When Pastor Craig Duke stepped onstage in a small town in southern Indiana, wearing a cotton-candy-pink wig and a sparkly dress under his white robe, he knew his performance would rile some members of his congregation.
He did not, however, expect his drag debut to bring an end to his role leading Newburgh United Methodist Church in a suburb of Evansville.
Mr. Duke’s performance was part of the unscripted HBO show “We’re Here,” which documents L.G.B.T.Q. people and their allies in small towns who put together a drag show, led by three drag all-stars.
The episode that featured the pastor premiered in early November and in it, he explained that he appeared on the show so he could be “empathetic, not just sympathetic” to the community’s gay members. Three weeks later, the church announced that he had been “relieved from pastoral duties.”
In an interview this week, Mr. Duke said he had received enough critical feedback since the show aired to convince him he could not continue leading the church, which he said had about 400 congregants. He said that he was hurt by the negative responses but that he had also received hundreds of messages of support.
“I experienced as much love and acceptance, and dare I say more, within the drag culture and the L.G.B.T.Q. community than most people would experience within the settings of the church,” Mr. Duke said. “Not one person questioned what I was doing there; it was complete acceptance.”
Mr. Duke last preached on Nov. 14, a week after his episode aired. A local church leader said in a letter to the congregation dated Nov. 26 that Mr. Duke would be relieved from his duties on Dec. 1.
The superintendent of the south and southwest district of the Indiana United Methodist Church, the Rev. Mitch Gieselman, wrote in the letter that he had received numerous messages both supporting and criticizing Mr. Duke’s actions.
Mr. Gieselman said that the pastor had not resigned or been fired, but that his salary had been significantly reduced and he and his family would have to move out of the parsonage by Feb. 28.
“While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke’s actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” Mr. Gieselman wrote.
The pastor’s supporters created an online fund-raiser, which had raised more than $56,000 as of Wednesday morning. He said any money raised over the $30,000 goal set to help his family would go toward creating a new faith community in town that he hopes is more inclusive.
The public split in this congregation came during a stalemate about rights for L.G.B.T.Q. members of the United Methodist Church, which has nearly 13 million members worldwide. Roughly half of them are in the United States.
Ahead of a 2020 meeting of global delegates, a group of church leaders introduced a proposal to split the church, citing “fundamental differences” over same-sex marriage. The traditionalists signed a letter declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But the debate on the proposal has been delayed for nearly two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal, which would create a denomination that continues to ban same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, is scheduled to be debated at the church’s general conference in August 2022.
The interim pastor at Newburgh United Methodist Church, the Rev. Mark Dicken, said the Methodist church had “regrettably” been fighting over this issue for more than 40 years.
“Very regrettably, the extremely conservative wing of the United Methodist Church has crammed through rather draconian provisions in their attempt to control clergy and their ministry to L.G.B.T.Q. people,” Mr. Dicken said.
Mr. Dicken worked at the church in Newburgh from 2004 to 2011 and came out of retirement to lead the congregation again.
“The tribalism and polarization that’s going on in our culture, particularly in our political culture, has filtered down into the church,” he said.
In the HBO show, which was nominated for an Emmy in 2020, three drag stars, Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara, confront these divisions while mentoring people for the show-ending drag performance. All three posted messages of support for Mr. Duke after the news about him leaving his position became public.
O’Hara, who was the pastor’s drag mother or mentor, said on Twitter: “Craig is an amazing person and deserves the same love that he shares with everyone around him.”
The pastor, who is straight and described himself as “heteronormative,” was nominated to be featured in the show by the Evansville Pride group. He said he had never heard of the show but decided to participate to share a message of God’s unconditional love and to support his daughter, who identifies as pansexual. He used Joan of Arc O’Hara as his drag name.
He said the negative response from some members of the congregation was especially painful because of the way it hurt his daughter. But his wife and the rest of his family are “sticking together,” he said, and they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
He said he was grateful for his experience in drag.
“It was real, it wasn’t vaudeville, it was powerful, as the words they taught me, it was fierce, it was authentic,” Mr. Duke said.
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