The Rev. Charles Lewis was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1931. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, leaving to spend two years in the U.S. Army from 1953-1955. He graduated from Gettysburg College and the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary in Maywood, Illinois. During seminary, he served as an intern with the Luther League of America and subsequently was elected to the staff as an Associate Secretary of that youth service agency.
During a period of denominational merger, Lewis left the national church staff position to become the assistant pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1961. He resigned that position in 1963 and was assigned by the Lutheran Board of American Missions to develop a mission congregation in the North Beach area of San Francisco. The appearance of a Life magazine article about the Jumping Frog, a gay bar in San Francisco, prompted Lewis’ supervisor to suggest that he explore this ministry area further because the church had no relationships with homosexuals.
Lewis arrived in San Francisco in early 1964 and initiated the North Beach Mission. Around this time, an ecumenical group of urban ministers in San Francisco, led by Bill Grace (Presbyterian) and Bill Black (Lutheran), were completing a study of services available to city residents during nighttime hours. Their conclusions that few such public services were available led to the formation of the Night Ministry. A pilot program, supported by seven denominational groups, was developed in 1963 and the Night Ministry was officially launched in the fall of 1964. Developing relationships with young homosexuals was a key element of this crisis ministry. Lewis became a part-time assistant to the first Night Minister, Don Stuart (United Church of Christ). After 12 years of part-time service, Lewis became the full-time Night Minister in 1976.
Also in 1964, an early summer retreat, convened by the Rev. Ted McIlvenna (United Methodist) from the Glide Foundation Young Adult Project, brought together an ecumenical group of clergy and gay/lesbian persons for dialogue. Out of this retreat the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) was organized. Although he was not present at the initial retreat, Lewis was asked to be a clergy representative on the constituting board of this organization and served on the board for 10 years.
As one of the early leaders of CRH, Lewis was present at the Mardi Gras Ball at California Hall on January 1, 1965. The blatant police harassment of the homosexual participants in this gala event that was a benefit for CRH led Lewis and other CRH clergy to hold a press conference the following morning to express their outrage at the police and city officials. The widespread media coverage of their press conference and other reactions to this incident spurred the development of the gay and lesbian rights movement in the San Francisco Bay area.
Lewis organized the San Francisco chapter of Lutherans Concerned at the North Beach Mission in 1974. Lewis was one of the more than 40 clergy who ordained openly gay and lesbian Lutheran ministerial candidates Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart in 1990.
(This statement written by Mark Bowman from an interview with Chuck Lewis done by James Waller on October 2, 1994, with additional information provided by Chuck Lewis.)
Biography Date: March, 2005
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) | Frost, Ruth | Johnson, Jeff | Zillhart, Phyllis | Council on Religion and the Homosexual | Reconciling Works (formerly Lutherans Concerned) | Clergy Activist | New Year's Ball (San Francisco) | California | San Francisco | Lewis, Chuck | EXHIBIT Rolling the Stone Away | EXHIBIT Council on Religion and the Homosexual