"Hero" is an overused word in our vocabulary today. When I think of heroes, I think of men and women who've risked everything for a cause they believed in, not for pay, not because they were conscripted, and not because it was popular, but because — despite the public ridicule and the certainty that what they were doing would cost them dearly — they followed their conscience.
Or in the case of Jimmy Creech, followed their understanding of what Christianity was all about.
Creech has written a memoir, "Adam's Gift," about the tumultuous years in his life when, as a Methodist pastor, he was called — in the words of his subtitle — "to defy the Church's persecution of lesbians and gays."
It begins in 1984, when Creech was the pastor of a small church in Warsaw, N.C. and was blissfully unaware of the plight of gays in society. It ends in 1998, when Creech, having followed his conscience, has been forced out of leadership in Raleigh's Fairmont United Methodist Church, recruited to lead the biggest Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska and then actually de-frocked as a Methodist minister by the UMC governing body — all because he fought the Church over its discriminatory policies towards gays.
At the center of the book is a trial — not a civil trial, but a religious one in which Creech is charged with the "crime" of having married gay couples in Nebraska. Church "law" is against him. Creech's reading of the Bible and Methodist traditions of social justice compel him to go against that law and do what he believes God would want him to do.
The drama is every bit as real as if Creech had been put on trial for his life, for indeed, being a Methodist pastor was his life — and he risked it, and lost it, having eschewed all the readily available excuses that he might've offered for side-stepping the issue.
If you don't know Creech's story, or even if you do — and many in Raleigh will remember some of it — the book is a page-turner from the day Creech arrives in Nebraska to the guilty verdict that sends him back to North Carolina.
The power of the book, though, derives from its very first pages. Creech, in 1984, isn't a young activist looking for a place in the gay rights movement. Until "Adam," a congregant, comes out to him in the spring of that year, he didn't know, as he puts it, any "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" of the kind the General Conference of the UMC has just voted to bar from ordination.
But if Creech is no gay rights activist, he is dedicated to civil rights, and having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he's all too familiar with the way religious doctrine can be misused to keep people down — black people.
When Adam comes to him, he pours out his soul about the misery he's felt in his own church and the self-loathing that the church encouraged him to feel before, finally, he decided to leave it.
Creech is distraught. "As a pastor," he writes, "my mission was to help people overcome whatever damaged them spiritually; whatever diminished their capacity to trust God's love, to love others, and to love themselves. I'd never imagined sexuality to be an issue of justice, much less a spiritual one. In fact, I knew no clergy who did see it that way. Although I didn't realize it immediately, Adam's visit that Wednesday set the rest of my life and ministry on a new course. Adam launched me on a journey with no clear destination and with no guide or maps to follow, other than an intuitive sense of what was right, just, and compassionate."
It would easy to say that Creech was confronted with a choice that day of taking refuge in church doctrine or seeking his own spiritual path. But what the book makes clear is that Creech never thought to take refuge. He thought to do what was right. Soon, having come to Fairmont in Raleigh, he was one of a trio of pastors leading the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality (RRNGLE — "Ringle"), stepping out at the head of the '88 Gay Pride parade and conducting a marriage ceremony with a gay couple. In 1990, he talked to the Indy's Melinda Ruley for a cover story that made him a national figure. It led to his ouster from Fairmont and a stint with the N.C. Council of Churches. Then Nebraska.
Today, Creech lives in Boylan Heights. He speaks all over the country on gay rights issues and bears, no scars, but a smile.
As a friend told him on Sunday, "I've been a Methodist all my life, and today I'm ashamed of that. But one day, they'll call you blessed."
On the way out, I saw Peter Rumsey carrying four copies of "Adam's Gift" to the table where Creech was signing. Four? "I'm giving one to each of my grandchildren," he said.
Good idea. Great book.