The Rev. Howard Ray Wells was born in 1944 in Houston, Texas, to Virginia and Ray Wells. He attended Houston public schools and a Southern Baptist church. He earned a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He was commissioned into the U.S. Naval Reserve and served as the electrical officer on board the U.S.S. Canberra in the Vietnam war zone. As he came to understand himself as a gay man, he began attending a Unitarian church. While stationed in San Diego, he first visited the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles in April 1969 when the congregation had moved from Troy Perry's home to the Huntington Park Women's Club.
In a sermon given to the Houston MCC congregation in 1976, Wells recalled that on his first visit to MCC-LA he was impressed that about 50 persons were in attendance. He was skeptical of religion but intrigued by the dynamic leadership of the Rev. Troy Perry. Toward the end of the service, three police officers in uniform entered and walked through the room in an act of intimidation. After learning that this raid was instigated by an anti-gay Councilman, Rev. Perry told the congregation that he intended to volunteer for the opposing candidate in the upcoming election. As a protest against the police raid, Wells also enlisted in this this political campaign--which initially appeared hopeless against a strong incumbent. However, the opposition candidate pulled off a major upset winning 55% of the vote. Wells remarked that "On that day, I became a Christian!"
Wells was honorably discharged from active duty as a Lieutenant in November 1969 and moved to San Francisco. He continued to attend MCC Los Angeles almost every week via the then-popular and inexpensive Pacific Southwest Airlines. Tiring of the long and costly church commute, he invited a couple of San Francisco friends, who also attended MCC-LA, to help organize a congregation in San Francisco. On April 29, 1970 they held their initial worship service with about a dozen persons in a room above Jackson’s Bar, on Jackson Street near Polk Street, the predominant gay neighborhood at the time. MCC San Francisco was the first MCC congregation in the Pacific Northwest. The congregation soon outgrew this space so in June they began renting a larger room in California Hall. Shortly thereafter the congregation boldly planned a Spiritual Renewal service featuring the Rev. Troy Perry which drew around eight hundred persons.
Following this revival service, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter called Wells for an interview. The following morning (Monday) there was a front-page article about this new gay congregation being led by Wells. Wells recounted the aftermath in a 1987 homecoming sermon at MCC SF:
"I went to my office--everybody had their head down--reading the paper; knowing full well I was there but wasn't saying anything and I said (to myself), 'Well, I am not going to let the 'axe fall'--I am going to 'beat him to the punch!' I went to my Boss and said, 'Have you read the paper?' and he said, 'no, not yet.' So I told him what was going on--and he was a wonderful man (I was a telecommunications engineer) and he said, 'Look, we hired you to do a job--and you do it fine. We have no problems as long as you don't bring your personal life--involved with the company.' So I thought that was pretty generous and thought, 'Well, the president of the company may look at it differently.' I made an appointment with him that afternoon and I walked into his office and basically he told me the very same thing! It was just tremendous! Six months later I walked into a gay bar and there the president of the company was sitting there with a drink!"
Within a year of its founding, MCC San Francisco had 400 in attendance. Wells was called by the congregation to be its full-time pastor as of April, 1971. However, Howard--who had no theological training or ministry experience at that point--felt overwhelmed, especially due to strife with his assistant pastor, Alice Naumoff. So Howard resigned from the pastor position as of October 31, 1971. Fortunately, he had attracted to the congregation people who made up a very competent board of directors, including several people who would go on to long years of service in MCC, including Austin Amerine, Michael Mank and others. Under Howard’s leadership, Rev. James Sandmire had begun a congregation in Oakland. Sandmire would succeed him in the San Francisco pulpit.
The MCC Board of Elders sent Wells to New York as a missionary, where several local citizens had been in communication with Rev. Perry’s office about starting a church. In January 1972, Metropolitan Community Church of New York held its first worship service. In autumn of 1973, Howard resigned as pastor of MCC New York and entered the M. Div. program at the Union Theological Seminary where he flourished, working under Professor James Cone, the well-known liberation theologian. Wells organized Union’s first LGBT caucus. Possessing a natural gift for theology, he became a champion of “gay theology” and was a leading proponent of it via the nationally-expanded publication of MCC New York, The Gay Christian. During his time as a Union Seminary student, Howard began an MCC congregation in Brooklyn Heights where he developed a theologically-astute educational program which attracted a number of like minds.
Following seminary, Howard became the pastor of MCC Atlanta, Georgia from 1976 to 1978. Then he returned to Houston and founded the MCC church in Galveston. In 1982 he was appointed Minister of Christian Education at the Resurrection MCC Church of Houston. In September 1985, he resigned his clergy status and affiliation with MCC. He then joined with some other MCC expatriates to form an experimental Christian community, known as Kingdom Community Church.
In March 1987, Wells was diagnosed with HIV and had a lengthy illness and hospital stay. He died from AIDS-related causes on September 9, 1989 at the age of forty-two.
(This biographical statement written from information provided by Roy Birchard and Lynn Jordan and records from MCC-SF.)
Biography Date: September, 2010
MCC | Perry, Troy | Clergy Activist | U.S. Military | Wells, Howard
“I decided when I entered Union Seminary in 1973 that I would be “out” as a lesbian (graduated with M.Div. in 1977). I was not trained in debate and I hated, did I say HATED debating. At that time, seminary was the worst place someone could decide to be honest if they were a lesbian or a gay man. Fortunately, during my first year Howard was also a first-year M.Div student. He was the first openly gay person admitted as a student there – as far as I know. He started the first gay, lesbian, bi, whatever, support group at Union. I have to say it was our shelter in the storm. I had a Southern Baptist knocking on my dorm door for me to explain why I was a lesbian. I did not feel safe. He said if I was with my partner for the rest of my life, he would believe that God approved of gays and lesbians. I had no place to go except to a few friends and the group that Howard started. God bless Howard. What a wonderful person he was and I picture him entertaining everyone in heaven as he was quite the storyteller and always such a loving person.”
– as remembered by Ada Harrigan on April 14, 2016
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