Remembering Ed Upton, And How Far We’ve Come

This evening the North Texas Conference of the UMC will ordain an openly gay man who has been faithfully serving the church of my confirmation: Lovers Lane UMC.

And this has me thinking about Ed Upton.

When I first came to Northaven UMC in mid-2001, Ed was a member of our Staff Parish Relations Committee, and one of the many loyal and faithful gay men in our congregation. Ed was a gregarious guy who loved making connections. So we had an initial meeting for coffee with all the requisite questions.

Where did you grow up?”
“Where is your family from?”

Ed quizzed me on all this with his slow Missippippi drawl (Yazoo City) and wry smile.
But when I said I’d been confirmed at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church, Ed froze.

“What year?”

I had to do a little math to figure it out. But once I did, a bittersweet expression fell across Ed Upton’s face.

“I was in charge of your confirmation…”

And that led to the remarkable story of how Ed Upton, a closeted gay man at the time, left United Methodist Church ministry, after being in charge of my own confirmation process at Lovers Lane UMC.

It was the mid-1970s, and like so many gay men of that era, Ed was completely in the closet to the outer world. He was married with kids. But he was a gay man.

He was also a faithful minister on the staff of Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, and was in charge of a sprawling and growing children’s program. That church was overflowing with young families like ours. We’d just moved from the OG Lovers Lane location (my earliest church memories) to the Northwest Highway location where the church remains to this day. Jerry Haines and his family were members; and as a kid it was always disorienting to see “Mr. Peppermint,” sans the television costume, picking up his kids from Sunday School.

Our confirmation class was huge. I’m no longer sure how big, but I’m guessing 50-70 kids. (I have an old picture of us all somewhere…) There was no sanctuary yet at LLUMC in those days. Worship was in Asbury Hall, and that is the room where I kneeled at the chancel, while pastors laid hands on my head.

My parents later taught children’s Sunday School around the time my sisters were little. I still remember a book of Bible memorization that I got as part of that confirmation class. I can still recite all of the Luke 2 Christmas story, which I learned then.

The point is: Ed Upton was in charge of all of that. But, as we’ve said, Ed Upton was a closeted gay man, and it was the mid 1970s. His wife found out about an affair he had been having and outed him to the congregation.

As Ed told the story to me that day over coffee, decades later, Ed was horrified and humiliated to be outed. So Ed Upton hid in his office at church, while dozens of people knocked on the door all day. Some were no doubt angry and hurt. Others were no doubt supportive and just wanted to talk.

But Ed —usually gregarious and chatty— was emotionally destroyed. So he just sat in the office with the light off, until well after dark.

When he finally opened the door, he saw Ida Louise Noblin, sitting on the steps waiting for him. She’d been quietly holding vigil for hours, knowing that he would eventually open the door and come out. She took him to her home (because he no longer had a home to go to…) made him some supper. And Ed began the process of rebuilding a new life, outside of ministry.

To be clear, Ed Upton had a remarkable life after this. He was a gregarious, deeply sarcastic, jokester. He remade himself in the early LGBTQ community, and became a mentor to hundreds.

But this point cannot be missed…Ed Upton stayed in the United Methodist Church.

Despite the fact that he had lost his career to the theology and social practice at the time, Ed became part of the Reconciling United Methodist “loyal opposition” for decades. This is just one example of the many LGBTQ folks who faithfully stayed United Methodist, despite a denomination that increasingly marginalized their faith-life. As I’ve said many time, that faithfulness is, in itself, a part of how I became convinced this was a true movement of God; because no one could show such faith of their own accord, without the Spirit of God accompanying them too.

As I said, by the time I came to Northaven, Ed was on our Staff Parish committee. He later became so excited about our new building, which became a focal point of all we did for about ten years. He —like many of us—wanted it to show how progressive United Methodist Churches can and did, grow and thrive.

Somewhere in all the files I have not properly organized, there is a beautiful picture of Ed Upton, taken by my Father. He is touring through that new building. He is now 80-something, and already dying of cancer. By the time we dedicated that new building, Ed would be homebound, and soon would die. He never lived to worship in the building he helped us build.
The picture is of Ed and his walking cane, shuffling slowly across the concrete-dusted floors, surrounded by studded walls awaiting drywall.

He looks like Yoda.
He kinda was Yoda, to me.

Ed Upton was clearly a spiritual mentor to me, personally. A wise gay Elder, with a lot of wisdom to share.

But –and this is the point that comes to me so clearly today– once upon a time, Ed Upton was a faithful clergy member of the North Texas Conference.

Ed Upton’s own faith and commitment to the United Methodist Church shaped the lives of hundreds of Dallas children and families…including me.

My faith…the faith that eventually led me to become a United Methodist pastor…was shaped by Ed Upton.

And as I have become a fierce ally for the LGBTQ community over the years, I have quietly carried Ed’s story; of how a closet gay man shaped my faith as a boy, and helped make me into a pastor who could have coffee with him, decades later, and marvel at the meaning of it all.

Just before he died, Ed gave me this chalice —a Wesley chalice— that had come to him on a pilgrimage to England. It’s displayed in my office down to the present day, and I think of Ed every time I look at it. It inspired me, time and again, to stay in the struggle.

In the the wake of our historic and truly beautiful General Conference, I have spoken several times about the bittersweet nature of the moment for me.

Because it took so damn long…
Because of the genuine harm to LGBTQ persons, like Ed, to their families, and to their allies…
Because so many, like Ed, never lived to see the change happen…
Because of the loss to the United Methodist Church…the senseless loss of the “gifts and graces” of generations of faithful servants like Ed.

And yet…in this moment, there is also great joy.

Because tonight, the same conference that quietly put away Ed Upton in the 1970s will ordain another gay man: Randall Lucas.

And of course, the final beautiful part of this story, the part that compels me to write this today, is that Randall has been serving at that very same church: Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.

Updated: A picture from Randall Lucas’ Ordination, Tuesday Night.

All of this, it seems to me, is a metaphor and a story worth naming on this day. It’s a moment to breathe in deeply as we come to terms with just how far we have come and just how long it has taken.

A few weeks ago, we current-day North Texas clergy voted to ordain Randall.
We just raised our hands, and voted.
No discussion.
No debate.
No questioning of his social media posts or sexual orientation.

I’m so proud of him, and so very happy that he’ll soon be senior pastor of St. Stephen UMC.
The future is bright and hopeful.

In our present day, nobody at my childhood church ever shamed Randall for being gay. Instead, they relished his many gifts, and celebrated him. As, of course they should. He will lift a Wesleyan chalice and carry it forward in ways closed to Ed and all of his generation.

And this is so good.
And this is a moment worth noting too.

God bless Ed Upton
A true mentor who shaped my ministry as a child, and who shaped my ministry as a pastor.
And who is with us still.

As our Bishop lays hands on Randall tonight, along with my own bittersweet memories, I have no doubt Ed will be looking down from heaven, and smiling a wry grin at where we have all come.

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