The drag service at the Somerville church predates McCallister's ministry there, where nearly 40 percent of her congregation identify as LGBTQ. She said growing up in a family of black Baptist preachers, having drag queens in the church initially seemed unconventional. But upon some reflection, McCallister said drag hearkens back to southern Baptist tradition.
"Think of gospel, in terms of music, which is filled with--especially black gospel--over-the-top absolute exuberance in worship and joy," said McCallister. "And drag is joyful, if it is nothing else," she said. "Both of them are examples of abundant life. Like really living your best life."
Serenity Jones is the founder and lead drag queen of the Drag Gospel Festival at the First Church of Somerville, UCC in Somerville, Massachusetts. Like Monique Heart, she sees something uniquely valuable in delivering the Good News by way of sequins and wigs. She’s been doing drag since the 1990s, but in 2011, she started the Drag Gospel Festival as a way to better connect her church to the local LGBTQ community. “Drag Gospel was an effort to send a message to the gay community that we mean what we say, that we don’t just hang a Pride flag out in front of the church,” she told me. “We mean that you are welcome and that you belong.”
In addition to raising money for the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, Serenity sees her worship in drag as its own method of evangelism. “People in the LGBT community can reclaim their faith and make it their own... If a drag queen can do it, anyone can do it,” she said. “So there is an evangelical element to Drag Gospel Festival where it’s flashy, it’s bigger than life, it’s glamorous. It’s really bringing the Gospel message in an over-the-top way to the gay community. Doing gospel in drag is such a juxtaposition, a contrast of worlds… In an era where many, many churches are dying, this drag gospel is one example of a more youthful revival.”
But when Heather May, a congregant and former deacon of the church, looked around during Sunday morning services, she saw a slate of white faces and realized that the radical welcome was failing people of color.
“We need to start with ourselves, thinking about white privilege, how it works within us and the ways in which it might be working in our church that perhaps we’re not aware of as a predominantly white church, right now,” May says. “There are things that you can’t see when you’re living inside whiteness.”
May decided to launch a yearlong deep dive into understanding white privilege and combating racism within the church through an anti-racism task force.
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. Baskette, 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.
Solidarity vigil at Davis Square in Somerville, in light of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Rev. Da Vita D. McCallister, known as "Rev. Day," led her first Sunday service in July.
SOMERVILLE, MA – First Church Somerville welcomed its new lead pastor, Rev. Da Vita D. McCallister, at a Sunday service last month. "Rev. Day" led her first service at 10 a.m. on July 23 and will be formally installed later in the fall.
Rev. Day has a background as a minister of youth and young adults for United Church of Christ and has served as an associate minister in churches in the south and midwest. She is a self-proclaimed "BaptiMethoCostal of Christ" in that she was born a Baptist, had a conversion experience in the Pentecostal Church, was ordained in the United Methodist Church and found her spiritual home in the United Church of Christ.
“If you need a place to remind you or to tell you for the first time that you are loved, you are beautiful, and you are brilliant, then stop by.”
The First Church of Somerville recently welcomed Rev. Da Vita D. McCallister as lead pastor of the congregation. McCallister is the first pastor of color and the first to identify as same-gender-loving.
Amanda Kersey, a reporter from WGHB Boston Public Radio was with us on Sunday, June 19th as we struggled to process together the murders at Pulse nightclub. Parts of Rev. Jeff Mansfield's sermon and commentary ran on WGBH's Morning Edition on Monday, June 20th.
Gay advocates say it offers safe space to celebrate
"The Rev. Jeff Mansfield of the First Church Somerville proudly led a group of his parishioners, a substantial proportion of whom are from the LGBTQ community.
He said he preaches that homophobia is a heresy, and he said society must dissuade people from thinking that being gay is wrong.
'We come to represent who we are as queer folks, and as Christians,' he said, adding that he also couldn’t miss Boston’s biggest party."
Ross’s article was a powerful précis of how much progress has been made in the gay-rights movement in a short time. With few exceptions, most of the movement’s advancement has come in spite of, not because of, the efforts of the Christian church. But the sometimes overlooked United Church of Christ, a left-leaning Protestant denomination, was the first to ordain an openly gay minister, the Reverend Bill Johnson, in 1972, on the third anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Since then, we have ordained thousands of gay and lesbian ministers—refugees from religious traditions that would not have them, and candidates who grew up in the United Church of Christ. We now have hundreds of churches that declare themselves open and affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith, as well as of those people without it. My parish is one of these. The Church is usually twenty years behind most cultural zeitgeists, but in this case we helped bring progress about.
On Sunday morning, more than 200 people packed the pews of the First Church Somerville. Most wouldn’t have looked out of place in any other church: They wore button-down shirts tucked into jeans, or tailored jackets over floral blouses.
But here and there were spots of unconventional color.
In the front row sat someone in a gauzy pink plaid hat and a dress the color of bubble gum. In the back row, a foot-tall rhinestone tiara towered over a slender figure in a sparkly pageant-style dress. Half the choir sported feather boas.
There were false eyelashes, candy-apple-red lipstick, and sequins. Oh, the sequins.
This was not a special service for Las Vegas showgirls, and Liza Minelli had not come to pray — though she would have fit right in. The reason for all the glitter and eyebrow pencil and padded bras was the church’s second annual drag gospel worship service, followed by brunch and a full drag show.
The event was dreamed up by James Adams, a member of the United Church of Christ for eight years who performs, made up as a woman, under the name Serenity Jones.
Adams, 47, had seen a popular Sunday brunch at a Florida restaurant that combined a gospel theme with drag queens, but its take on Christianity was tongue-in-cheek. He wanted to bring the concept to the First Church and imbue it with true religious feeling.
The church’s leadership supported Adams’s idea.
“When James came to me and said let’s have a drag gospel brunch, I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but let’s figure it out,’ ” said the Rev. Molly Baskette, lead pastor for the church.
Baskette, 42, said the events are part of an outreach effort to let members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community know the First Church is welcoming and supportive of all sexual orientations and gender identities, a policy it adopted in 1999.
The effort is part of an evolution Baskette has supported through her nine years at the church, where about 30 percent to 40 percent of the congregation identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, she said.
“As the demographics of the area change, the church also had to change or die,” Baskette said. “Somerville needed a place that was demonstrably safe for LGBT folks.”
Baskette made the welcome manifest in Sunday’s sermon, praising the community for its members’ contributions to society and saying that God calls upon people not to become something they are not, but to be the best version of themselves.
The drag queens appeared to interpret that message as a call to be as fabulous as possible as they sashayed for the crowd during the drag show following the service, and passed the basket to collect donations.
After covering expenses from the special event, all remaining money collected during the performances will go to support the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, a Worcester-based organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people fleeing countries where they face persecution and seeking refuge in the United States.
Champo Mapulanga, a young woman from Zambia, spoke briefly about the difficulties she faced both at home and as an immigrant, culminating in a suicide attempt three years ago. The support of volunteers from the asylum task force has kept her going, Mapulanga said, and in seven weeks she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Clark University in Worcester.
Mapulanga’s words brought a rare note of sadness into the high-spirited event, where drag queens lip-synched to gospel songs and religious-themed pop music and danced their way down the aisles.
Among them was the Rev. Jeff Mansfield, associate pastor of the First Church, who performed as Fabiola Feast, wearing a blond wig and a pink, red, purple, and gold dress in a 1970s-style geometric pattern. Rather than shave his beard, Mansfield dyed it bright red for the occasion.
“I feel great,” Mansfield, 34, said of his costume. “I feel beautiful.”
Mansfield joined the church last December, so this was his first drag brunch, his first time wearing drag, and his first public lip-synching performance.
For the occasion, he invited the New York City drag queen Ruby Rims, whom he knew from when they attended church together in Greenwich Village.
“It’s really funny to me that there’s so many drag queen/church intersecting stories in this room today,” Mansfield said.
Baskette said that, as far as she knows, the First Church is the only congregation in the country offering drag performances as devotional exercises.
First-time visitor Asher Coffield, a graduate student at Emerson College, came to the church with friends who live nearby and who have been attending semiregularly for several weeks. She was impressed by the lively music and the congregation’s exuberant celebration of their faith.
“I was raised Catholic, and we don’t really know how to clap,” said Coffield, 24.
Coffield also said she admired the day’s message of embracing difference in others and within oneself.
“I think it’s a perfect thing for a church,” she said. “Be more yourself, and be lively and happy and excited.”
The church hopes to raise $750,000 in three years, according to an announcement. It launches its capital campaign with pledges of $400,000.
SOMERVILLE — The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette blogged about her mouth sores and chemotherapy bruises. She sat in the pews of her church pale and bone-thin, bereft of her brilliant red hair, too exhausted to stay for coffee hour. She sometimes wore a sign to protect her immune system during the sharing of the peace: “No hugs today.’’