The First Women Elders in MCC
“A leader fits in their historical context, like a key in a lock. . .”
“ . .. leaders find for themselves, and offer to others then, a vision of an alternative future”
Doris Kearns Goodwin in Leadership in Turbulent Times
The context for the origins of MCC is the period of the late 1960’s and early 70’s in America. The Vietnam War, transformations in the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay rights – all bursting on the scene – demanded “an alternative vision of the future,” and leaders who held the right key or keys in terms of their courage, skills, gifts and personalities.
In the rough and tumble early days of MCC, as we struggled to come out, and de-shame our bodies and sexuality, we intuitively understood that sexuality and spirituality both had their origins in a good God. Both drove us to intimacy and connection – to God and to each other.
Into that very early MCC culture, male dominated, came some lesbians. Troy, at first not quite understanding, became willing to learn, to be challenged, to invite these passionate women into our movement and into leadership.
In order to find their own voice and place, they had to have the keys – charisma, passion, their own kind of sex appeal. Many were reluctant spiritual role models or sex symbols, but, that was the requirement.
Rev. Freda Smith had fled the conservative church of her youth, the Salvation Army, for academia and politics. Her dramatic encounter with Troy Perry at a rally in Sacramento, documented elsewhere, re-ignited her spiritual hunger, and re-directed her path.
She became, in MCC, an overnight sex symbol, a church and movement rock star. She was a powerfully literate poet and preacher. She was tall, blonde, handsome and had women swooning over her in the early 70’s. She preached lesbians out of the closet and into their callings. She defied anyone to deny her a leadership role.
Freda also, in a kind of sleight of hand, was a radically feminist evangelical – who swore allegiance to the Jesus that Troy Perry preached, and who read from the KJV of the Bible. She had a kind of deeply emotional pietism, coupled with the lesbian sexual energy that topped the charts.
Freda inspired dozens and dozens of women to explore their own calling to ministry, and thousands of men and women to open their hearts to Jesus and to their true selves.
She was not an organizational leader, or a strategist – she was always a poet, an artist, a revolutionary. She held us, women and men, in thrall with her preaching, her clarity about the gospel.
I met Freda in 1973, when I was just 23 and she was 37. We were in the lobby of the theater in Decatur, GA, during General Conference. She realized who I was, and said, “So, you are Nancy Wilson! But, you are just a baby!” I was instantly embarrassed and flattered to be sought out by the “shero” of MCC.
At that small General Conference, she was nominated from the floor to be Elder, and she was swept into the leadership by a very young MCC. We saw her spiritual gifts instantly, instinctively.
I saw Freda struggle with being that sex symbol and all the pressures it brought and the boundaries it required. I saw her try to be Troy’s handmaiden in some ways, and to not be coupled with him in some odd hetero-normative pattern. She paid a huge price to be a leader in those days – traveling on a shoestring to preach across the world, with no financial support. Being pushed and pulled between pastoring a local church and Eldering MCC around the world.
Rev. Carol Cureton was in many ways, the total opposite of Freda. She was a corporate person, from Dow Chemical — a consummate executive and engineer. She kind of came out of nowhere, in St. Louis, MO, and, like Freda, was a lesbian phenomenon. She grew an MCC church overnight there that was the marvel of MCC in 1974. She was smart and organized. She preached with conviction and intellectual clarity.
Carol had a kind of corporate ambition – maybe an early precursor of the church growth movement — and, through the 70’s, she pushed that ambition into the heart of MCC. She was elected an Elder, moved to LA, and tried to bring some order into the MCC headquarters.
Before too long, there were clashes with Troy, with Jim Sandmire, others. I got elected to the Board of Elders in 1976, and it took me a while (at age 26) to catch on to all the dynamics.
Carol was a business person. She was Clerk of the Board of Elders, but wanted to be the Treasurer and have her hands on the purse strings. She wanted me to move in to HQ when Jim Sandmire retired, and she would be Treasurer.
But, things blew up just before the General Conference in Los Angeles in 1979. My own view is that Carol lost her way, in some ways. She was caught up in some dysfunctional office politics, of which sexism was no little part. She resigned, took most of the office staff with her, leaving me and Troy, Frank Zerilli and one or two others in the office.
Over time, personally, fences were mended. Carol founded a business and we became one of her customers. But she never returned to MCC or its leadership.
Meanwhile, 1979 was a watershed year for two more women Elders in MCC; Rev. Jean White and Rev. Jeri Ann Harvey, both of them dynamic leaders for our times.
Rev. Jean White was the more unexpected election. She was swept in on the strength of her testimony, and the lure of MCC’s global ambition, in the best sense. I met her just before that Conference – in fact, she stayed at our home with her partner Chris.
Jean had a story unlike any of our stories – she had been a missionary to Macao, with the China Inland Mission, and had been imprisoned by the Red Chinese Army during the Cultural Revolution in the mid to late 60’s. She was tortured, lost her lung and nearly lost her life.
When she was rescued, she was on the front page of the London Times, a national hero. Just a few years later she came out to her fundamentalist community and was rejected.
Not long afterwards, she heard Troy Perry speak – and her life changed again, forever.
Jean was a person of phenomenal energy and commitment. She was a successful nurse midwife, and a hospital administrator. She had become a leader in her own right in MCC as she was still trying to patch together the pieces of her spiritual and emotional life. She was tireless in those days before the internet – writing letters, traveling all over the world, reaching out with credibility and compassion.
Soon, in addition to being pastor of MCC London, Jean was also reaching out to other continents and countries, to isolated LGBT clergy who wanted to connect with MCC.
She was a metaphorical midwife to MCC’s first serious global efforts.
And, she was beloved by men and women all over MCC. Many lesbians found that enormously attractive as well – the theme continues. Jean was a strong, sometimes vulnerable, mentor, sister, and friend.
Rev. Jeri Ann Harvey was a larger than life preacher, healer, and evangelist. She burst on the scene in MCC, being the first woman to break through the barrier of pastoring a large church – first Houston, then Los Angeles. She identified as Native American, and preached in cowboy boots, and defined “butch” for a generation.
She had been a pop singer, a Navy officer (rumor had it in Navy Intelligence), a gay bar owner, a survivor of many things.
She had an instinct for holding a crowd in the palm of her hand – and, a weakness for beautiful women, which she did not hide! She loved jewelry, Texas cuisine, and laughter – and did I mention, beautiful women?
She was often my roommate at Elders’ meetings – I cannot tell you how many nights we stayed up gossiping, laughing, telling stories. She was fun to de-compress with. And, sometimes, rooming with me kept her out of trouble.
She did not like long, boring meetings, of which there were plenty.
Jeri Ann Harvey had an overactive inner child, and we loved her, and sometimes identified with her.
She was needy. She was giving. She was infinitely entertaining. She was a drama queen – but when she held you and prayed for you, you knew you were in the arms of Jesus Himself.
Only God knows how many people Jeri Ann Harvey prayed for and who received Divine healing. It is her legacy.
These four remarkable, gifted women had an enormous impact on my life and on MCC. Two have died and two still grace the earth with their energy and presence. How blessed we have been to know them.