What is it like to be a queer religious leader in Ron DeSantis’ Florida? What are the implications for the rest of the nation? Come to the Sunshine Cathedral, #myqueerchurch, in Fort Lauderdale Florida to find out. This piece aired on 89.5 WPKN Bridgeport CT on 3/5/23.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:00:00] Washed in divine love.
Congregation responds: [00:00:04] Washed in divine love.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:00:05] And fueled by the power of spirit.
Congregation responds: [00:00:07] And fueled by the power of spirit.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:00:09] I am lubricated and fired up.
Congregation responds: [00:00:13] I am lubricated and fired up.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:00:15] Hallelujah.
Congregation responds: [00:00:16] Hallelujah.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:00:17] Amen.
Congregation responds: [00:00:18] Amen.
Isabelle: [00:00:19] Hello beautiful WPKN listeners, I’m Isabelle Barbour — today we’re going to Sunshine Cathedral. Hashtag my queer church. I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s Mic Check which comes to you on WPKN every Sunday at 5:30 p.m. our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national and regional issues that affect our local community. Just as the phrase mic check mobilizes people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions. This weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. This show will be posted on WPKN’s archive site for the next two weeks. Go to archiveWPKN.org. Choose the air date and click on the show. Mic Check and boom, you’ll have access to this recording. If you want to contact me, I can be reached at ibWPKN@gmail.com.
[00:01:36] I’ve been taking a look, as many of us have, around the concerted effort to deny LGBTQ people their rights. That is happening across the United States right now with a specific focus on limiting gender affirming care for transgender people, as well as a limiting of conversations that can happen about LGBTQ families in schools and other spaces. I also had an opportunity to go to Florida, so, you know, it wasn’t much of a mental stretch to me to say, Hey, what is it like to be a queer person or a queer leader in Ron DeSantis’, Florida right now?
[00:02:28] I happen to be connected to the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale through a family connection and I got a chance to sit down with Reverend Dr. Durrell Watkins and Reverend Dr. Robert Griffin. Now, Darryl is the Senior Minister and Robert is the Executive Minister at Sunshine and they are a married couple. We talked about the Sunshine Cathedral and what it’s like to be queer religious leaders in Florida right now. We’re so lucky in Connecticut that we are not facing what folks are facing in Florida and in Georgia and in Texas and in Kentucky and in North Dakota. And South Dakota and Kansas and Missouri. With that said, Connecticut, this is no time to get complacent. School boards are a way of entry for some of these ideas. And they can be really pernicious in making schools unsafe places for all sorts of students. This has been happening in Connecticut. Now’s the time to donate and support groups that are taking on and fighting legal battles. Go to the Human Rights Campaign to learn more about what’s happening and listen to this story. There’s some really important insights not only on resistance, but healing, love and community. Here’s Durrell getting us started with an introduction of the Sunshine Cathedral.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:04:08] Sunshine Cathedral. Hashtag my queer church. That’s we are intentionally a queer community here in South Florida. A spiritual community. So everything we do is for and from the margins. We’re trying to queer the patriarchy. It’s a resistance. It’s a we try to queer heteronormativity, we try to queer assumed binaries. And so. So, yeah. Okay. Gay is good. Lots of people would agree with that. And the people who don’t, we think of as being pretty mean or whatever. But we are so beyond gays. Okay. We are readers make meaning and as queer people, we are bringing all of who we are to the discussion and that’s going to queer the discussion. And so that’s what we mean by queer church.
Isabelle: [00:05:03] Now, you don’t have to talk to Darryl or any of the other ministers at Sunshine Cathedral very long before you get into some serious biblical scholarship. Here is Reverend Kevin Tisdol, who is the minister of education. This is an excerpt from a sermon that he gave.
Rev. Kevin Tisdol (sermon excerpt): [00:05:26] One of the most. Used Bible verses in marriage Vows to this day come from a vow made first from one woman to another. Ruth tells Naomi in part, Where you go, I go. And where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people. Your God is my God. Where you die, I’ll die. And that’s where I’ll be buried. A powerful promise made first from one woman to another.
Isabelle: [00:06:05] So, the Sunshine Cathedral is 51 years old and it’s had an evolution to get to its current state. When Robert and Durrell first came on, it was a little bit of a bumpy ride. Robert explains.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:06:23] So we get here in 2007 and I just remember at one of the first gatherings that we attended within the first three months, six months early. It was early on and we was at the gathering. I walk into the room, we walk into the room and quickly I scan around the room. I’m the only black person in the room, a person of color, that person of color in the room. And so, you know, milling around, nibbling, drinking. And this one person comes up to me and says, you know what I fear about you and Durrell coming to the Sunshine Cathedral. And I said, Fear. He says, Yeah.T his is what I really fear about you two Come into the Sunshine Cathedral. And I said, Well, what is that? He said, I fear that the church will youthen and darken if you come to the Sunshine Cathedral. And so I said, Well, it’s not an if when we come we are already here. And I said may your words be so.
Isabelle: [00:07:22] I asked Robert and Durrell some questions about the linkages between race and the LGBTQ community and the civil rights movements that occur around both communities and identities. And this is what Robert had to say. It’s followed very shortly again by some sermon from Reverend Kevin Tisdol.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:07:52] Do. I believe so much of our movements really have come out of the civil rights movement. Things we’ve learned from all of that. And I think how it affects us today in the queer movement is that when I look at older gays and lesbians, we have this one lady in our congregation. She has to be in her– Dr. Patterson has to be in her.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:08:09] She’s 85.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:08:09] She’s 85 years old. And so she has to look at her to understand that. When you say certain things like Reverend Kevin mentioned in his sermon or I mentioned in my sermon around the intersection between race and discrimination, she was there for a lot of what we talk about and witness today, like she is probably one of the only ones that’s living that I would know that probably could resonate with. I was there when this happened.
Rev. Kevin Tisdol (sermon excerpt): [00:08:33] Ferris State University, home of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Yeah, it’s a thing tells us that because of Jim Crow, many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the chosen people. Blacks were cursed to be servants and God and God supported racial segregation. This was the wind that King and his peers were leaning into. Even with laws of the land against them, these strong souls were able to look beyond the oppression of the day and see the promise of tomorrow.
[00:09:17] King took the same scripture used to relegate black folk to second class citizenship and made Scripture sing with the songs of liberation. The songs of freedom. The songs of justice. Misinterpretation and lack of scholarship– Those are the tools of those who would use scripture to oppress. When we know better, we do better.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:09:48] And so to watch parishioners and congregation now here even to talk about a lot of the civil rights stuff from the pulpit, it’s butt clenching sometimes for people because it’s right in their face. And so I’m like, okay, I need to be open to what he’s saying. Others are saying, I don’t want to hear this. Others are saying, Why are you bothering me with this? This is not why I came to church today. I don’t want to be pushed. I don’t want to be challenged. And at the same time, it has to be done. Whether it’s around racism, whether it’s around queer issues or lesbian issues or trans issues or women’s rights issues, the buttons have to be, I would say, pushed. And often there’s a lot of butt clenching because people just are not they don’t think of church as being that. But then for us who come out of these types of movement, church is that church is the social movement. Church is where the movement happens. And if it doesn’t happen in the church, where else can you expect it to happen? Because so much of the civil rights movement, early, they happened in the churches.
Isabelle: [00:10:44] Something that’s very clear about Robert and Durrell and Sunshine is that the political is personal. It’s not out there. It’s in here, too.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:10:55] This is a true story. Do you remember the first time you went out, I think to the supermarket or whatever? And everyone was requiring a mask. It was the first time he went out alone with his mask. And I was honestly just viscerally, like, just unreasonably terrified. I’m like. My husband, a black man, is walking out with a mask on into public. Now, I wouldn’t have thought that would have occurred to me. But in that moment I just had we’ve been together forever. We were from a terrible place. I’m from Arkansas, from Alabama. I mean, terrible for racial and gay, mean, beautiful places, beautiful people. But but, you know, and but just in that moment, I’m like the person who’s most important to me in the world is a black man wearing a mask going out in the public. And I was. I was really anxious.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:11:48] Well, and I think about how all of a sudden COVID normalized every black person who wore a mask. It’s the first time a black person could walk anywhere, even into a bank with a mask on.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:12:01] Because five years earlier, you couldn’t walk out in a hoodie.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:12:04] And nobody pressed the button to call the police or lock the doors. Arms went up.
Music performed by Sunshine’s music program: [00:12:37] I was born by the river. In a little tent. Oh, and just like the river.I’ve been. ..
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:12:50] Those who are in power are going to do whatever they can to stay in power. Let’s not talk about voting rights and voting privileges and and let’s redraw the lines so we can stay in power. It starts with, oh, how much can we censor? You know, let’s not say these words any longer in public. Let’s not– let’s take all this stuff out of out of out of the schools right now that deals with critical race theory. Let’s inform women that they no longer have this particular right any longer. You know, so when we begin to take all this away, it’s not about when does something be taken away from me. It’s just it’s not even if it’s when.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:13:24] Last week, the governor of Arkansas said that we should never teach our children that this is a racist country, or we could put a mirror up in front of our children and show them that we are we are uniquely racist in this country. We are uniquely sexist. We are uniquely homophobic. We are uniquely transphobic.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:13:47] According to NBC News.com. There are over 100 anti LGBTQ bills before state legislatures in 2023 so far. It’s January, y’all. And there are already over 100 anti-lgbtq bills before state legislatures. Think about it. Over 100 bills trying to silence, erase, limit or take rights away from people. A bill proposed in Arkansas. Is framed as an anti-drag bill, and already that’s bad enough. Anti-drag. What’s next? Anti magician. Anti clown. Anti dancer. You know why? Anti anything, right? But it’s worse than it even sounds because it defines gender affirming dress and accouterment as drag. If this bill were to pass, that would be considered drag and that would then be criminalized. So what it is, it’s called an anti drag bill. But what it really is, is an attempt to criminalize transgender people living their truth publicly. How you dress, how you love, how you understand your own reality. These very basic points of human dignity are being attacked in state legislatures. Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill was passed and queer kids and kids of queer parents have fewer safe places to live out loud in Florida because of that draconian legislation.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:15:36] We– our son is Brazilian and and graduated from went to Fort Lauderdale High School. Luckily before all this but um. So here’s a gay. A gay man. He’s 21 now, a gay man with two gay dads. And today, that would be that would be controversial to just say how he lives his life, to mention that in a public school in Florida and in fact, teachers in a lot of schools are having to take down that they had signs saying this is a safe place. You can have to take that down or people with pictures of their family, again, just like. Women do not necessarily state by state. States rights is a lie. States rights is an excuse to to to oppress people. But women aren’t don’t own their own bodies. Gay families, whether you’re the parents of a gay child or or the gay parents of a straight child or like ours is a he was a foster child that we just never let go. A family of choice. And you can’t talk about your family like this is this is insane. And I grew up in Arkansas in the 70’s and I find this insane. So yeah, we don’t Yeah, we get tired, we get frustrated. We don’t even know what to do sometimes, but we just have to keep doing something because this isn’t okay.
Isabelle: [00:17:03] I think this is the point of the interview where I talk to Durrell and Robert about seeing a young man on the beach in a DeSantis t-shirt that said Florida, now the US tomorrow. And we talked about like, who is driving these policy changes that are hurting the LGBTQ community. And I think one of the most painful pieces is that sometimes people within the group that’s being targeted can sometimes be sometimes part of the problem.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:17:39] White privilege is such a thing. It’s so powerful. And patriarchy is so powerful that how white gay men survived in less enlightened times was by playing on their white male privilege. That’s not okay. But it gave me it gave me some grace for you. Used the tools you had to survive what you were facing. Now it is our job to help people deconstruct that so that they can be more mindful of other kinds of people. They’re trying to protect their money because their whole life, their money has kept them safe. Right? And I’m only talking about queer people. Why? By straight people do what they do? I couldn’t tell you, but. But it seemed counterintuitive to me that queer people would be on the side of people. But. And I could be wrong, but what I’ve worked out so far is because they’ve relied on white privilege and wealth to protect them from homophobia.
Isabelle: [00:18:44] Robert, do you have anything you want to add? I mean, I just think there’s a lot there.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:18:49] I have I’ve learned to monitor how I respond to it. But going back to what I was saying earlier about, you know, were about the Cathedral to youthen and darken. I just went ballistic when I told him that I was like, where did we come to? You know, we had just left New York and left Boston. I’m from Alabama, and I had never even counted that degree of in-your-face like that ever before and certainly did not expect it here, certainly not expected in the gay community. And so when people see certain things and hear something, even today, it’s like, did you just say that? Did you just say that? Oh, I don’t want to I don’t want to take on these justice causes any longer because I’ve done this long enough. So the clarion call just isn’t speaking to me or This is not my fight. Recently, Yeah, someone said that to me recently. You know, the comment was we we fought our fight already.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:19:37] But we didn’t win, so we got to keep going.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:19:42] We have to keep fighting. There’s more to be done, you know? Yes, you can enjoy your privilege. And yet there are those who cannot even enjoy a meal or their lives.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:19:51] Somebody left Sunday. What was my call? What was my clarion call? Oh, just that you not harden your hearts because I was responding to Tyre Nichols in Memphis and I said, I’m just I’m so afraid that cruelty is so rampant and so ubiquitous that we’ve become numb to it that we’ve either enjoyed the circus or we were so appalled by it that we tuned out so much that we’re trying not to see the circus and whether we’ve applauded or walked out. Either way, we’re not trying to stop the circus. Right. And so so I was saying– my my very simple call is that we not harden our hearts, that we not disengage, that we take the time to cry for him. And and one more time sign one more petition, you know, make one more donation, you know, whatever. And a guy — now I thought that was maybe the most milquetoast thing I’ve ever said in the pulpit. Just got up and walked out. White guy. Late 30s. You saw him in your head when I said it.
Isabelle: [00:20:57] Given everything, I felt like I needed to ask them how they did it. How they found the energy to continue to show up.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:21:12] I remember in the 90 seconds I was an AIDS chaplain. So from 94 to 97, I did about 100 funerals. No one over the age of 50. It –you know, I would visit people in the hospital. I would I would I would do funerals. That was you know, and sometimes people would ask me, even my mother would ask me. It must be so sad. How do you just keep doing it? How do you keep doing it? And I would say, because you can’t not do it. You know, the war is happening, so it isn’t, you know, how can you do this? Like, how could I not? I have to do something. And it seemed like even in those days, the people and we’re both long term survivors, that in those days, the people who became long term survivors, there was a list of things they shared. And one of the things was involvement. And so the and I think you just learned, I think we just learned in those days the fights come to us. So it’s not like you’re getting out of it. So what can I do to make a difference? Because there’s no getting out of it.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:22:28] I think for me, as a little kid growing up in Alabama, a part of that, what keeps me going is that realization that there are still kids in Alabama who are like me. I do what I do because there’s someone that is still yet to hear that you’re okay, just as you are. When I tested positive 1987, I was out in California. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, and I used to go to this group up in Los Angeles with Louise Hay, and it was called the Hayride and one of the songs into a support group. One of the songs we learned early on that someone just reminded me of today is I love myself the way I am. That’s nothing I need to change. And so that has kind of been a mantra since 1987 for me about just being who I am. Nothing I need to change. And yet there’s someone else who still needs to hear that because there’s so much that people are up against still today. Laws, family, church that they still need to hear, Hey, you’re okay. That’s what keeps me going. That’s that’s the message that has to be told. And I feel that we, as as a couple, as pastors of the queer church. You know, my queer church, we’re the ones who are charged or challenged with the opportunity to make sure that message is out there for as many people as we can hear it.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins (sermon excerpt): [00:23:46] When I was a young minister, I remember seeing a bird’s nest on the church lawn. And as I approached the nest to investigate, I noticed some eggs in the nest. And then I noticed just a few feet away, a scrawny little mother bird chest out, cursing me out. And threatening me mightily in her little bird voice. Now, I don’t doubt if she had pecked or scratched me. That would have been unpleasant. But her chances of saving her eggs from me if I turned out to be truly villainous were slim indeed. Still, instinctively, she did whatever she could. She did what she could, as ridiculous as it seemed. Was she equal to the perceived threat? Maybe not. And still, she raised her little bird voice and took a stand in defense of her helpless eggs. We might feel small and powerless like a little bird — chirp and squawk anyway. Decency demands it. Injustice may occur over our protest, but may it never happen under our silence.
Isabelle: [00:25:07] So it’s important to note that part of how the Sunshine Cathedral forwards progress in its local community is by providing a lot of support and services to its parishioners and beyond. If you go to Sunshinecathedral.org, in the support tab, you can see a lot of different supports, including food sharing, which allows thousands of people to be served monthly HIV and STI testing in partnership with some health partners. Grief support. Spiritual counseling. There’s a youth program. There’s different anonymous groups to help with addictions. You know, there’s there’s all sorts of different social services. And one member of the Sunshine Team that I didn’t get to talk to, who I know is very involved in the food program is Reverend Dr. Anne Atwell, who is the minister of Connections. I think it’s important to kind of link the policy discussions that we’re having in this story, also with the pieces of action which Sunshine has. So check out their website to learn more.
Music performed by Sunshine’s music program: [00:26:29] Sometimes in our lives we will have pain, we will have sorrow, but — If we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow. . . .
Isabelle: [00:26:45] I had one more question that I needed to get off my chest before we parted.
Isabelle in conversation with Durrell and Robert: [00:26:51] I think about the idea of a priest as a messenger from God. Right? And I was thinking of you both and thinking of — there’s the idea of a messenger and there’s the idea of a storyteller, right? And. Tell me. Tell me how that lands– you smiled when I said that. Can you tell me why? You smiled.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins: [00:27:11] I hope I’m a storyteller. Myth is very important to me. And storytelling is very important to me. And. Performance is very important to me and a performance for me is a showing of a doing. And so. Liturgy, which is how we worship, is performative. It’s a practice. It’s how we’re practicing to be in the world. And so, yeah, I don’t I’m not the Archangel Gabriel. I don’t have a message from God. I have what I believe may be inspired thoughts. I have what I have treasured values. I hope I’m right about things I can. I share my experience and my ideas. Do with them what you will, but the power isn’t in that. I get something from the universe that no one else gets. My power is in the effort I put into telling you a story or crafting a liturgy, and then you enter into that, and then you have helped create your own experience. And that’s what’s important to me.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin: [00:28:18] And I’m more the messenger because from that point I, I get from the story what the message is. And I come out of a missionary Baptist background and it’s about going out and telling the message of what it is. And so for me as a messenger, I want to go out and tell the message of Sunshine Cathedral. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we do it. And this is what you can find when you come there. So for me, it’s getting the message out to people. And to me that is a divine message to me, that is, you know, that that is God as our understanding God to be in my life saying you need to get this message out, that there is a queer church, that there’s a place for all people to come, regardless of their religious background, their spiritual, the spiritual upbringing, marriage process, whatever. There is a place that they can call home. So for me, through the storytelling, it’s the message for me to say, Let’s take this one step further and say to people, We say the same thing, but we just say it differently.
Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin (sermon excerpt): [00:29:17] And the things that might ought to get us fired up here at Sunshine Cathedral is ways in which we could help not only just ourselves, but each other, have a better day, either locally or globally. That ought to get us a little bit fired up. If not, I got some matches and a lighter I can borrow and let you let you borrow it to get you fired up. Because sometimes we just need to take the extra step to let someone somewhere know that you are loved for who you are as you are. And no one can ever take that away from us.
Isabelle: [00:29:47] I want to thank everybody at Sunshine Cathedral for their hospitality and generosity. A special thanks goes out, of course, to Robert and Durrell and also to the music program at Sunshine Cathedral. They are amazing and they sound great every week. Well, WPKN listeners, that’s our time. If you go to South Florida, you know where to go. I’m going to channel Robert and Durrell and let you know that you are perfect, just as you are. Have a good one. Bye.