COVER STORY: Leaving a lasting legacy

Although his years as leader of the largest LGBT church in the world weren’t without controversy, there’s no denying Michael Piazza has left a lasting impact on North Texas

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

It’s not often that the Rev. Michael Piazza gets caught at a loss for words. But as he walked through Cathedral of Hope’s columbarium recently, he simply touched the marble covering the ashes of the late activist John Thomas, gently caressing the name plate without saying a thing.

Then he turned to the other memorial plaques, many of which originally hung on the outside wall of the old Metropolitan Community Church, the building that is now the Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

He pointed to one and asked if I knew him. We told each other stories about some of the people whose names hang there in remembrance. Most died of AIDS-related illnesses.

For Piazza — who is moving to Atlanta where he will take over as senior pastor of Virginia Highland Church on March 1 — leaving these people may be the hardest part of leaving Dallas. He worries that the memory of some of them will be lost.

Piazza knows Cathedral of Hope — the church known as Metropolitan Community Church of Dallas when he became senior pastor in 1987 — will be in good hands and he’s proud of the institution he helped to build.

But he still feels a great sadness at leaving behind the names in that memorial garden — the friends, church members, community leaders whose funerals he performed — at one point, as many as a dozen of them in a week.

Piazza served as senior pastor and then dean of Cathedral of Hope for 23 years. Currently, he is president of Hope for Peace & Justice and he co-founded and co-directs the Center for Progressive Renewal, an organization that trains leaders to build new and revitalize old churches within the United Church of Christ, the denomination Cathedral of Hope joined in 2006.

David Plunkett, Piazza’s assistant for the past nine years, was hired by Virginia Highlands Church to become director of church life. Last year, Plunkett moved from his position at Cathedral of Hope to become executive administrator for the Center for Progressive Renewal. He has served as Piazza’s principle proofreader for his last five books as well as most of his articles and sermons.

Piazza said that he couldn’t get his job done without Plunkett. But Plunkett downplayed his role and said he simply makes it appear that Piazza is in two places at the same time.

GOOD PARTNERSHIP | The Rev. Jo Hudson, left, said that the time she spent working with Piazza “has been a gift in my life.”

From Atlanta, Piazza will continue to co-direct the Center for Progressive Renewal. The Rev. Cameron Trimble, the other half of that team, is based there.

Piazza said that Trimble’s strength is creating new congregations while his is turning around declining congregations. Their goal is to spread the liberal UCC denomination, strongest in the northeast, across the south.

After a year of travel in his new position, Piazza said it became obvious that they needed a base of operations. Virginia Highlands, without a pastor for two years, provided that opportunity.

While his new church is large, its congregation has become quite small, something Piazza sees as a wonderful challenge.

Founded in 1923 as Virginia Highland Baptist Church, the congregation designated itself an inclusive congregation in 1993, withdrew its membership from the Southern Baptist Convention, affiliated with the more liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and then joined the Alliance of Baptists in 1996.

In 2002, while maintaining its Baptist affiliations, the church joined UCC.

Piazza admitted there was something quite delicious about becoming the pastor of a church that once belonged to the denomination that blocked Cathedral of Hope’s membership in the Greater Dallas Community of Churches.

While First Baptist Church of Dallas still publicly denounces homosexuality, it’s former pastor, W.A. Criswell, used to denounce Piazza personally and Cathedral of Hope in general by name from the pulpit.

That doesn’t happen anymore, Piazza said, and he counts that as part of his legacy.

Ask those outside the church about Piazza’s accomplishments and they’ll mention buildings — the original Cathedral, the John Thomas Bell Wall, the Interfaith Peace Chapel and the as-yet-unbuilt, Philip Johnson-designed, new Cathedral.

Ask those who’ve worked with him or have been longtime members and one word is repeated — vision.

NEW BEGINNING | Piazza, center, celebrates the consecration of Cathedral of Hope’s new sanctuary in 1992 with then associate pastors the Rev. Carol West, left, and the Rev. Paul Tucker.

Annette and Pat, who asked that their last names not be used, were on the board of the church when Piazza was hired and were the first couple in Dallas to meet him in person.

“We picked him up from the airport,” said Annette.

Piazza had flown in from Jacksonville where he was pastor of an MCC that he nurtured from 28 members to 270 in a short time.

“He was a visionary for the church,” Annette said. “He saw potential in us. He took worship to a different level.”

She said that as soon as Piazza got to Dallas, he demanded quite a bit from the congregation: Services would start on time; dress was more respectful, and while church was a great place to meet people, it wasn’t for cruising.

Annette said those steps led to the growth that led to the new cathedral.

“The church wouldn’t be what it is today if he wasn’t there at that time,” she said.

The Rev. Carol West, now pastor of Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth, calls Piazza her mentor. She was the first woman licensed and ordained under him.

While acknowledging their sometimes-stormy relationship, she said, “I think Mike is a visionary. My belief is he took this community to a place they were ready to go.”

She said that when he arrived in Dallas in 1987 in the middle of the AIDS crisis, the LGBT community was doing nothing but taking care of people with AIDS.

“He [Piazza] always had a vision of the community having more,” West said. “He helped our community get our voice.”

She called him a model for many pastors and thanked him for getting her to her current position.

Cathedral of Hope’s current senior pastor, the Rev. Jo Hudson, called Piazza “one of the best and most creative preachers I’ve ever known.”

She, too, remarked on Piazza’s clarity of vision for the church from Day One.

“He gave them courage and direction,” she said. “He made the church a visible sign of hope.”

Piazza said he did three things when he first arrived that helped the church become what it is. The first he called “big worship.”

He said when he arrived in Dallas, the church was already doing enthusiastic, joyous services well. He helped make it bigger but also made sure it was visitor friendly.

Visitors needed to be welcomed and the service had to be easy to follow, Piazza said. That included simple things like a service bulletin that was done well.

But the congregation also needed a sense of community, a sense of intimacy, Piazza believed. To accomplish that as the church grew, small groups were formed to keep people engaged.

“That way it didn’t matter how big we became,” he said.

The third component was community service, and that, Piazza said, gained the church respect.

“This church gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Piazza related a story told by the Rev. Paul Tucker, who is now senior pastor at All God’s Children MCC in Minneapolis, about a conversation he overheard at a diner in Oak Lawn.

“We were in the paper for something like air conditioning Maple Lawn Elementary School’s gym. These two old codgers were sitting behind Paul reading the paper, and they were talking about the church. One said, ‘I don’t know about this queer stuff, but that church does more good than any other church in this city.’”

One of the programs Piazza started soon after he arrived was a weekend hot meals program for neighborhood children. The area around the church on Reagan Street was very poor and children who were fed in school during the week were going hungry over the weekend.

“Men in wheelchairs with AIDS would come to feed those children,” he said. “This church became respectable.”

So respectable and even admired that even Criswell had to stop denouncing Piazza and the church from the pulpit. Groups like the KKK stopped picketing them. The council of churches approached Piazza and begged the church, to join. Piazza refused because by that time, the church had nothing to gain from council membership.

Controversy

But as the church grew, so did controversy. As the congregation raised money to build the new cathedral designed by Philip Johnson, allegations of financial mismanagement arose.

The national Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (the denomination now just known as MCC] was called to audit the Dallas church’s records.
But Cathedral of Hope’s budget was larger than the denomination’s, and the denomination was unequipped to deal with the controversy, Piazza said.

One woman who didn’t like the way the church was being managed filed a complaint of financial mismanagement against Piazza. At the time the board was overseeing financial management, not Piazza.

Because the denomination didn’t have the staff to look into the allegations, MCC hired private investigators. The investigation dragged on for months, until finally, the cathedral’s board of directors had had enough. The board members called a congregational meeting, and the congregation voted by a 90 percent margin to leave MCC.

Piazza looks back now at the conflict with a philosophical eye. He said that much of it was rooted in theology, although that never got named.

For years, the cathedral had been moving away from MCC, which Piazza said is rooted in much more conservative theology.

He said that part of the 10 percent voting against leaving were simply people who had been a member of MCC for decades.

But Piazza admits missing the significance of the vote at the time.

As they voted to leave MCC, they also elected Piazza as the pastor of the newly independent church by the same 90 percent, an overwhelming vote of confidence by any standard among churches of any denomination.

“If I didn’t piss off more than 10 percent of the congregation after being here for 17 years,” he said, that was a great accomplishment in itself. “It was one of the greatest affirmations of my life — and I missed it entirely.”

When Piazza thinks now about mistakes he’s made over the years, he quotes Michael Jordan, who said, “I missed 9,000 shots and that’s why I succeeded.”

In other words, the church moved forward by always taking chances.

Piazza said that sometimes they hired someone who turned out to be a mistake, but other times they took chances and hired people like Tucker and West, who he called heroes.

“But sometimes, you just have to make mistakes and you learn from them,” Piazza said.

Plunkett called innovation part of Piazza’s legacy. He said that he started attending services at Cathedral of Hope via the Internet while he was living in Reno.

“Television was extremely expensive,” Plunkett said, so Piazza broadcast services on the Internet.

He was ahead of the curve and his worship style came through on line.

“I felt connected to a larger community,” Plunkett said, even though he lived in a smaller city with nothing comparable to Cathedral of Hope.

Family in transition

Once Piazza decided to take the position in Atlanta, several things fell into place. He and his partner, Bill Eure, put their house on the market and had an offer the next day from the first person that looked at it.

Eure works for American Airlines, but works from home and does not need to be in Dallas for his job.

LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW CHURCH HOME | Michael Piazza said his partner Bill Eure, left, withdrew from his involvement in Cathedral of Hope when Piazza resigned from his position there, and that Eure is looking forward to beginning an active church life with Virginia Highland Church.

Piazza said that when he stepped aside at Cathedral of Hope, Eure also withdrew from the congregation. Virginia Highlands gives him a place to begin an active church life once again.
Together they raised two daughters with the girls’ mother.

Their older daughter graduates from Booker T. Washington High School in May and will be in college next year. Their younger daughter is a junior at Townview Talented and Gifted. She’ll finish the year in Dallas and the family is deciding whether she’ll transfer next year.

Eure will remain with them in Dallas for another couple of months until the house sale closes.

Hope for Peace and Justice

The future of Hope for Peace and Justice is undecided.

Piazza writes Liberating Word, the daily communication sent to 13,000 subscribers. He described the writing as a job no one else wants and one that he can continue from Atlanta.

But day-to-day management in the Dallas office will pass to someone else, he assumed.

The board is meeting this month to discuss what direction that organization will take after Piazza’s move. Its Art for Peace and Justice division also recently lost its director, Tim Seelig, who moved to San Francisco to become director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Coincidentally, Seelig and Piazza also arrived in Dallas at the same time.

Many of the Art for Peace and Justice events take place at the Interfaith Peace House so moving the group to San Francisco with Seelig was not feasible.

“You can’t replace Tim,” Piazza said. “He has such a unique place in the community.”

Piazza said that that group would reinvent itself.

Seeing the end

Cathedral of Hope will continue to change and flourish, he said.

Someday, he said, the Johnson cathedral may be built. He said that no cathedral has ever been built by a congregation alone. It takes an entire community.

“We’ve always framed it as either it happens or it doesn’t happen,” he said. “We were always really clear that if the larger community doesn’t decide to participate in it, it just won’t happen. We just don’t have the resources ourselves.”

But he said the church continues to work at building relationships with people who do have the resources.

READY TO BUILD | The Rev. Michael Piazza speaks at the 1990 groundbreaking ceremony for the church’s current facilities.

“We’ve done a piece of it and I think that’s really important,” he said.

Piazza said that when he hired Hudson as pastor, he knew, “My time here is limited.” She became the local pastor and he knew that if things worked well, she would become his replacement.

For the first two years, she worked for him. Then they switched roles.

“While she was a great pastor,” Piazza said, Hudson had never managed a multi-million dollar budget. She agreed to become the senior pastor if he stayed to help manage the church finances.

So for the next two years, he worked for her. During that time, he phased himself out. For the past year, he has had no official affiliation with the church even though his office has remained in the Peace House, which is attached to the building.

“It’s good timing for me to not be here anymore,” Piazza said. “It’s time for this place not to be haunted by my ghost.”

Hudson said that Piazza’s life has been devoted to working for justice for the LGBT community and fighting for what’s right for all people.

“Working with Michael has been glorious, creative and exciting,” she said. “Our time together has been a great gift in my life.”

She said she hopes he’ll be remembered in Dallas for single-handedly saving people’s lives.

“The work he will be doing at Virginia Highland Church will be an incredible new chapter in his life,” Hudson said.

Piazza said he runs into people at the grocery store regularly who ask him the next time he’ll be back to preach and he thinks, “I don’t work there anymore.”

But he said the transition was so gradual, “that even this congregation doesn’t know. They just think I’m off traveling.”

Many people hoped that Piazza would give a final sermon before leaving for Atlanta, but he said they’ve already transitioned. He compared that to a Texas funeral, more popular when he first arrived in Dallas, where they reopened the coffin at the gravesite after the funeral service.

“So someday I’ll come back and preach,” not in six months, but maybe in a year or two, he said. “For me, this has been a long goodbye already. We don’t need to make it any longer.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright