The Rev. Jack Isbell was born in 1943 in Nashville, Tennessee where he lived for his first 11 years. His father, Noel, was a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy. His mother, Naomi, came from a strong Baptist heritage. He was baptized in March 1945 at his Aunt Ruth's church, Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Lakewood, Ohio. Jack's religious upbringing was quite eclectic. He spent time during his childhood summers in Glasgow, Kentucky, with his grandmother who was Baptist and Uncle Bill who had converted to Catholicism while recuperating at a hospital in Italy during World War II. In Glasgow, Jack was mentored by Fr. Wheatly and served as altar boy at daily mass. He attended Sunday School at Dalewood Methodist Church near his parents' home in Nashville. The family moved to several Navy sites when Jack was ages 11 to 16--Corpus Christi, San Diego, Pensacola, and Ewa Beach, Hawaii--and Jack attended Baptist, Methodist and Christian (Disciples of Christ) congregations in those cities. At age 16 he was confirmed at a Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Hawaii. Throughout these years he also continued to attend mass and light candles to Jesus and the Blessed Mother.
He graduated from Waipahu High School in Hawaii in 1961, one of only eight Haole (Caucasians) in his graduating class. He first attended Concordia College in Portland Oregon, and then received a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion from Valparaiso University in 1965. There he first attended and learned about the Episcopal Church. After college graduation, he taught elementary school in Hawaii and joined the Episcopal Church. In 1968, he enrolled in Virginia Theological Seminary and received a Master of Divinity in 1971. That same year he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church and served as a curate at Christ Episcopal Church in Clinton, Maryland. He was ordained a priest in 1972 and was on the pastoral staff of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Cathedral in Honolulu.
During seminary Jack began to question his sexual orientation. He shared his questions about his sexual orientation with his wife Darlene before they were married in 1967. Their son, John Ellis Isbell IV, was born in 1972. During his second year of seminary he began attending the Community Church of Washington, D.C., pastored by Rev. Paul Breton. After Breton attended an early conference of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and met Troy Perry, he and the congregation affiliated with MCC. Later that same year Jack, still a seminarian, met Troy Perry and showed him around Washington National Cathedral. Jack was one of the charter members of MCC/DC in 1970. As Jack gradually became more public about his homosexual identity, his bishop in Hawaii forced him to renounce in his clerical orders.
In 1973 Jack attended the MCC General Conference in Atlanta where he was licensed as an ordained minister. He pastored MCC Hawaii (1973-75) and MCC Washington, D.C. (1975-76). During this period he and the Rev. Larry Uhrig began a seven-year relationship. Uhrig succeeded Isbell as pastor of MCC/DC. For the next few years, Isbell pursued ministry with he United Church of Christ. He was re-licensed by MCC in 1982 and his ordination reaffirmed in 1985 at the General Conference in Sacramento, California.
The Rev. Isbell served as Associate Pastor of MCC Hawaii from 1983 to 1985. Then he pastored MCC congregations in northern California from 1985 to 2003: Calvary MCC in Redwood City, Russian River MCC in Guerneville, Diablo Valley MCC (which became MCC of the New Vision) in Concord, and Cathedral of Promise in Sacramento. During these years he served on the Napa Valley AIDS Project (a founding member) and Napa County AIDS Consortium. He was also one of the founding members and later president of the Napa Interfaith Council. In 2004, Isbell retired as an MCC pastor.
During his many years as MCC pastor, Isbell maintained ties with the Catholic faith. He had been consecrated as a bishop in the Essene Coptic Church (Old Catholic) by the Most Rev. Robert J. Cunningham back in 1974. In 1999 he became founding bishop of the Old Catholic Diocese of Napa and affiliated with the Ecumenical Catholic Church (ECC) and its presiding bishop Mark Shirilau. He left the ECC in 1999 and moved to Hawaii in 2003 which became his permanent home. In 2005, the Rev. Isbell and three other bishops, Kimo Keawe, Terry Flynn, and Ron Langham, formed the United Ecumenical Catholic Church (UECC). The UECC has several religious orders. Isbell became a Life Professed member of The Franciscans of the Holy Cross in 2004 and now serves as its Provincial Minister. UECC has added additional bishops and clergy to its ministry.
Isbell served as parish priest for the Sts. Francis and Clare United Ecumenical Catholic Church which held weekly Eucharist in the chapel of the University of Hawaii Student Center. Isbell also frequently officiated Mass for Dignity-Honolulu. Isbell served as a chaplain for Hospice Hawaii and was one of the grief counselors for Camp Ka Pulina Pulama, an annual bereavement camp for children. Isbell was a public advocate as a religious voice for LGBTQ justice and equality in Hawaii.
Isbell met his long-time partner, Nick Eyre, in June, 1980. Jack and Nick raised their son, John Isbell IV, who is now married to the former Lisa Yee and lives in Elk Grove, California. They have two children (Kaylin and Jayden Isbell) who are the grandchildren of Jack and Nick. Jack & Nick were married in Napa, California, on August 30, 2008, during the period when same-sex marriage was legal in that state. John was best man at the wedding.
Isbell died on November 22, 2021 at St. Francis Hospice in Honolulu.
(This biographical sketch written by Mark Bowman from information provided by Jack Isbell. Additional information from newspaper research by Lynn Jordan.)
Biography Date: June, 2009; rev. August 2022
MCC | Breton, Paul | Perry, Troy | Shirilau, Mark | Clergy Activist | Catholic (Ecumenical (EEC), United Ecumenical (UEC))
“Rev. Jack Isbell | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed January 29, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/jack-isbell.
“Today, October 17, 2015, I attended a service in which a friend of mine, Gregory Satorie-Robinson was ordained to the priesthood in the International Ecumenical Catholic Church. Rev. Jack Isbell presided, and this was the first time I had heard of him or met him. I was very impressed with his spirituality and his openness to all people - and I'm impressed with the IECC for the same reason! Thank you for your wonderful work.”
– as remembered by Barbara Larcom on October 17, 2015
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