MCC NY’s homecoming service builds on the past, looks to the future

Reverend Pat Baumgartner
Reverend Pat Baumgartner of Metropolitan Community Church holds a special homecoming event on September 18.
Donna Aceto

Metropolitan Community Church of New York’s (MCC) “Homecoming” event on September 18 marked the church’s 50th anniversary and reflected the year’s theme, “Leading with Our Legacy.”

Howard Wells, the first openly queer student at Union Theological Seminary and an ordained minister at MCC, founded MCC NY in 1972 after Reverend Troy Perry founded the original one in Los Angeles in 1968. Today, MCC churches span the globe with congregations in more than 20 countries.

The “Homecoming” service at MCC NY — which is located on at 446 West 36th Street — was established about 25 years ago] to welcome congregants and the full choir back to the church after summer vacation, the church’s senior pastor, Reverend Elder Pat Bumgardner, told Gay City News.

“But it’s come to mean a lot more to me than that,” she said. “It’s come to be a celebration of all the ways in which this community of faith is a home for so many people.”

Len was one of dozens of people on hand for the church’s homecoming event.Donna Aceto

Preaching to about 60 masked congregants who attended the nearly two-hour service in-person as well as congregants who watched a live stream of the service, Bumgardner explained MCC NY’s legacy, its programs, and how the church plans to move forward into the future to continue serving New York’s LGBTQ community. She said the congregation has been relatively left untouched by the pandemic and expressed gratitude that only one staff member became seriously ill with COVID-19 and recovered.

“Our legacy is one of rising from the ashes and pushing forward to the most challenging of times,” Bumgarner said. “Our legacy is calling for life when AIDS… spelled only death, claiming at least 400 of our members in New York City alone. Our legacy is making a way out of no way and saving a mile of pennies and sacrificing whatever we had to buy a building when no other queer-based religious group in the city even dared to think about it,” the 69-year-old queer pastor said.

Members stand together during communion.Donna Aceto

Bumgardner continued listing off the programs MCC NY launched in memory of her late friend, transgender activist, and congregation member Sylvia Rivera, as well as the Global Justice Institute, which Bumgardner also leads as the executive director.

The institute is a separate organization from MCC, but it has close ties to the church. It works in 20 countries globally and partners with faith-based activists from China to Canada and Nigeria. Bumgardner has traveled to Brazil, China, Hong Kong, and Pakistan on social justice missions for the institute.

Today, the Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry feeds 500 people a week and Sylvia’s Place provides 90-day emergency housing to LGBTQ people 16-23 years old. Rivera’s presence is everywhere at the church, from the urn at the church’s altar to the initiatives she launched.

During her sermon, Bumgardner, who has led the Hell’s Kitchen LGBTQ church for more than 35 years, was the first woman to enroll in the Master of Divinity program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She went on to join MCC NY in 1979, and a year later she joined the staff for six years. Bumgardner was ordained at MCC NY in 1986.

Bumgardner has been married to Mary Jane Gibney, a former MCC NY deacon, for 36 years.

Pat Bumgardner has spent more than three decades with MCC NY.Donna Aceto

The “homecoming” sermon focused on celebrating returning home and highlighting the important things in life,  tying together the pandemic, homecoming, the church’s golden anniversary, and the church’s social justice mission.

Bumgardner insisted that God is in charge, but does not control everything, as some other religious leaders preach. She reframed God’s position, stating that “God’s power is used mercifully and compassionately” and that God offers a “place of refuge,” serves as a “counselor,” and advances a “promise to fulfill” what is within people and what they have to offer.

“The promises of God are not about what is missing in our lives, but what’s possible because of what we already have … [and] what God can build on,” she told the congregation, deftly weaving biblical examples with current events through her sermon’s stories. “It is possible for me to believe in the power of that promise because of what God has already done in our lives as a people around the globe.

Even four-footed worshippers are welcome at MCC NY.Donna Aceto

Bumgardner, who came out before her first-ever sermon at MCC NY more than 40 years ago, spoke about topics ranging from homophobia and anti-LGBTQ forces around the world to the United States’ prison system and the importance of caring for New Yorkers at the church.

“What makes it possible to change, to tolerate change, is believing something better is in front of us,” Bumgardner said.

Bumgardner outlined MCC NY’s future and goals for projects they could get involved in, including fundraising, crafting a strategic growth plan, events, and board training to capitalize on the church’s space. Bumgardner explained MCC NY has “a very strong foundation to move forward on,” stating to the congregants that unlike many other congregations that operate on $100,000 a year, the church has an operating budget of $300,000.

As congregants enjoyed drinks and food after the service, Bumgardner said that 2022 “not a year of, ‘How can we get back to what was?’” but a year of “How can we move forward into what’s supposed to be?”