A current member of Church of the Trinity, Jay Woodland remembers how he and his partner came to Sarasota to visit in 1979 (three years prior to the establishment of a Study Group for MCC) and had attended a worship service in “a thrift store… across from the Courthouse” marked only by “a 3×5 card which said ‘For MCC Church go around to the alley’.” They were in hiding probably because the sheriff in Fort Myers had recently shut down a group of gay worshipers who had dared to meet in the Holiday Inn.
When Jay and his partner moved to Sarasota in 1981, the “alley” group was no longer meeting, so in November a group of five or six people met at a private home on Bird Key in Sarasota, to discuss the possibility of starting a MCC in the area. These folks traveled to St. Petersburg’s King of Peace MCC and petitioned the Reverend Joseph Gilbert to support a Study Group entitled “MCC Sarasota-Bradenton.”
Meanwhile, a disillusioned Baptist clergyman, Ron Coons had attended the St. Petersburg Church, where he had heard the founding Elder UFMCC Rev. Troy Perry. Ron relates: “(Troy)… shared his personal story (and) I was overcome with a flood of emotions… As Troy preached, the ‘Call’ I had once heeded became a ‘Shout’ of ‘Ron, it is TIME. You must serve the Lord’. And just as immediately, Rev. Gilbert began talking of a place where I could invest my life – Sarasota-Bradenton.”
The Reverend Gilbert agreed and dispatched to Sarasota the Church’s first Worship Coordinator, the Reverend Ron Coons.
On Tuesday December 14 the group met at the home of Fred Grade and Stan Haidl on Bird Key under the guidance of Ron Coons and with the approval of the District Coordinator Rev. Arthur Flescher. There were 10 people in attendance and an offering of $7.00 was received. But times were still hard, and Ron came to Jay and confessed, “I’m really embarrassed, but I don’t have enough money to get back across the Tampa bay bridge.” Another collection was taken to raise $13.00 to get him home and back for the next week.
The worship services moved in January of 1982 to the Unitarian Church on Fruitville Road in a combination kitchen/ kindergarten classroom. Members found themselves sitting on chairs, on counters, and even on the sink drain boards! Music was set by a pitch pipe and sung a cappella. The Church’s first possession was an altar, a redesigned portable bar. It held all of the Church property – the Communion ware, and the songbooks. But it was what they could afford and served well until it literally fell apart five years later.
In March of 1983, Ron Coons moved to Sarasota and passed all tests in May to become a licensed Minister with UFMCC, after a year’s waiting period. The Church held their first Sunday evening meetings in the Unitarian Church’s sanctuary, where an organ and piano were available, on Easter, April 3, 1983. The offering was $135.00. They were now able to pay Worship Coordinator Ron Coons an honorarium of $50.00 per meeting. “Study Group” status was officially conferred in a ceremony at King of Peace by the Reverend Elder Jean White, along with the Reverend Mr. Gilbert. What remarkable growth in just 4 months!
At a June potluck dinner, in the “parsonage” at 3803 Carolina Avenue, the group first met as a “Study Group” in UFMCC with the name “MCC of Sarasota/Bradenton.” By August 1983, Rev. Coons was able to write: “God sent us a woman who had been in service with MCC in Miami. Because of her desire to serve, Terry Dean was set aside as a student clergy person…”
In November of 1983 Rev. Sylvia Pennington, an early pioneer in the Christian GLBT community as an ordained heterosexual woman and the author of “But Lord, They’re Gay” came to Sarasota. She held a “Kissing the Frog Seminar” for the new MCC group.
In August 1984, the Reverend Combs was called to another pastorate in Baton Rouge and Terry Dean, a student clergy, assumed leadership as Worship Coordinator. A call committee chaired by Dick Starner was formed and over 200 letters were mailed throughout the denomination. Not one response was received! The lure of the “Fun and Sun” coast didn’t help.
Terry Dean was installed as Worship Coordinator, but in May had to announce that the rented house that the group used on 3rd Street was to “be torn down in the future – 9 months to one year. The W. C. (Worship Coordinator) recommended that October 1985 be the target date for finding and moving into new facilities.”
January 8, 1985 saw MCC Sarasota-Bradenton sponsor the first successful AIDS benefit held in the area. One thousand dollars was raised and sent to the CDC in Atlanta. Putting on the fund raiser met with severe opposition. Local bar and business owners would not cooperate in the effort fearing that one establishment would profit at the expense of another. Advertising wasn’t allowed and employees and entertainers were “encouraged” not to appear at the event. Some resourceful MCC folks made a midnight raid on those bars’ parking lots and, dodging security, put flyers on car windows and door handles. On the day of the benefit the advertised show people canceled, except for one – “Crazy Carol”! Not to be stopped, Mace stepped up into the spotlight, stepped out onto the stage, did the show and saved the day. This event was probably what developed as a tradition of some length, the Follies – a glitzy amateur show that can only be done by the GLBT community!
During those early years the congregation was proud to send the Reverend Mr. Combs to General Conference in 1983 and Terry Dean to the General Conference in 1985 – a considerable accomplishment for a small Study Group of some 25 people with a “voice but no vote” status in the denomination.
Another step was that they set up a fund for the construction of a multipurpose building which could be used by the community for meetings, events and other activities. Donations were “all the change in your pocket”. The group thought that a $25 a week budget was all they could manage, so any pocket change was given for the building fund. Clint Cleveland, treasurer, would rattle a cookie tin at the end of each service as a reminder of that commitment to the future building.
In March 1985, the group left the sanctuary of the Unitarians and rented a house on 4th Street in downtown Sarasota. The reason for this move was to have their own “center” for services of worship, social events and activities. These could be held without having to conform to the availability of the rented Unitarian Church. It would also place the Church in a downtown location, thereby serving those who felt that the Unitarian Church was “too far away”. It was hoped that membership would increase, that other groups would have a meeting place, and that a coffeehouse type of ministry would serve as an alternative to the bars. Additionally, the Worship Coordinator would have a rectory. The failure of all this to occur and almost led to the demise of the Study Group.
One good thing came out of the experience; money was raised for chairs and for the Church’s first organ. Warren Geiger, the first Church organist, selected it.
A second AIDS benefit was held and $500 was raised. AIDS wasn’t as popular the second time around and eggs were tossed at those who attended the event and at the bar where it was held. The funds were given directly to help local PWA’s with food, medication and other needs. At that time the local government health agencies only knew of perhaps one or two persons with AIDS! Remember, this was in 1985!
In August, 1985, Terry Dean resigned as Worship Coordinator. The group was again without a leader and attendance fell to four people. A meeting was held to discuss closing services. Instead of closing, the Reverend Dr. Fred Williams, pastor of King of Peace in St. Petersburg, was petitioned for help. Dr. Williams gave three proposals/directives:
1. The Church would not close.
2. Bills of $1000 were to be paid.
3. King of Peace Church would provide worship leaders until a pastor was called.
The Study Group complied. First, at a meeting with 12 people in attendance $600 was raised toward the debt on the spot. Terry Dean had been working without a salary for many weeks. Additional funds were pledged. The Call Committee mailed some 200 letters again, and this time there were two respondents –neither of which decided to candidate.
Hat in hand, the group went back to the Unitarian Church and, by the good graces of God and the Unitarians, were rented a classroom with an organ. Attendance grew to about 40.
At the General Conference in 1985 in Sacramento, California, the Reverend Elder Troy D. Perry gave a speech that was crucial to the future of small churches. At the final Sunday worship service, he said in the opening quotes “Ministers who are on the staff of churches, but not pastoring, it’s time to get about God’s business! Get off your duffs and go to these places that desperately need help!” It galvanized some pastors to action.