Church revokes memberships in first use of bylaw enacted following 2003 controversy
The Cathedral of Hope has revoked the memberships of three people for allegedly spreading false, defamatory information about senior church leaders.
The Rev. Michael Piazza, dean of the 3,900-member Cathedral, said it marks the first time since he joined the congregation in the late 1980s that members have been expelled.
Piazza said the decision by the church’s board of directors reflects a change in how the Cathedral, known as the world’s largest gay church, will deal with situations like the one that arose in 2003. That’s when a small group of congregants took allegations against church leaders to the media, resulting in a controversy that cost the Cathedral hundreds of members and prompted it to leave its former denomination.
The three members — Blake Ashlock, Harris "Gene" Yarbrough III and Bob Politano — were expelled under a church bylaw enacted shortly after the 2003 controversy, which allows the Cathedral to revoke memberships on the grounds of "disloyalty or unbecoming conduct."
"Christ teaches unending, relentless forgiveness, and that’s absolutely what’s got to be extended," Piazza said this week. "However, if a person is in an abusive relationship or is being abused by a family member, forgiveness is one thing, but letting the abuse continue is another. … This time, the board decided to act much more proactively and aggressively."
Ashlock, Yarbrough and Politano received letters dated Feb. 19 from Ron Boson, secretary of the board, informing them of the decision. They also received letters dated the same day from a law firm retained by the church, Gardere Wynne Sewell, demanding that they "cease and desist" or face legal action.
Ashlock, 44, a member since 2006 who once led the Cathedral’s singles ministry, said he was "crushed" by the church’s decision to revoke his membership. The letter from Boson said the three men had "actively sought to do damage to this part of the Body of Christ."
"I’ve done nothing but help this church," said Ashlock, who also served on the board of a church ministry led by Piazza, Hope for Peace and Justice. "This was really, really hurtful.
"This has nothing to do with the congregation," Ashlock added of the group’s allegations. "This has to do with the leadership."
Ashlock and Politano said they attempted to distribute a document at a Feb. 16 board meeting titled, "Disgrace at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, TX: Document of Hope."
The document lists more than 30 grievances and calls for the resignation of Piazza, Senior Pastor Jo Hudson, and several members of the board.
Ashlock said he later e-mailed the document to more than 100 people.
The document accuses senior church leaders, including Piazza and Hudson, of financial improprieties, immoral conduct, and unethical business and employment practices. The letter from Gardere called the allegations "patently false."
"They really were just lies," Piazza said. "That e-mail had just outrageous statements about a lot of people, not one of which was true."
In an hourlong interview at church offices this week, Hudson responded to several of the allegations in detail, and she maintained that many of them have been addressed repeatedly in open sessions of the Board of Directors over the last year.
"What I think perhaps is that some people don’t agree with the answers," Hudson said. "Just because they disagree doesn’t mean the board has done anything inappropriate, illegal or unethical. That’s just not the case."
In response to questions about church finances, Hudson noted that the Cathedral undergoes an independent audit each year.
"For the last five years, we’ve had stellar reports back, including this year," Hudson said.
"They have seen nothing in any of our finances that has caused concern for them."
Hudson called the situation "unfortunate" and "regrettable," and she said revoking the memberships was "a very difficult decision" for the Board of Directors, on which she serves.
But she said that ultimately, the three men represent a miniscule fraction of the church’s membership and shouldn’t be permitted to have sway over the entire congregation.
"Our goal will always be to answer questions and respond to concerns in the best possible way that we can," Hudson said. "But at the point that things become destructive, it’s time to say no."
Ashlock, Yarbrough and Politano alleged that on the Sunday after they were expelled, two off-duty police officers and several staff members were posted at the main entrance of the church to ensure that they didn’t try to gain entry. They said the security presence, which they learned about from friends, was an insult that amounted to treating them like terrorists.
But Piazza and Hudson indicated this week that the three men are free to worship at the Cathedral as long as they don’t create a disruption. The decision to revoke their memberships simply means they can no longer vote.
Hudson said the church began using off-duty police officers for security several years ago, in response to a church shooting in Fort Worth. But she acknowledged that the church has "been extra-diligent about that in the last several weeks."
Yarbrough, 51, a retiree who joined the Cathedral in 2006, said he used to spend about 30 hours a week volunteering at the church. Yarbrough, who first approached Dallas Voice with the allegations last year, has retained attorneys of his own and threatened a lawsuit against the Cathedral.
"It’s been devastating," Yarbrough said of the ordeal. "Plus, I’ve lost some really good friends."
Politano, 50, a member of the Cathedral for about five years, said all three men feel as though a big part of their lives has been taken away. They said they believe many other members have already left the church because of the situation, while others remain who agree with them but are living in fear.
The three men said they feel the church is trying to make an example out of them. However, they vowed ton continue fighting despite the threat of lawsuits.
"This is not about revenge," Politano said. "It’s trying to make things right and helping other people. We just want a change in leadership."
For Piazza, the situation brings back bad memories from six years ago.
"That was the most painful time of my entire life," Piazza said. "It pushes a lot of those buttons. I just hate that it’s happening."
Piazza noted that there are procedures in the church’s bylaws under which members can try to remove the senior pastor or board members by circulating a petition. But instead of following those procedures, Piazza said, the three men have chosen to try to manipulate the media.
"What’s really happening is they’re using your paper as a tool," Piazza said. "It worked in 2003, so they’re trying it again. They’re using you to try to do their dirty work for them."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 20, 2009.