems no more personal than any news report of anonymous peasants dead in China of flood or famine.”
Most of the services were conducted by the local congregations of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan community churches, whose New Orleans congregation was decimated by the fire.
The best attended services were conducted on Sunday, July 1 – which gay leaders had sought to designate as a National Day of Mourning – in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, Calif., and in New Orleans.
Some 500 persons crowded into San Francisco MCC. Over 400 attended Los Angeles MCC services. 250 mourners turned out in New Orleans. Some 125 were at an ecumenical service in New York, and 120 attended San Diego MCC services.
In San Francisco, gay political activist Jim Foster – a director of three organizations – was guest speaker, he said that this sense of outrage was not directed so much at the people responsible for the fire as it was “toward the climate of ignorance, hate, and fear that exits in this country that allows this kind of thing to happen.”
A living memorial service,” he asserted, “is not as important as a living memorial – a determination that we must go out of this church tonight and work to end arbitrary discrimination, discriminatory law enforcement, and to establish more viable social service opportunities for our less fortunate brothers and sisters.”
Foster urged all “to determine that the sacrifice in New Orleans is met with our own sacrifice in terms of time, effort, and money.”
The Rev. James Sandmire, who conducted the service, said, “Many people are oppressed, but we are the only group that is oppressed because we want to love.”
He said that for 200 years homosexuals have been called “sinful” and “sick” and this has caused people to “look upon us a lonely, alienated, emotionally immature, and mentally unbalanced… those who died in the New Orleans fire were simply eating and drinking together in a spirit of fellowship. They were people relating to one another,”
The entire congregation then joined hands over their heads for the popular MCC hymn, “ I am not Afraid Anymore.”
At the service were San Francisco Sheriff Richard Hongisto and John Molinari, a member of the Board of Supervisors.
Hongisto later expressed his concern to the ADVOCATE that all of the fires at gay places in the past year be properly evaluated. “I believe that there should be a close evaluation of the circumstance surrounding all of the fires to determine who is responsible and whether or not they are related.”
The crowd in San Francisco was considerably swelled by other Northern California MCC members and clergy.
In Los Angeles, over 400 jammed into the parking lot at the HELP CENTER for a memorial service.
The service started with a prayer by the Rev. June Norris, associate pastor of Los Angeles MCC.
Jerry Small, vice president of Beth Chayim Chasashim, a Metropolitan Community Temple, then read the traditional Jewish Prayer of Mourning, in the original Aramaic.
This was followed by a choral offering from the choir, “Peace, Be Still,”
Deacon Bill Thorne of Los Angeles MCC read a passage from the New Testament, and Morris Kight, president of the board of the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, addressed the group on a “A Sense of Community Through Love.”
The Rev. Lee Carlton, pastor-elect of Los Angeles MCC, gave a condolence address, followed by speakers from throughout the community. These included the Most Rev. Mikhail Francis Itkin, C.L.C.; Rick Reyes, Greater Liberated Chicanos; James Kepner, president of ONE, Inc.; Jeanne Cordova, staff coordinator, the Lesbian Tide; Maxine Feldman, gay feminist singer; Mina Robinson, director emeritus, GCSC; and r, Evelyn Hooker, clinical psychologist.
The Rev. Troy Perry, just returned from New Orleans who had earlier broken into tears at the sight of the familiar faces at the service, delivered the memorial address.
Filmmaker Pat Rocco then sang what is believed to be the last song shared by the group at the Up Stairs before the fire – “United We Stand,” which was their customary closing song.
A weeping Kight and Mr. Perry then joined in lighting 30 votive candles – one for each person killed in New Orleans,
The congregation then sang “We Shall Overcome” before communion.
Father Itkin, bishop-abbot of the Evangelical Catholic Communion; Community of the Love of Christ, called for the creation of a society where such a disaster as happened in New Orleans would not be repeated.
“Our brothers and our sisters whose tragic death we mourn tonight. must not be allowed to have died in vain. To simply mourn them this night, and then forget the struggle is not only to betray their memory, but also to betray ourselves and the faith we claim to profess …” he asserted.
“In closing,“ Itkin said. “I’d like to again quote from Joe hill, a union organizer martyred by the State of Utah. In his will, the closing words are: “Don’t mourn – organize!”
Reyes issued a call for compassion and understanding, for love, and brotherhood.
‘New, Terrible Witchburning:’
Kepner, after blasting what he called the apathy of most Gays towards the New Orleans tragedy, went on to say this:
“We – each of us—knew those who became faggots for a new and terrible witch burning. We knew those who met their deaths piled promiscuously in such a hopeless mass of flesh that individual identification was near impossible, knew them through the universality of the gay experience,” he said.
“Inescapably,” Kepner asserted, “for each of us, a part of our souls was ignited, and a part charred, in the Upstairs bar last Sunday, as those 29 bodies were so mangle together to become one flesh, one angry flame of revolutionary love, which no fire department will ever extinguish, nor any newspaper blackout ever hide from public view, though it may take us a year – as with Watergate – to bring it to full public attention.”
“We still only half-learned that liberation is more than the right to have drag balls and consensual adult sex. We are only barely learning – and in that, Up Stairs bar was far ahead of other New Orleans bars – that gay love is a wider, deeper commitment than the mere search for sex thrills and partners. And we must find ways to live as those 29 died - forged so closely together in the flames of our shared oppression and our love that no man can put us asunder.”
“If their death does for nothing, then it will have been our souls that were charred beyond recovery in that barroom inferno…” Kepner concluded
Cordova called for the New Orleans dead to be remembered along with other gay martyrs, each year on the anniversary of the fire – Gay Pride Day.
Maxine Peldman sang “Angry Atthis,” her gay folk song, which declared; “ I hate not being able to hold my lover’s hand, except under some dimly lit table, afraid of being who I am.”
‘Our Worst Fears:’
Robinson followed, reading a poem” New Orleans 1973,” by her companion, Sharon Raphael, which declared, “Our worst fears can come true, that we can die in any circumstance, at any moment, as prisoners of the dark, and as seekers after liberation. Let us not forget what we might best remember: That we, too, are the survivors of New Orleans: of our worst fears and greatest dreams.”
She also read a poem by Lenore Kandel, “First, They Slaughtered the Angels.”
Hooker read, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” A poem in villanelle form by the late Dylan Thomas, whose lines of repetition are: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
In New Orleans 250 persons – including person who had escaped from the fire or been slightly injured in it – turned out for the memorial service held July 1 at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Paul Breton, Northeast District coordinator for the MCC Fellowship, started the service with a prayer, followed by a reading of “a whole list of telegrams from all over the country and London, England,” by Lucien Baril, worship coordinator for the New Orleans MCC.
Morty Manford, special delegate to New Orleans from the New York Gay Activists, expressed condolences on behalf of the national gay community.
Mr. Perry preached the eulogy, the central theme of which was developed around “United We Stand,” which the congregation sang after the eulogy.
After the eulogy, Breton led a silent prayer.
Manford, following the prayer, told the mourners that “the church calls us sinners, psychiatrists say were sick, the police call us criminal, the capitalist call us subversive, and the communists say we are decadent.”
During the final hymn, Mr. Perry interrupted the organist to announce that cameras from local television stations and the New Orleans Times-Picayune were waiting outside, and a side exit was available.
“Nobody went out the side door,” Mr. Breton noted.
In New York, the Church of the Beloved Disciple held a memorial service, conducted by the Right Rev.. Robert M. Clement, its pastor, as part of its regular Sunday service. The parish donated $25 from its own funds, Father Clement said, upon hearing the news of the fire.
The evening service of New York Metropolitan Community church was given over to an ecumenical service.
The Rev. Roy Birchard, MCC pastor; the Rev. Howard Wells, assistant MCC Pastor; the Rev. Robert Carter of Dignity; and Fr. Clement conducted the memorial service.
A member of the Gay Synagogue in New York delivered a prayer at the service, Fr. Clement said.
Brother Kristian Caron delivered a message of condolence from the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Episcopal church which works closely with the gay community.
Susan Day, a local activist, delivered another message of condolence, calling for the memory of the New Orleans victims to be kept alive, and Jay Friend, am member of Metropolitan Gay community council, delivered an appeal for blood and money for the victims.
Over $300 was raised for the fire fund, Fr. Clement said.
In San Diego, the service was conducted by the Rev. John Hose, vice moderator of the MCC fellowship, as part of the regular Sunday evening service of the MCC there. The theme of the service was “Freedom.”
Mr. Hose said $40 was taken up in a “love offering” for the New Orleans’ victims.
In Long Beach, Calif., some 110 persons attended a memorial service July 1, according to the pastor, the Rev. Robert Cunningham. A member of the church, Hugh Cooley, was among those who died in the fire, Mr. Cunningham said.
Across the nation in Miami, three MCC memorial services were conducted – one just after the fire on June 25, and two on July 1, Sixty attended the first service conducted by the Rev. Frank. D. Crouch, Jr.
Sixty-five were present at a Sunday morning service July 1, conducted by the Rev. Herb Hunt, an MCC exhorter, and 45 attended an evening service July 1.
Mr. Crouch reported that the media in Miami had been very active in its support of the memorial efforts. “We had the story all day Sunday on two of our television stations, both of our papers, and three of our radio stations.”
“As a result,” he said, “three heterosexual churches, not connected with MCC, “have donated blood and sent 25 pints each to the victims.”
He said the services were very simple, with a flower-decked altar, and over $916 was collected for the memorial fund.
In Washington D.C., 100 turned out for the memorial services mid-afternoon on July 1.
The service was conducted by “Brother John”, the pastor of the Washington MCC, who was joined by the Rev. William Moreman, the pastor of the First Congregational Church, where MCC holds its services, and the Rev. Walter, pastor of Concordia United Church of Christ.
The Rev. Rick Weatherly, assistant MCC pastor, said a cross-section of the gay community had attended the service. “We managed to get bar owners, drag groups, bike club members, and all sorts of people there,” he said.
The service’s offering resulted in $207 for the memorial fund. Mr. Weatherly said.
In Boston, the Rev. Larry Bernier, pastor of Boston MCC, was joined by the Rev. Don McGraw, the Rev. Nancy Wilson, and the Rev. Penny Perrault, all of Boston MCC.
Ms. Perrault reported that the memorial service started “with a mourning theme, with a death theme, and then finished up with a resurrection theme.”
Fifty-Five persons turned out for a June 30 service, she said, and the Sunday regular service July 1, was also conducted as a memorial service.
In Salt Lake City, the Rev. Richard Groh, pastor of the MCC, and Virgil Scott, chairman of the board of deacons, conducted the memorial service July 1.
Mr. Groh said that the service centered around “expressing our loss, but our faith in God that the church would rise again, that there are no mistakes or accidents in God’s master plan.”
“We believe this,” he said. “We believe that if this has happened, if God has allowed it to happen, then he’s going to bless us in some way. We did take a memorial offering that amounted to $214.”
“Approximately 40 people” turned out or the service, he said.
At the Denver Metropolitan Community Church – no longer a member of the Universal Fellowship – the Rev. Ron Carnes and the Rev. Robert Darst conducted a memorial service during the regular Sunday evening worship service July 1.
Some 30 persons attended this service. The Denver church reported that its deacons were collecting a memorial offering for the New Orleans victims.
In Milwaukee, where an MCC mission has been discontinued, about 65 persons attended a July 1 service at the Church for All People, conducted by the Rev. Bill Parish, pastor of the church, and the Rev. Wilbur _ _ain, a Lutheran minister and a leader of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in Milwaukee.
In Sacramento, the Rev. Bob Wolfe, conducted an MCC memorial service June 27, attended by 40 people, according to the Rev. Freda Smith, assistant pastor of the Sacramento MCC.
She said the theme of the service was “that we don’t understand everything,” but “we are so grateful that the people (who died) were with us for awhile, and we praised God for the fact that we’d had them and they were part of us all growing together.
The August 1st edition of The Advocate includes a long article describing the memorial services held in MCC congregations and gay communities in cities all around the U.S.
Source: The Advocate, August 1, 1973.