Before the Beginning
MCC of the Blue Ridge finds it history beginning with the founding of the denomination itself. Almost fifty years ago, Rev. Troy Perry (founder and moderator from 1968-2005), a defrocked Pentecostal minister, held the very first MCC worship service on October 6, 1968 in his living room in Huntington Park, California. That very first service was attended by twelve people of various colors, orientations, and walks-of-life. And, by 1975, there were 107 clergy, 80 churches, and over 17,000 members. In 1985, the number of clergy jumped to 266 with 230 churches and 34,000 members. Founded with the intention of being a church with a primary, positive ministry to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender person, Metropolitan Community Churches has been at the frontline of civil/human rights and providing spiritual leadership and guidance for all of God’s beloved creation, regardless of orientation.
In the Beginning
MCC of the Blue Ridge was established in the 1986, just 5 years after the first documented AIDS case and 8 years after the creation of the rainbow flag. Founded as an outreach of MCC Richmond, ten people would attend the first organizational meeting held on December 7, 1986 at Roy Mitchell’s house; the inaugural service was held December 14, 1986. For 11.5 years, MCCBR would be graciously housed by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Roanoke on Grandin Road in Roanoke. During this “church in a box in a closet” era, Mr. Dan Deane, on ‘loan’ from the Richmond church, was the founding and lay pastor, serving from December of 1986 to February of 1990. Pastor Dan and the church did much outreach, education, and community connection, including workshops, bingo fundraisers, initiating the AIDS/Healing Candle, and doing AIDS work and ministry. It was also during this time that the AIDS Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall. Founded in love, the church reached out to the LGBTQIAA community, and, by May 28, 1989, 77 people were attending. This era also found the first holy union performed in the church as well as the first visit of the beloved minister Rev. Delores Berry and her spouse Judy. The church also participated in the first March on Washington in 1988, and 1987 saw the passing of the first MCCBR member to die from complications of AIDS. During this time, the Gene Gardner Memorial Fund was created, and the initiation of the Healing Candle, utilizing an adaptation of Dr. Robert L. Lynn’s poem “What Cancer Cannot Do”, was a key event in the healing and prayer life of the church.
Into the 90s
Continuing to be housed by the UU Church, the 90s found Interim Pastor Rev. Judy Maynard, of MCC Richmond, leading the congregation from 1994 to 1995, with Rev. Dr. Tom Bohache leading as Senior Pastor from March of 1990 to June of 1994 and Interim pastor from January of 1998 to June of 1998 after Rev. Dr. Rethford’s time from February 1996 to April of 1997. By 1998, under Rev. Dr. Bohache’s guidance, the church would take steps to rent a store-front shop at 110 Kirk Avenue in Roanoke. The church would continue to grow, and outgrow, this location, and they would move to their second location at 224 Kirk Avenue in 1999.
During the 90s, the church would participate in the 1993 March on Washington, the time when “The Wedding” would be held in which around 1,500 same-gender couples participated a holy union on the steps of the IRS Building. This march was a time for a deliberate push for LGB Equal Rights Liberation, a time to “Celebrate Your Love” and “Demonstrate for Justice”. The 90s was a time of: Growth and spaghetti suppers and auctions; establishing themselves financially, becoming self-governing, and having lay delegate representation at conferences; Lent and Advent Services; and doing greater work to make community and ecumenical connections. During this time, MCCBR was the only church actively working in AIDS ministry, utilizing the Gene Gardner Memorial Fund, working with local AIDS organizations, offering educational forums, and hosting an annual 50-hour AIDS prayer vigil each September. In addition to the amazing work with and within the community, the 90s would also be a time of active deacon ministry which assisted with worship and pastoral care. Also, the 90s would find the first visit to the church by founder and Moderator Rev. Troy Perry as well as the first heterosexual marriage being performed by the church. And, in 1994, the church would recognize the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Also, the denomination’s founder and moderator would visit Roanoke in April of 1997 to speak at Hollins University in order to raise money during his fellowship-wide fundraising tour for the new UFMCC Headquarters/MCCLA in West Hollywood, California.
The 90s and the New Millennium
Just before the new millennium, the church would take steps to relocate to their first church ‘building’, a store-front shop on 110 Kirk Avenue in Roanoke City. Reverend Dr. Bohache would oversee the steps towards renting this space, and Rev. Catherine Houchins would help them relocate into the space. Reverend Houchins, Pastor from November of 1998 to December of 2007, was ordained and installed as the Senior Pastor on February 6, 1999. While at 110 Kirk, the “if late, sit in the closet” era began, as attendance, up to 75, would make it a wonderful challenge to find meeting space for worship and other events. This was also a time of pet blessings, continued Special Services, and the initial singing of the beloved song “Holy Ground”. Also, 1998 found Rev. Houchins testifying in Virginia Circuit Court concerning Virginia’s sodomy law, with the testimony being connected to men being arrested in Wasena Park for talking to undercover cops about sex. And, January of 1999 would find PFLAG, MCCBR, and the UU Church holding a community-wide meeting at the 110 Kirk location to discuss the Wasena Park arrests. Interestingly, the church would begin holding Easter Sunrise Services to ‘reclaim’ Wasena Park as a positive, loving, and safe space for LGBTQAA+ folks. The year 1999 would also see midweek prayer and bible studies initiated as well as a move to their next church home. As the church continued to grow, they would relocate once more to the second store-front location of 224 Kirk Avenue in 1999, a time of growth to 100 attendees as well as the appearance of the first formal MCCBR choir performance at Pride in the Park at Wasena Park. In 2000, some in the church would participate in the Millennium March on Washington, D.C. September 24 of that same year would be forever etched into the memory and heart of the LGBTQIAA+ community, as a man walked into the Backstreet Café and opened fire on the patrons there that Friday night. Six people were wounded, and one person, Danny Overstreet, was killed. The shooting was a hate crime deliberately targeted against members of the gay community. Vigils have been held since the shooting, with remembrances offered at both memorials of the Pulse Nightclub shooting held at MCCBR.
In 2001, yet another attack on the church would occur as Rev. Houchins and three members of MCCBR were attacked after an evening church service. Three skinheads, shouting anti-gay slurs throughout the attack, assaulted them, and though shaken, they survived. The local NAACP chapter would express solidarity with the gay community and the church because of this anti-gay hate crime. And, despite the attack, the church doors would remain open and services would continue. In the face of (and despite) such traumatic events, the church would continue to grow and outgrow, once again, this space, and steps were taken to locate a permanent site, and the inaugural service of the current location on 806 Jamison Avenue was held on November 16, 2003. The current site, the former Belmont United Methodist Church and national and current state historic landmark in southeast Roanoke, would hold witness to many more community connections and memorable events in the life of the church, such as: Installation of the denomination’s second moderator, Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson (2005-2016); continued community and ecumenical connections with groups such as the Drop-In Center and Roanoke College and Hollins University; ordination of Rev. Joseph Cobb; celebration of the 20th Anniversary with a semi-formal dinner and dance; river baptisms and picnics; involvement in the Roanoke City Parks and Rec Women’s Softball League; Valentine’s Day and Christmas Socials; Seder Meals and New Year’s and Christmas Eve Prayer Services; receipt of the 2004 Denominational Growth Award; initiation of a Children’s and Youth Ministry, and the launch of MCC of the Blue Ridge-Shenandoah Valley Extension (2005-2008), a church plant in Harrisonburg, with Rev. Emma Chattin serving as Pastor. And, 2007 would find the creation of the Jane S. Glenn Memorial Scholarship in memory of beloved member Jane S. Glenn.
Throughout the early years, the church participated in a number of ministries, service projects, outreach opportunities, and social gatherings. The Pink Sisters, a women’s group which met for special outings and social gatherings, was formed, and they could be found at members’ houses for meals or cheering on the softball team. Work with the Interfaith Hospitality Network (Family Promise), offering sunrise services, participation in Pride in the Park (as a vendor and the choir singing), and sponsoring an Angel Tree were all special efforts. The church was faithful in the Back to School Supplies Drive, providing various school supplies to the local middle school as well as during the Christmas season through donations of clothing or other requested items to needy students. The annual Thanksgiving Basket Ministry and assistance with Christmas Gifts to needy families was an important ministry as well. These early years saw the initiation of the vocal group “Diversity” as well as MCCBR’s own duet of Mo and Cathy becoming music ministers of the church. Participation in District/Regional Gatherings and General Conferences was also a crucial ministry of the church during these times.
The New Building and New Beginnings
The year 2007 would bring leadership changes, and Rev. Dr. Ty Sweeting would come to serve as Intentional Interim Pastor (April of 2008 to April of 2009) during the site’s first pastoral transition. During 2009, the Ladies and Gents of the Blue Ridge would find their first home at MCCBR. The church would continue to host social gatherings, special services, and even participation in community and civic organizations such as Kwanzaa celebrations and work with Kimoyo. By September of 2009, Rev. Joseph Cobb would serve as the Provisional Pastor for 7 months, serving as Senior Pastor from April of 2010 to May of 2017.
During this time, the church experienced much growth, community and ecumenical connections, and continued movement in God’s work in and outside of the church walls. Continuing the tradition of regular and special worship services, First Wednesday Services would be inaugurated, with the introduction of a Praise and Worship Style Music Ministry in each service. Special outings such as attendance at Salem Red Sox baseball games and movie nights were part of the social outreach ministry. The church also served as a gathering point or home for various social and community organizations such as a local substance recovery group and several area artists. The church would make and continue working in partnership with Roanoke Pride, Roanoke College, Hollins University, Roanoke City Schools, various arts organizations, the Rescue Mission, Family Promise, and the NAACP. The Southeast Roanoke Christian Partnership, becoming home to the Ricketson/Harris/Verkruisen LGBT Memorial Library in 2011, and participation in World AIDS Day and Trans Day of Remembrance services and activities also mark the work of the church.
In 2011, the church would celebrate 25 years’, would host the Marginal Arts Festival, and be named on the National Register of Historic Places. This year also found the church participating in the Roanoke City Dickens of a Christmas as well as having a float in the Christmas Parade. The church would also participate in the first Street Pride Parade Event, and artists Walt Hodges and Annie Waldrop would hold their art exhibit “Then Came Morning” and “Art by Night”, respectively. As time would move forward, creation of an Advent Devotional book, partnership with the Community High School, and housing the Star City Playhouse would occur. Also, the ordination of Mary Bohacek would be a wonderful, blessed event. This time would also find the church partnering with and housing the Roanoke Diversity Center.
By 2015, the church would find a time of renewal and rest in January and February of that year. The Open Doors Small Programs began as an initiative out of the Renewal Retreat with Rev. Elder Ken Martin. Scott Leamon of the Roanoke City Police Department would host a Security Training Session, and Rev. Lisa Heilig of the MCC Office of Church Life and Health would facilitate the “(re)Vitalize Retreat”. In June of 2015, the church would sponsor “Through the Looking Glass: A Prom for Everyone”, a dance and auction as a part of fundraising efforts to restore the church sanctuary stained glass windows. Community and ecumenical connections continued in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and attending prayer vigils, especially for the victims of the Charleston church killings in June of 2015, would be another outreach. June 25th would bring the Marriage Equality Ruling by the US Senate. August would find the church taking part in the Interfaith Service of Remembrance and Healing for the victims of the WDBJ shootings. The year 2016 would be filled with continued partnerships, service, education, community outreach, and social gatherings such as: Connection with the Susan G. Komen Foundation; trainings for deacons and the Worship, Welcome and Hospitality, Word and Sacrament, and Sound and Multimedia Teams; serving as the first home of the Ladies and Gents of the Blue Ridge; the Roanoke Valley Gives fundraising effort for the sanctuary stained glass windows; dinners, dancing, picnics, and potlucks; and a Thanksgiving Dinner Ministry.
March to July of 2016 would be not only a time of renewal for the church, but the pastor would be on sabbatical during that time as well. During that time, Rev. Joe would take time to both rest and participate in renewal activities while the church did the same, with Rev. Kathy Carpenter serving as the Gap Pastor during the sabbatical/renewal time. Throughout this renewal time, there would be events such as: Presentation of mission-outreach work by Rev. Carpenter; Participation in the SE Roanoke Christian Partnership Good Friday Cross Walk; Rev. Dr. Kharma Amos facilitating SpiritSource, a spiritual retreat; potlucks/congregational meetings; increased involvement and service by the congregation; and participation in prayer vigils, Spiritual Life Classes, and Authentic Relationships Forums.
Representation in city-wide Noonday Services, the election of Interim Moderator Rev. Rachelle Brown as the denomination’s third moderator, creation of a new church logo and mission/vision statement, and the initiation of the FB Live Ministry all marked special times in the life of the church. June 12 would be a time forever held in the heart of the church, as 50 people would lose their lives in the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub; the church would host and facilitate an Interfaith Memorial Service of Remembrance in which area faith and community organizations would come together to pray, sing, remember, and honor the lives of those lost in this horrific event. The year was capped off by the celebration of the church’s 30th anniversary with a Gala and Dinner/Dance event held on December 3rd in Vinton.
Throughout the years, the church would house resident artists and host special fundraisers such as the artworks “Child’s Play” (to assist with General Conference expenses) and “Lovebug” (to assist with the Food Pantry). There would also be showcased several guest performers such as Micah’s Rule, Brass 5, The Skillet Sisters, Jason and DeMarco, Rev. Delores Berry, Bobby Jo Valentine, Just Songs, and Marvin Matthews. The church would also host and/or facilitate special events, programs, and guest speakers such as: Delegate Sam Rasoul; Dr. Greg Rosenthal and Roanoke College’s efforts in the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project; partnerships with Virginia Equality; Dr. Saleem Ahmed and the Jesus Fatwah Seminar; partnering with Roanoke Refugee and Immigration Partnership and SARA (Sexual Violence Awareness and Bystander Intervention Seminar on 4-4-17); Roanoke Stands United; the meal ministry of chef Jacob McPherson; the Interfaith Pride Service; Pride Worship Services and Vendor Participation; the initiation of the Out and About Ministry; sunrise services and breakfasts; supporting MCC Richmond’s newest pastor; and participation in Eastern Network Gatherings and General Conferences. As May of 2017 would approach, the time to say goodbye to Rev. Joe would arrive, as he would tender his resignation as Senior Pastor of the church.
New Paths and New Journeys: 2017 and Beyond
Partnering with the Office of Church Life and Health, church leadership would immediately work towards locating a Transitional Pastor to serve for 12—18 months as we prepare for the settled Senior Pastor God would bring to the church. During the transitional time, the church would continue serving, would continue reaching and teaching within the church and in the community.
In order to fill the need for a sermon/special message during the transition time, the church sought out several individuals. Rabbi Cathy Cohen, of Temple Emanuel, was the first special speaker, with Student Pastor, Rhonda Thorne, filling the pulpit in the month of June. Rev. Jenny Call, Hollins University Chaplain, would bring the messages for July, and Rev. Dale Jenkins would speak during August. The church’s own bible student Cathy Fisher would agree to serve as the speaker for the month of September.
In June, the church would host and facilitate a second Interfaith Memorial Service of Remembrance to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The Spiritual Formation Class would continue to thrive, and the DC Gay Men’s Chorus would make MCCBR one of their stops on their Southern Equality Tour. The church would also serve as one of the sponsors of the 2017 film “The Freedom to Marry”. In light of the violence, hate, hurt, and death during the Charlottesville confederate statue protest the church would be a presence at a community-wide prayer vigil. The church would also: Continue serving the community through the Food Pantry Ministry; host weddings for congregants and community; give witness to and celebrate the adoption and baptism of one of our own young people, Trips; and hold regular potlucks, congregational meetings, and information forums concerning the Transitional Pastoral search.
This time of transition promises to be filled with much growth in the life and service of the church. We commit to working together to not only grow, but to also lead and serve not just during this transition, but along every path, every journey God may lead us into.