A rainbow flag flies in the wind outside of Metropolitan Community Church New York (MCCNY), a self-described spiritual home for the City’s LGBTQ+ community. At the helm of the Hell’s Kitchen sanctuary is Reverend Pat Bumgardner, who’s been involved with MCCNY—part of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), which has a presence in 20 countries—for more than 35 years; she’s not only the senior pastor at the congregation but also the executive director of global justice, a position that has brought her on social justice missions to Pakistan, Hong Kong, China and Brazil.
Reverend Pat grew up on a sprawling farm run by her family in Fort Wayne, Indiana. After attending seminary school, she became the first woman to enroll in the Master of Divinity program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and then spent a year on Long Island at a group home for court-reform teenage boys as part of the program. Despite her training, it was difficult to find a Catholic church that would ordain a woman—until she discovered MCCNY in Manhattan, where she was ordained in 1986.
Since the early 1980s, Reverend Pat and her colleagues have created several initiatives to support marginalized individuals. Each week (Tuesdays through Fridays) they host the Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry—named after the late transgender rights activist who was involved with MCCNY—which provides families and individuals with free, healthy meals. In Brazil, MCC sponsored a trans ministry that provided daily lunches for trans women on the street and a shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ people who were turned away from other shelters for drug use. In Kenya, they ran a workshop with elders in the community, gathering stories on history and sexuality in an effort to dispel myths about homophobia in African culture that exist in the world at large.
A lesbian and social justice advocate, Reverend Pat focuses on lifting up—and providing safe spaces for—LGBTQ+ youth and individuals. In-person Sunday services, which were on hold due to the pandemic, begin again as of Pride Sunday, at 9am and 11am.
We sat down with Reverend Pat at MCCNY to dive into her connection to New York City and her life in the clergy.
What made you decide to go to seminary school?
Rev. Pat Bumgardner: When I was a senior in high school, I discerned—as much as a kid can discern anything—that I wanted to be involved in the ministry, and I articulated that as becoming a priest. Everyone said to me, “You can’t be a priest; you should be a Benedictine nun and take a vow of silence.” That wasn’t appealing to me. One couple, whom I met during mass in college, believed in my calling and offered to pay for my education, and all they asked of me was that when I was on my own I pay it forward.
Did you face any challenges when going to seminary?
RPB: My first year was fine, but once I got to CTU in Chicago, I met a number of challenges, though it never made me doubt my calling. My preaching professor told me I’d never be able to preach because I was too short and my voice was too high, and he gave me a terrible grade.
I was the only woman there at the time. By my last year there, a nun had been hired as the dean, so things were shifting, but obviously they have never shifted enough to make it possible for women to be ordained in the Roman [Catholic] Church. For many churches, it is still the case that queer people can’t preach or be ordained in the ministry.
How did you first get involved with the MCCNY?
RPB: In New York, I was having a hard time finding a Roman parish that was progressive. Oddly, Catholicism in the Midwest was more progressive than on the East Coast. I met Shelly Hamilton, who was studying for her Master of Divinity, and she introduced me to the Metropolitan Community Church. She said, “Come to MCC New York; it’s for everybody.”
I wasn’t out as a lesbian and had no clue that I was a lesbian, really, but came and stayed. Eventually, I decided that I had been right about my calling in terms of my priesthood, but [hadn’t yet found] my venue, and that MCC was the place.
You came out in a sermon you were giving?
RPB: I did, yes. I came out in my first sermon, which was before I was ordained, while I was substituting for the senior pastor. I was preaching about Jacob wrestling with the angel, and he gets a new name—that’s the long and the short of the story.
As a priest, how do you approach certain texts in the Bible that some find homophobic?
RPB: I decided a long time ago that I am really happy to have a conversation with someone and to share information or knowledge with an exegetical approach to Scripture, but I am no longer willing to defend myself because there is nothing to defend. I am who I am. You are who you are. We have classes here, like The Bible and Homosexuality, during which we go through the texts that are commonly used against gay people. We have another series called Queering the Bible, where we look at stories that have positive meanings for queer people.
I hear that you met your wife, Mary Jane, at MCC?
RPB: Yes, we have been together for 35 years and 21 days. We met here one evening during a service, and I still remember what she was wearing: overalls and pearls. She was very involved in MCC; prior to my becoming the pastor, she was a deacon in the church. In the old days before [same-sex] marriage was legal, people would come for what we called “Holy Unions,” and she would prepare them for marriage.
Can you talk about how you met Sylvia Rivera and your relationship through the years?
RPB: Sylvia and I met at a demonstration on a march to City Hall. One Sunday she shows up at MCC and pretty much gets a hero’s welcome, which I don’t think she had necessarily received in the queer community. We hired her to be the director of our food pantry program, and during that short two-year period she came down with liver cancer and was pretty sick.
She didn’t have the kind of health care going into that that would’ve made her a good candidate for a transplant; I was with her right before she died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, and at one point, she grabbed my arm and dug her fingernails into it and said, “Are you gonna do it or not?” She was referring to a discussion we had been having about whether the church basement could be used as a shelter for homeless queer youth. I promised her we would.
Initially we took in another group in the basement, and when they got back on their feet and got their own space again, we opened Sylvia’s Place, a homeless emergency shelter for LGBTQ+ youth ages 16 to 23.
How did programs like Sylvia’s Place change during the pandemic?
RPB: Prior to the pandemic, most kids stayed 90 days with a plan including next steps for what they needed to move forward. Most kids have multiple challenges aside from gender identity or sexual orientation, such as untreated mental illness. They may not have finished school or been in school regularly because of all of the things they were combating as a transgender child, for example, so there is a lot to care for.
When the pandemic struck and we realized what was going on, everyone in the shelter stayed together as a “pod.” In order to come into the shelter, you had to test negative for Covid-19. Normally, Sylvia’s Place would be classified as an emergency shelter, meaning we take people directly off the streets and get them set up. The idea is never that they live here—it’s not a transitional shelter or set-up-and-make-your-home-here shelter. Not everyone makes it, but some do; one kid got a job at a bank. There are all kinds of stories that go with this. It’s real life. We do the best we can do—or at least we’re giving it a shot.
Join Reverend Pat at noon on Sunday, June 27, in Bryant Park, to march with MCCNY in the Queer Liberation March, as they celebrate and continue the fight for equality for LGBTQ+ folks and all marginalized individuals.