Content warning: This article discusses suicide.
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
That’s a common refrain of the United Church of Christ, a community of Christians with more than 5,000 churches around the country. But it’s not something many young worshippers are used to hearing. These days, many of those journeys are a one-way trip out of their churches, often due to the anti-gay policies prevalent in many denominations.
According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly one-third of millennials who left their childhood religion say they did so due to negative teachings about or treatment of the LGBTQ community. The same study found that 31 percent of LGBTQ Americans left their childhood religion to become religiously unaffiliated.
Those feelings of frustration—and even feelings of fear—are familiar to Reverend Da Vita D. McCallister. The new lead reverend of First Church Somerville, a UCC church, has been out as a lesbian for as long as she’s been ordained, and the tensions between her sexuality and her faith run deep. She was raised as a Baptist in Tampa, Fla., and her extended family members were Pentecostals—but she realized neither denomination had a place for her.
It’s a bit too simple to say that she left the Baptist Church in which she was raised. “Rev. Day,” as she’s known, is a self-proclaimed “BaptiMethoCostal” of Christ. As she’s changed churches and congregations, she’s taken bits and pieces of each faith with her along the way. It’s a journey that brought her to the UCC, a place that she describes as being as familiar as home and as exciting and freeing as traveling abroad—a place that works with her methods of worship and her belief that the church needs to be involved in the world.
Rev. Day, 47, has been ordained for more than 20 years and has felt called to the ministry for more than 30. At age 13, she realized she wanted to be a preacher; at the same time, she realized she was gay.
“I was really excited that I happened to be part of a tradition that didn’t think that was crazy—to know early on that you wanted to work for God for a living,” she says. Such early callings were celebrated, and she participated in worship with readings and discussions.
But she grew up in a conservative Black National Baptist family in the Tampa area that said her identity and her call to ministry were incompatible. Like many LGBTQ teens, she felt a lot of pain and pressure growing up. (That pain is still very real among today’s youth: in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one-third of LGB youth have attempted suicide, compared to six percent of heterosexual teens.)
“It can feel like this is an inescapable curse, and things like taking your life, ending your life, seem like the most viable option to get out of that pain,” Day says. “I know what that’s like.” She tried to take her own life as a teen by stuffing pills into a jelly sandwich. But she spit the whole thing out (“It was disgusting!”) and realized that what she needed was to figure out a new path for herself—one that didn’t include the Baptist church.
So she started searching. Her extended family had exposed her to the Pentecostal tradition as a preteen, which presented a new style of worship that excited her with music and celebration. That’s where she developed her love of worship.
But the Pentecostal church is very strict, too, and often lacks an eye toward social justice issues. That eventually led her to the United Methodists, where she says there was at least a “conversation” about the topic. “Sadly, that conversation is still going on,” she adds.
She became an ordained Methodist minister in Battle Creek, Mich., and was the first openly same-gender-loving member of that denomination. It was a huge moment for Rev. Day; this was a place where she could be gay and be a Christian. Yet she still had to live a “cloistered” gay life—she could be out but was expected to remain single.
And then she learned about the United Church of Christ, or UCC.
“Here was a church that understood a commitment to the world—that understood it mattered that people had health care, mattered that the water people drank wasn’t polluted,” Rev. Day explains.
The UCC, a mainline Protestant faith, boasts a long history of support for progressive movements. It ordained an openly gay man in the 1970s, when most churches weren’t even discussing such topics. In 1987, it helped launch the concept of “environmental racism”—the idea that environmental policies result in racial discrimination or the creation of racial advantages. (In the UCC’s case, it found that people of color were more likely to live close to hazardous waste sites and facilities than white people were.)
The church also allowed deeper discussion about biblical interpretations and encouraged ministers to question the Bible and its meaning. It even featured plenty of music, harkening back to Day’s experiences in the Pentecostal church.
“For somebody like me, who really just more than anything wanted to be a part of the ministry and wanted to feel like that was an option, but didn’t want my identity to be the only thing I could do in ministry, the United Church of Christ was home,” Rev. Day says.
First Church Somerville is relatively famous among UCC churches, according to Rev. Day. Its previous lead pastor, Rev. Molly Baskette, profiled it in the 2014 book “Real Good Church.” It was Baskette who first asked Rev. Day to speak to the church about her work back in 2015.
The congregation was (and still is) mostly white, but Rev. Day appreciated how its members were willing to look around, notice the lack of diversity, recognize it as a problem, and seek to improve. “Here was a church that was raising their hands like, ‘We’ve got work to do, will you help us?’”
First Church Somerville later invited her back to preach for the Drag Gospel night, an annual, family-friendly cross-dressing event. Rev. Day was nervous. It was the first time she’d ever preached from the pulpit while wearing a tie, and while she certainly knows how to rock one—on the morning of our interview, she sported a bow tie with her slim-fitted suit jacket—this was a new endeavor.
“Even as a person who has been out for over 30 years, the idea of being in the pulpit in a tie, being asked to queer the pulpit space in drag, touched all these places in me. And I love that about the church.”
Rev. Day remembers her first Drag Gospel well. There was a picture of Jesus with lipstick. The associate pastor wore lipstick and makeup over his beard. Men in the choir wore boas and church lady hats. Even baby girls wore fake mustaches.
The church is mostly straight and cisgender, Rev. Day says, which she admits at first raised a few concerns for her. She even turned down the first Drag Gospel invitation, wanting to learn more about the church and its understanding of the art form of Drag. Her concerns were eased as she learned more about the Drag Gospel festivities.
The festival was invented by local drag queen Serenity Jones (the onstage persona of James Adams), who also contributes as a performer and liturgist. Additionally, the church visits and works with Club Cafe, a legendary social spot for New England’s LGBTQ community.
She soon accepted the invitation. At other churches, Rev. Day’s mere presence was “the radical conversation.” But “here was a church that was stretching me,” she says. “I love the idea that there was a space where I could both lead and learn.”
After the service, Rev. Day called up her partner and told her, “I would pastor that church.” As of the summer, she’s doing just that.
Rev. Day’s still getting settled into Somerville, along with her wife and three children, but is eager to learn more about her congregation and their concerns about the local community, like housing issues. She says she’s honored to take over for her friend Rev. Baskett, under whom the congregation grew and became more social justice-oriented. Now it’s Rev. Day’s turn to play a role in the expanding, increasingly welcoming lineage of the church.
“Here’s Molly [Baskett]— white woman, straight, married, mother—who’s making this bigger space so that a lesbian who’s married could be present. If I do this well, then this church will be prepared, years from now when I go, for someone who occupies a very different space on the margins to be present here,” Rev. Day says. “And when they come here, they will feel a welcome that is at its minimum an understanding of their blessing and inherent worth, and they’ll be able to make a bigger space for the person who comes behind them.”
This story appears in the November/December print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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