The Union United Methodist Church: A South End survivor
Generations of Black Bostonians have walked beneath the Gothic arches and soaring spire of the historic Union United Methodist Church in the South End to pray, worship, sing, marry, mourn, be baptized and break bread in the name of Jesus Christ.
The congregation, with roots going back to its founding by a formerly enslaved man in a segregated Boston church in 1796, has managed to hold onto to its iconic Roxbury puddingstone sanctuary, acquired in the 1940s, during a time of profound demographic shifts in the neighborhood.
And last month, within a week of the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, two women, both ordained ministers and members of the church staff, joined hands and hearts at the altar.
To the Rev. Nikki Young, who married fellow Rev. Ashley Renee Johnson at Union United on Nov. 12, the ceremony was a celebration of the church’s identity.
“We know and came to love each other through this community,” said Young, a former assistant pastor now serving as preacher-in-residence while studying for a theology Ph.D. at Boston University. Her partner Johnson, a life-long member of the church, earned a master’s degree in theology at BU and serves as the congregation’s minister of worship and faith formation while teaching at the Epiphany School in Dorchester.
“Our work and our ministry have taken place within the deep intersectionality of blackness and queerness. This church formed us. That’s something we celebrate,” said Young.
As the South End has turned whiter and more affluent over the last 50 years, historically Black congregations like Concord Baptist Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the New Hope Baptist Church have decamped from the cozy neighborhood of brick bow-fronts and broad boulevards, selling their sanctuaries for millions of dollars to developers who took out the pews and replaced them with luxury condos.
But Union United has remained.
A turning point in the survival of the Columbus Avenue institution came in 2000 when the congregation became the first United Methodist church in the New England Conference to declare itself a “reconciling congregation,” publicly embracing people of all sexual orientation.
Union United in effect put out an official welcoming mat to the South End’s large gay community while making the church a more open place as well for queer people of color.
That identity was on full display last April when funeral services for former South End State Rep. Melvin H. King, a champion of gay rights, were held at the church. The Rainbow Coalition that propelled him to become the first person of color in a Boston mayoral final was on full display in the diverse array of humanity filling the pews and in the lines of mourners stretched around the block.
The Rev. Jay Williams, 42, a Buffalo native who came to Boston to study at Harvard College and earn a Ph.D. at the university, was serving as Union United’s pastor when he came out as gay to the congregation in 2016. He went on to spend a short stint as lead pastor at the powerhouse ultra-liberal Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco before returning to Union United in 2018.
Williams said that while the South End, just like the church, isn’t as Black as it used to be, Union United “is unashamedly and historically Black and celebrates in an Africana tradition.”
“We’re historically Black and contemporaneously multi-cultural,” said Williams. “Union has continued to grow numerically, missionally, spiritually and financially.”
The congregation’s financial position has been bolstered in part by acquiring the assets of struggling United Methodist congregations in the Boston area, including the historic Old West Church on Cambridge Street, where Sunday worshipers dwindled to a handful before the merger.
Three years after Union United adopted the reconciling mantle, the SJC made the Bay State the first in the nation to legally recognize gay marriage. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Union United hosted its first same-sex wedding, in spite of the fact that official United Methodist doctrine prohibits the sacrament of holy matrimony from taking place in its churches.
Young and Johnson exchanged their vows amid mounting controversy within the 12-million-member United Methodist denomination over gay marriage, with hundreds of conservative congregations, unhappy with the perceived liberal drift of the church, disaffiliating with mainstream Methodism over the issue.
At the same time, more progressive congregations have also severed ties with the United Methodist General Conference, citing foot-dragging over an issue on which even the U.S. Supreme Court came down on the side of legal same-sex unions.
All of these developments occurred as church attendance in general is dropping, especially among mainstream Protestant denominations like the United Methodist faith, which traces back to 18th century Church of England dissenters John and Charles Wesley.
Open and affirming
To regular worshippers at Union United, gay marriage is a settled issue. As is the acceptance of non-celibate gay clergy — also banned by church doctrine. At the national level, a truce of sorts has been declared. United Methodist congregations are no longer subject to church trials under the denomination’s “Book of Discipline” for hosting same-sex weddings, according to Bishop Peggy Johnson, interim bishop of the New England Conference.
“We’ve gotten beyond that,” said Johnson. “Union United itself has designated itself as open and affirming. Our role now is to affirm God’s love and grace between people who love each other. That is the spirit of Christ.”
The New England Conference, among the most liberal in the nation, issued a declaration in 2022 affirming gay marriage, putting it at odds with formal doctrine. Johnson said upcoming conferences of United Methodists bishops and pastors aim at settling the issue once and for all.
Johnson herself, she noted, is married to a transgender United Methodist minister. “I was married to a man for 40 years,” she said. “He came out 10 years ago as a woman. People’s lives are very complex. The church has to make room for everyone.”
Young, an Illinois native working as assistant director of contextual education at BU’s School of Theology, considers the consuming debate over marriage unfortunate and disappointing at a time “when folks don’t have homes and the church is known for arguing how people choose to love. This church is eating itself alive.”
But some once-active members of Union United are not happy with the changes in the congregation.
Chantal Charles, a member since 1986, said she supports “gay rights 100%,” but doesn’t consider same-sex marriage a right within the United Methodist Church. “I oppose it because it’s against God’s word,” she said. “Marriage is sacred. Marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe LGBTQ people should be treated equally but same-sex marriage is against God’s law.”
Charles, who worked at Boston City Hall for years, now lives in Sudbury and attends a United Methodist Church there.
Jack Drewry, an attorney and Harvard graduate from Ohio who serves as a contributing reporter at the Bay State Banner, has been a member of the congregation for close to 45 years. He brought up his children in the church.
“When the subject of same-sex marriage came up at church, I made my position clear, citing my mother’s philosophy — ‘Marry who you love.’” said Drewry. “Go ahead and have a wedding ceremony but maybe you should perform it elsewhere — not at Union United.”
Other members of the congregation who asked to remain anonymous said they respect Williams’s personal journey as a gay man but believe he puts too much emphasis on his queer identity. Some also questioned church attendance numbers, citing a marked difference between church enrollment and bodies showing up every Sunday.
Williams stood by his statement that attendance is on the rise and refuted the challenge to his pastoral style as a response that sought to define what forms of queer expression are deemed acceptable.
“That’s sad to hear,” said Williams. “That’s the hetero-normativity embedded in the Black church. It’s part of a reflex that says it’s OK for the choir master to be gay but not the pastor. It’s saying it’s OK for you to be gay, but you can’t say it too loudly. That’s homophobia.”
Williams points to a Union United elder named Hilda Evans, who helped pave the way for the congregation to become reconciling. During the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, “this elderly Black woman, seeing what was going on around the South End, came forward and asked, ‘What does it mean to be good Christians and good neighbors?’”
Union United will continue to be “flamboyantly welcome to the people who have been marginalized and left out,” said Williams.
“Freedom and liberation are baked into our DNA, to stand on the side of the oppressed,” Williams said. “We are a historically Black congregation radically welcoming to queer folk. The marriage of Nikki and Ashley is not a point of contention but the flowering of who we are. And we’re not looking back.”