A BULLETPROOF VEST
“I called my parents the night before to tell them that I loved them if anything happened and that they knew that I loved them. That Sunday morning we had services in the morning and the weddings were in the afternoon. And that Sunday morning bodyguards came to pick me up and they said, ‘You’ve gotta wear your [bulletproof] vest ’cause we’re going to drive you to church in a different route, just in case.’ The police said that there were people coming to kill me that day. And so they drove us to church by a different route, then whisked me into the church. I had to stay in my office until the 9 o’clock service, go out to do the service, then go right back into my office and stay there. Then, go out to do the 11 o’clock service, come right back into my office and stay there.
Frankly, we let our guard down a bit because at the 11 o’clock service, in the middle of the service, a woman came to the front; she was yelling and throwing pamphlets. I approached her very calmly and told her that it was a criminal offense in Canada to disrupt a religious worship service and that she needed to stop. She pushed me over and that was an assault. She was arrested and taken away. And so we were scared because if that happened at 11 o’clock [service] what’s going to happen at the weddings?
There were 50 police officers in the basement of the church. A thousand people came to the weddings; they were excited. Everybody had to be searched at the door. There were protesters and signs and yelling outside, and there were 80 media outlets from around the world—some of which for the very first time were covering a positive event in the lives of gays and lesbians. First time ever.
As soon as I walked into the sanctuary, people stood, applauded, and cheered because they knew it was a story. I reminded them that this was a worship service and that any disruption would be a criminal offense; people would be prosecuted and arrested. And so, we proceed with the weddings. At the end of the weddings, the way it works with the Publication of the Banns is—after all the usual signing and stuff—I signed and issued the marriage certificates instead of the State, instead of the City Hall. I issued the marriage certificates to the lesbian couple and the gay male couple and declared them married and the place went nuts. It was like cheering and cheering and cheering and cheering.
And all the papers had the same picture the next day: Me in my robes and the lesbian couple and the gay male couple all standing together and all of us just beaming.
And like I said, I couldn’t leave my home for two weeks without a bodyguard. I got a phone call at home with the message: ‘People like you need their heads cut off.’”
For 40 years, Reverend Brent Hawkes was pastor of the Toronto congregation of the gay-affirming Metropolitan Church. In January 2001 he officiated what is on record as the world’s first legal gay marriages. Why is gay marriage such a profound spiritual issue? I am inspired by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he teaches that we must see the injustice in laws that reduce human dignity.
Preventing the same rights to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity disrespects individuals and keeps us stuck in an antiquated view of human rights. So it was such a great honor to spend time with Reverend Hawkes in his home in the fall of 2017. He retired on January 28, 2018.
I am deeply moved by his journey to accept his homosexuality and his call to ministry at a time when those two things could not easily co-exist. He told me: “When I was a kid, I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to take away these desires and they never did [go away]. So there was an element of doubt there. What’s wrong? Am I not praying hard enough? Is the church wrong? Is God punishing me? What is going on here if God, my best friend, won’t fix this? And today I say, ‘Thank God that God never answered that prayer,’ or I would never have had this incredible journey. I would never have gotten to this place of acceptance and seeing sexuality, seeing sexual orientation, as being very different from what the Church and society taught me about it. I am most grateful that I didn’t give up on God and that God didn’t give up on me—and that I didn’t give up on who I was myself. It would have been so easy to become a Baptist minister and pretend; live a lie. It would have been so easy to have given up on Christianity and be mad because God didn’t take it away. God could have given up on me when I said no, I wasn’t going to become a minister if I couldn’t be out.”
Reverend Brent Hawkes gives me a new definition of faith: Not giving up on God and believing that God has not given up on me. Brent Hawkes honored all of who he was and did not quit before the universe revealed to him the full impact of what he could contribute.
Thank you to Reverend Brent Hawkes: For 40 years of ministry. For not giving up on yourself, or God. For putting on a bulletproof vest to officiate the world’s first legal gay weddings. For going on a 25-day hunger strike when police raided gay bathhouses in Toronto. For advancing the cause of spirituality and LGBTQ+ inclusion so more people could be more whole and integrated and healthy and fully contributing and loving members of society.