When you first meet the Reverend Jimmy Creech, it doesn't strike you. After all, he's a Methodist minister. He's unassuming. He's straight, and he's married. But Jimmy Creech has a belief. And he's willing to give up everything--even his pulpit--because he believes that gay men and lesbians have a place in the church.
It is June 28, 1998, and Creech is the guest preacher at Riverside Church in New York City. He stands in the pulpit once occupied by activist minister William Sloan Coffin, in the church built in 1929 for Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had resigned his pastorship at New York's First Presbyterian Church. For Creech, this is a fitting sanctuary after a bruising year.
The previous fall, Creech had celebrated the holy union of two women, Mary and Martha, at the First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. It was not the first holy union Creech had preformed for a gay or lesbian couple-there had been as many as 13 since 1990-but it was the first one since the United Methodist Church has seen fit in 1996 to forbid its ministers from participating in them. Two months before the ceremony, Creech wrote to the man instrumental in bringing him to Omaha's First Church, Bishop Joel Martinez, to let him know he intended to wed the women. Martinez counseled him not to. The year before, when he was offered the pastorship at First Church, Creech had had a very pointed discussion with the bishop's proxy, the district superintendent. "I'm very unhappy about the prohibition that was passed related to holy unions," Creech recalls telling her, "and you need to know I will not abide by it. It's unjust, and if that makes a difference in your asking me to come, I need to know it now. You can withdraw the invitation. And her comment to me was, "Well, we'll walk that road together when the time comes." Creech officiated at Mary and Martha's union on September 14,1997.
Two days later another Nebraska minister filed a complaint with Martinez. The complaint was referred to a church trial. Creech was suspended. In its 200-plus years, the United Methodist Church-the church of personal piety and social action, the church of theological visionary John Wesley and, yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton-had never put one of its ministers on trial for defying its "Social Principles." And although Creech was narrowly acquitted, Bishop Martinez decided against reappointing him to First Church.
We do not know Mary and Martha's real names. Those are the names Jimmy Creech has given them. None of the participants in the ceremony has divulged their identities. That ceremony at First United Methodist in Omaha set the stage for what threatens to become the first major rift in the nation's second largest Protestant denomination (there are 8.5 million members) since 1844. The issue then--slavery.
"This is God's history," say Creech one night at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. It is a confident assertion from a man who would lose his ministerial credentials within the month. "There is a saying from Africa that a man cries the loudest just before death," he says, less sermonizing than prophetic. "I see the resistance in the church as sort of that last cry. We have the opportunity to correct a very serious mistake that was made in the Middle Ages, when gay and lesbian people were attacked by the church. And it's going to be the emancipation ont only of gay and lesbian people, and not only of the church, but all people."
Since their ceremony, Ellis and Raymer have been as visible as Mary and Martha have been anonymous. The local news showed up at the ceremony, and their wedding album is on the Internet (www.geocites.com/~leeralnc). "We'll interview with anybody," Ellis says. There's a reason for that: Jimmy Creech.
"We had no desire to be poster children for gay unions," says Ellis, "but we could not let him take all the heat, let him make sacrifices, and remain quite and safe."
When news of the planned ceremony leaked--around the time another Methodist minister, the Reverend Gregory Dell, went on trial for officiating at a holy union-Ellis and Raymer called Creech. "Look, Jimmy," they said, "if you don't want to do this, we understand." There was no question about what Creech would do.
"Jimmy knows in his heart what's right and is not going to stand for what is wrong," Raymer says. "I find him to be extremely gentle, extremely loving....There's a good deal of power in that."
As a teenager growing up near Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, Creech decided he wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. He got the appointment, but before he could go, a football injury interfered.