The presenting sponsor of this year’s National LGBTQ Task Force gala may come as a surprise.
St. John’s on the Lake, a United Methodist Church, is presenting the annual soirée in Miami Beach. It’s an effort to shine a different light on Christianity amongst people who have been targeted by its conservative factions, said the church’s pastor.
“Christianity has been used for so much harm and now we as a church are taking this opportunity to use Christianity to fight for what we believe is good and to really promote a positive and healing message during a time when so much harm is being done to our community,” said Rev. Kipp Nelson.
Nelson, 33, knows firsthand about the harm the church has done to queer people. Last year, he was denied a promotion on the grounds of his sexual orientation. Nelson is a gay man.
“That was a very discouraging and disheartening moment last summer that knocked the wind out of me in a way that I didn’t expect,” he said.
It also derailed 15 other candidates who had hoped to become clergy members or advance to senior positions. Because the church confirms these positions as a slate, Nelson’s identity held the entire class back.
The rejection was crushing.
“It came with health complications and a flare up within an autoimmune disease that I'm still trying to heal from,” he said. “It had a pretty significant effect, but we’ve continued to fight for the good and plant our feet firmly and say, ‘This is not ok, and we’re not going to let unjust policies destroy the church and destroy peoples’ lives.”
The group stayed together and grew even closer and this summer the tide would change. They were confirmed at the state’s annual clergy conference, making Nelson the first gay man to hold the title of reverend in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
It was a huge moment in Methodist history, Nelson said, as church leaders broke from a tradition of discrimination to recognize the group’s unity.
“Seeing us holding hands and knowing we come from diverse backgrounds and were committed to each other made a difference,” Nelson said. “Our class has become so close through this journey we’ve been on. We’ve trauma bonded through the experience of rejection.”
Now Nelson is helping others heal and reconcile their faith. In Florida, the battleground is littered with damaged souls from political culture wars with a need to protect spaces for queer people to gather and connect, Nelson said.
Venues that have drag performances have become major targets of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. R House in Wynwood recently agreed to pay a $10,000 fine after state regulators accused the restaurant of violating decency laws by exposing minors to “sexually explicit drag shows.”
“If our governor succeeds at shutting down drag shows that would be detrimental to the LGBTQ community,” Nelson said. “Particularly places like The Palace here in South Beach and places like Gaythering and Nathan’s where drag is a big part of our community, so there is a big need to work to protect our community and the places in which we can find belonging.”
It took Nelson a while to find that belonging. He first realized he was gay at 14. Growing up in Alabama, left little room for expressing his true feelings, much less dating.
Giving up his faith wasn’t an option, either.
“I wasn’t raised in a place where those two things were reconcilable,” he said.
A lifelong Methodist, Nelson did his seminary studies in Washington, D.C. — where he was finally able to come out.
“I found a community that helped me celebrate the person that God made me to be,” Nelson said. “It was very unexpected finding a loving, Christian community that helped me come out of the closet. That was a true gift.”
From D.C., he came to Miami on a summer internship that turned into a full-time position, fulfilling a childhood dream to live in tropical South Florida. During his time in Miami, Nelson has worked to make the church more welcoming to LGBTQ families, while occasionally hearing that the two worlds cannot coexist – a misconception he quickly corrects.
“I simply tell them, that’s your opinion and that might be what you’ve been taught, but that is simply wrong,” he said. “In the Methodist church, something that we believe, that is within our specific discipline, is that all humans are of sacred worth and that is an unconditional worth that is bestowed on every human being. Humans have no power to change the values of another human’s life. A beloved child of God is the starting point.”
With its involvement in the Task Force gala, St. John’s on the Lake hopes more people will take notice of its reconciling message. And if Florida is to repair its reputation as a true free state, Miami is where it begins, Nelson said.
“Back in the ‘90s Miami was a mecca for gay people. It was a place that people were flocking to live their independent, free lives as gay people,” Nelson said. “That’s why there’s a very prominent gay community in Miami Beach. If change is going to happen in the state of Florida, I firmly believe it has to begin on the local level and Miami would be one of those places that has the biggest footprint and stronghold to make that difference across the state for sure.”
What: National LGBTQ Task Force Gala
When: Oct. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Miami Beach Convention Center
More Info: www.thetaskforce.org