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Higher Calling: Trinity Episcopal and the Fight for Gay Rights 

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Trinity Episcopal Church will be added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the gay rights movement. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Trinity Episcopal Church will be added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the gay rights movement.

Father Chapman was a heavy smoker for years and died of emphysema in 1998 at age 74.

Ellie Chapman, who taught writing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, remains a devoted member of Trinity. At 92, she still works a weekly shift at the church's food pantry. She has seen a number of priests carry on Trinity's work since her husband's death, and she is impressed by the Rev. Jon Stratton, the current rector.

"In some ways, he is like a young Bill Chapman," she says. "His sermons are, in a lot of ways, revolutionary. I think his heart is in it the same way Bill's was."

The 35-year-old Stratton was hired five years ago after serving as the director of an Episcopalian service corps in St. Louis. On a recent morning, he arrives at the church by bike, despite frigid temperatures, and lights a candle in his wood-paneled office.

"We have kind of a sewage backup problem, so that helps," he says, apologetically.

He grew up in the Pentecostal church in Southern Illinois, and his father was an evangelist and pastor. Although Stratton came to disagree with the conservative beliefs, there are lessons that he carries forward.

"I was always taught that your Christianity wasn't just something you did on Sunday mornings," he says.

That ethos has pushed him into the streets to advocate for equality and to support protests against killings by police in Ferguson and the city of St. Louis. Others from the church often join him, and for those who can't, he believes it is important that he goes to bear witness.

"The people of Trinity realize that Jesus calls us to make our beliefs real in the world," he says.

In many ways, the church has changed significantly since Father Chapman arrived in St. Louis. The Central West End is once again among the city's most popular and expensive places to live, eat and shop. As the neighborhood's demographics have changed, Trinity's racial diversity has waned. It is now about 85 percent white, compared with the 1960s, when about a third of the congregation was black.

The issues of the day have also changed: The masquerading ordinance that police used to justify the 1969 Halloween arrests was finally killed in the late 1980s. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage is a right. Chapman used to privately conduct unions for gay and lesbian couples in his office; now marriage is the law of the land.

Even the Mandrake Society, the groundbreaking gay rights organization, has faded away. Now, Trinity opens its parish hall to weekly meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Still, Trinity's practice of reaching out to the surrounding neighborhood remains. It's still the church's parish, its territory.

"The church has changed, but this kind of ecumenical outreach ... it seems like it's a continuing thread," says Andris, the longtime parishioner.

Stratton says there is still a lot of work to do on gay rights, but Trinity also focuses on issues of racial and economic inequality. Delmar Boulevard, the unofficial but stubborn border between white and black St. Louis, is a block north with all the city's glaring failures it represents. Stratton points to the "institutional poverty, institutional racism" on display just outside the church's doors.

"We believe Jesus' presence is in the people we meet on the street," he says.

For all of Trinity's history with political activism and revolutionary commitment to human rights, it remains a small and, in many ways, typical neighborhood church. There are potluck dinners and Sunday school. All the practiced routines of the liturgy have been largely unchanged for more than a century.

When Jym Andris and Stephen Nichols moved nearby in the mid-1980s, they had been a couple for about a year. One day, they went for a walk near their new home to find a church. They were not looking for a gay church or an activist church, just some place where they seemed to fit. The people they met at Trinity seemed warm and welcoming.

Andris had not grown up with the structure of an Anglo-Catholic church service, and he soon found comfort in the order and traditions, knowing that they connected the broader church across the world.

"I'm kind of a traditional person, really," Andris says.

He had kept his homosexuality as a dark secret into early adulthood and long assumed he would never be able to get married and settle down with a person he loved. But that began to change when he started dating Nichols. As they grew closer, they began to talk to Father Chapman about the possibility of getting married. The larger Episcopal Church still did not allow it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the topic remained controversial with some of Trinity's members. One parishioner wrote Chapman a letter in 1987, worried that same-sex unions would induce straight congregants to "leave in droves" and that the church's blessing would be "license for any kind of sexual behavior," according to church historians.

Chapman, however, gradually moved forward. He had already been performing private unions in his office, but in 1991 he decided to grant a lesbian couple's request for a ceremony in the open church. That is what Andris and Nichols wanted as well.

"It was a controversial topic," Andris says.

He remembers a fellow Trinity member asking why he and Nichols couldn't just have a "holy union" instead of a wedding.

"Well," Andris replied, "when I got down on my knees and proposed to Stephen, I didn't say, 'Will you holy union me?' I said, 'Will you marry me?'"

Legally, it would be two more decades before same-sex marriage was allowed in Missouri, but Andris and Nichols had their ceremony. On May 15, 1993, the two stood in front of 135 of their friends and family, holding hands as they exchanged vows at Trinity.

"It was pretty much just a family-oriented affair in the church," Andris says. "I never thought growing up I could have such a thing."

Trinity Episcopal Church will install a plaque recognizing its addition to the National Register of Historic Places during a formal ceremony June 13 at the church, 600 N. Euclid Ave. For more information, go to www.trinitycwe.org.

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