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Honoring Courage and Inclusion: St. Mark's United Methodist Church Commemorates 50th Anniversary of Up Stairs Lounge Fire
On any given day, the sanctuary of St. Mark's United Methodist Church can hold roughly 200 people. Saturday was not an ordinary day. It was the 50th anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, which occurred on June 24, 1973, at a gay bar in New Orleans' French Quarter, claiming the lives of 32 individuals and injuring 15 others. It was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and one of the worst mass killings of gays and lesbians in 20th-Century America.
Standing room only inside St. Mark's United Methodist Church.
While the arson attack itself was a tragedy, the aftermath is considered by many in the New Orleans LGBTQ community to be a hate crime. City leaders failed to investigate the fire thoroughly and even properly identify several victims. New Orleans media nearly ignored the fire, and worse, churches all across the city refused to assist families and loved ones with proper funerals, including the refusal by Archbishop Philip Hannan, who adamantly denied the victims Catholic funerals.
However, St. Mark's United Methodist Church opened its doors and held a funeral service for all affected by the deadly fire.
Frank Perez, executive director of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, says, to this day, the boldness of St. Mark's opening its doors to the LGBTQ community in 1973 has not been forgotten. "At the time, 50 years ago, the vast majority of churches were not hospitable and very close-minded, and many were just downright cruel," he said. "So, we appreciate St. Mark's opening its doors at that time, and we've never forgotten that act of courage."
Family members and friends of the deceased gather outside St. Mark's.
The sanctuary at St. Mark's was packed on this scorching Saturday afternoon with members of the LGBTQ community, just as it was 50 years ago. The narthex was standing room only, and those in attendance were asked to grab a bulletin and a handmade fan. Meanwhile, for the dozens of individuals who could not fill the inside of the church, they spilled out onto North Rampart, braving the heat and drizzling rain, all to honor those whose lives had been tragically cut short.
"I could not have faced my conscience if we had turned them away."
And, in some ways, the crowd was also paying tribute to the bold decision by St. Mark's United Methodist Church and Bishop Finis A. Crutchfield, bishop of the Louisiana Conference at the time of the fire.
"Bishop Crutchfield had the guts, not only to say yes to the service, but the guts to come in here and sit right up there in the middle of the balcony," Rev. Ed Cooper, pastor at St. Mark's, told the crowd as the service began. "His bravery, and the bravery of the church, is felt, even today as we sit here."
Rev. Ed Cooper, Pastor, St. Mark's United Methodist Church
In the following weeks, Bishop Crutchfield published a note in the Louisiana Methodist Newsletter conveying part of why he made the decision, and Cooper shared parts of the message with the gathered crowd.
"The purpose of such a service is to lift the banner of God's redemptive love over tragedy and to affirm our faith in His grace and in His care," his letter stated. "The oneness of the human family in its solidarity is also noted in the memorial service, and our need for God and dependence on Him is recognized. I felt that St. Mark's should accede to the request of family members and friends to let the service be held in the facilities there. Personally, I could not have faced my conscience if we had turned them away."
Bishop Finis A. Crutchfield's letter to United Methodists in Louisiana. You can read the letter here.
"He did his job!" said Rev. Cory Sparks, a United Methodist pastor who served St. Mark's for three years. "It was a bold and courageous thing to do. He allowed the church to be used for a memorial service and went so far as to say; this is something we are going to do, something we must do."
The current bishop of the Louisiana Conference, Delores J. Williamston, was at Saturday's service and shared a beautiful prayer. Afterward, she said she feels an enormous sense of pride and joy for the actions of Bishop Crutchfield and all of the Louisiana clergy at that time.
"I am so proud of the 1973 United Methodist Church, having the compassion and grace to help the families grieve their loss," said Bishop Williamston.
She says the witness of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, a strong witness that is tangible and active in the New Orleans community to this day, is a shining example of what it means to love thy neighbor. The church's outreach program is a model of what makes the United Methodist connection so essential.
"St. Mark's gracious hospitality and ministry in the French Quarter is an example so needed in the connection, and they are genuinely putting their faith in action as they continue to open their doors, hearts, minds, and love to the community. I pray that all over our United Methodist connection, we will truly strive with our hearts, souls, and minds to really love our neighbors no matter who they are. I know there is much work to do for marginalized communities and people. But there is hope, and God does indeed hear the cries of God's marginalized children."
Bishop Delores J. Williamston reads a prayer at Saturday's service at St. Mark's United Methodist Church.
A traditional jazz funeral procession followed the service in true New Orleans fashion. Black and gold banners with the names of those who perished were carried by loved ones, all while a jazz band led those who second-lined their way a mile across the French Quarter to Iberville Street, the location of the Up Stairs Lounge fire.
Jazz musicians lead a second line down North Rampart Street
It was all part of a three-day commemorative weekend in New Orleans, sponsored by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and the New Orleans Historic Collection. Saturday morning featured numerous roundtable discussions, from artistic interpretations of the fire to the role faith played during and after the fire, and several United Methodist pastors in the Louisiana Conference were invited to participate.
Rev. Carole Cotton-Winn and her husband, Rev. John Winn, who were dating in June of 1973, attended the funeral service at St. Mark's together. Both were acutely aware of how the faith community at that time had disappointed many in the LGBTQ community by refusing to hold services for the victims, and both knew the funeral service at St. Mark's, while meaningful and necessary for loved ones, would also highlight a commitment to inclusivity, compassion, and social justice.
Rev. Carole Cotton-Winn, present at the memorial service in 1973, answers questions during a roundtable discussion.
"There was a spirit that day that called on us to be people of the same heart," Cotton-Winn said, "It's what we wanted, and it's what they wanted. In the end, it just brought us all together in a beautiful way that, to this day, is honored and remembered."
Carole's husband, John, added, "Our presence created a legacy; a legacy that is important for us as Methodists, but also for the gay community. Many of them were able to step forward and no longer have to live a life of secrecy."
Winn says he felt electricity in the sanctuary that day. "I know some of that is my own projection. But not all of it is," he said with a wink. "The Holy Spirit was coursing through St. Mark's that day. Many of those in attendance felt the presence of a loving God for the first time in their lives."
The Front Door
As bold as it was for St. Mark's United Methodist Church to hold a memorial service in 1973 for a community wrongly and sadly ostracized by society, the exit from the church was perhaps just as daring.
As the service ended, Winn remembers several organizers had suggested clergy leave St. Mark's through the back door. "There was a thought that it would be helpful to anybody that did not want to face the press, which was rather hostile and could be very unnerving," Winn said, "But it was also out of deep respect, as members of the gay community never wanted to embarrass any of its allies."
As the conversations centered on how and where to leave, Cotton-Winn remembers a woman in the balcony shouting, 'I came in the front door, and I am leaving out of the front door!'
Suddenly, the mood in the sanctuary shifted.
"We were owning it!" she said. "This world is a big world, and our part of the world counts, so we're going to leave out the front door. That community needed to know they were loved by God, and they needed to be surrounded by people of the same heart, and it just brought us all together."
The front door of St. Mark's United Methodist Church
Sparks said exiting the front door was a rallying moment. "The Winns and the rest rallied," he said. "They walked out in full view of cameras and said, 'Yes, we are here. We are marking this tragedy.' It was a Lazarus moment, being unbound and coming out of the scene to be alive into resurrection power."
Cooper said the front door exit was a Stonewall moment for the New Orleans community.
"Every now and then, a religious institution such as the church faces its own Stonewall and its own pivotal moment," Cooper said. "And leaving out the front door was our Stonewall. Which way were we going to go? Would we stand with the oppressed, or would we go out the back door? Or would we knock that front door down and say, 'We're marching with you'? And so, yes, it was incredibly significant. On that day, with that exit, the oppressed saw hope."
"When people marched out of that front door 50 years ago with the press waiting, that was an act of courage, and so it's important to honor that and remember that," Perez said. "Hopefully, people can draw some inspiration from the service to persist in the fight because the gains we've made in the last 50 years could just as easily be lost. You can make a good argument that we're going backward right now, and we don't want to do that."
"We will not forget!"
In many ways, the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Weekend serves as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging historical injustices and standing in solidarity with marginalized groups.
Sparks says it also emphasizes the role of United Methodist churches to continue providing support, healing, and promoting equality.
"It's horrifying to remember that many people in New Orleans wanted to forget the fire and move on, ignoring it in ways that seem unspeakable to us now," Sparks said. "So many refused to even acknowledge the tragedy in a city that talks incessantly about tragedy and death and history. And so, for me, it's important to commemorate, to push back against voices that would try to silence this story."
"Yes, it's been 50 years since the fire, but we know many who continue to grieve. None of that hurting...the grieving, none of it has a period," Cooper said. "So we remember, honor, and lift God's grace, God's love. In these moments, I am proud to be a United Methodist."
"Oh, it's still important to remember, lest the culture forgets," Rev. Carole Cotton-Winn says. "We're the people that keep holding the promise, and we will not forget. We will not forget!"
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