"Hero" is an overused word in our vocabulary. When I think of heroes, I think of men and women who risked everything for a cause they believed in, not for pay, and not because it was popular—most great causes are unpopular, after all—but because they followed their conscience.
Or in the case of Raleigh's Jimmy Creech, followed their understanding of what their Christian faith was all about.
Creech has written a memoir, Adam's Gift, about the tumultuous years in his life when, as a Methodist pastor, he was called in the words of the subtitle "to defy the church's persecution of lesbians and gays."
The conflict begins in 1984, when Creech was the minister of a small church in Warsaw, N.C., and blissfully unaware of the plight of gays in society. It ends in 1998, when Creech, having followed his conscience, has been forced out of leadership in Raleigh's Fairmont United Methodist Church, then recruited to lead the biggest Methodist church in Omaha, Neb., only to be officially defrocked as a Methodist minister by the UMC governing body two years later—all because he fought the church over its discriminatory policies toward gays.
At the center of the book is a trial—not a civil trial but a religious trial, in which Creech is charged with the "crime" of having married a gay couple in Nebraska. Creech argued that there was no canon law on the point, but the church's policy was clear. Creech's reading of the Bible and Methodist traditions of social justice compel him to go against that policy and do what he believes God would want him to do.
The drama is as real as if Creech had been put on trial for his life, for indeed, being a Methodist pastor was his life—and he risked it, and lost it, having eschewed all the readily available excuses that he might've allowed himself for sidestepping his duty.
If you don't know Creech's story, or even if you do—and many longtime Triangle residents will remember some of it—the book is a page-turner from the day Creech arrives in Nebraska to the guilty verdict that sends him back to North Carolina.
The power of the book, though, flows from its early chapters. Creech, in 1984, isn't a young activist looking for a place in the gay rights movement. Until "Adam," a congregant, comes out to him in the spring of that year, he writes, he didn't know a single "self-avowed practicing homosexual" of the kind the General Conference of the UMC had just voted to bar from ordination. Indeed, Creech says in his easy, self-deprecating style, he gave his title subject the name Adam because he was the first gay man to come out to him.
But if Creech was unaware of gay issues, he was wholly dedicated to civil rights. And from growing up in eastern North Carolina, he was all too familiar with the way religious doctrine can be misused to keep people down—namely black people. His time at Duke Divinity School was marked by Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and liberation movements in the Soviet bloc and in Africa. Creech emerged "convinced [that] genuine ministry must be engaged with the real world, with its politics, and suffering."
When Adam confides in Creech, it's to pour out his soul about the misery he's endured as a Methodist and the self-loathing that his own church encouraged him to feel. Finally, Adam announces that he's leaving the church.
Creech is distraught. Adam has revealed to him "a hidden world of repression" in which his Methodist faith is not merely disinterested but complicit. "God loves you and accepts who you are," Creech tells Adam.
And from that moment, Creech lives his life out on a wire.
"As a pastor," he writes, "my mission was to help people overcome whatever damaged them spiritually; whatever diminished their capacity to trust God's love, to love others, and to love themselves. I'd never imagined sexuality to be an issue of justice, much less a spiritual one. In fact, I knew no clergy who did see it that way.... Adam launched me on a journey with no clear destination and with no guide or maps to follow, other than an intuitive sense of what was right, just, and compassionate."
It would be easy to say that Creech was confronted with a choice that day of taking refuge in church doctrine or seeking his own spiritual path. But what Adam's Gift makes clear is that Creech never thought to take refuge. He'd been given the gift of insight—and of trust that he would know the right thing to do with it. Soon, having come to Fairmont in Raleigh, he was one of a trio of pastors leading the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality (RRNGLE; they called it "ringle"), stepping out at the head of the '88 Gay Pride parade and ministering to gays who came to him for counsel in increasing numbers.
In 1990, Creech talked to the Indy's Melinda Ruley for a cover story that made him a figure of statewide, even national importance. He was popular at Fairmont, but having their minister mixed up with homosexuals was more than a lot of the church folk could bear. Removed as their pastor, he continued his advocacy on the staff of the N.C. Council of Churches. Then, Nebraska beckoned, a position Creech accepted—uprooting his wife and family—only after being assured that the church there knew his history and wanted him because of it.
Today, Creech lives in Boylan Heights with his wife, Chris Weedy. He speaks all over the country on gay rights issues and recently helped to launch a new group, the N.C. Social Justice Project. He is a man constantly bearing a smile, not scars.
At a recent appearance at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, Creech read from his book, which reminds me of A Man for All Seasons, the Robert Bolt play about Thomas More's fatal clash with Henry VIII over religious doctrine. But there's one difference: Creech has none of the More character's self-righteousness—only the righteousness of a great cause espoused by a spiritual, determined hero. During the Q-and-A session, an admirer said to Creech, "I've been a Methodist all my life, and today I'm ashamed of that. But one day, they'll call you blessed."
Creech ended the reading on a hopeful note. Just as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967), a case depicted in a documentary shown last weekend at the Full Frame film festival, Creech believes that the court will soon strike down laws against gay marriage.
"There is a tremendous amount of progress being made," Creech says to the crowd. With an almost imperceptible grimace, he adds, "On the civil side more than on the religious side."