The Rev. Lewis E. Durham was director of the Glide Urban Center in the 1960s from which grew the Council on Religion and the Homosexual and other early gay ministries. Durham’s father was a pastor who worked in Methodist, Presbyterian and Southern Baptist congregations, primarily with youth or with mentoring programs connecting youth and adults. His funeral was attended by hundreds of youth gang members who were affected by his ministry. Lewis’ mother was a machinist in the War.
After serving in the Navy, Lewis attended college to become an accountant. After seminary, Lewis became a Methodist pastor and served as a Youth Organizer at Westwood Methodist Church, near UCLA. Lewis worked for eight years at the Methodist national headquarters in Nashville. During this time he began working with young adults as part of the interdenominational National Youth Organization which focused on the growing needs of young baby boomers. Through his work with the National Youth Organization Lewis helped to create a young adult project, run out of Tennessee by the National Council of Churches. The youth project created programs in metropolitan cities across the country. The San Francisco program was created because a poll of hitchhikers showed that most youth wanted to head to San Francisco.
Durham and the Rev. Ted McIlvenna were sent to San Francisco to develop the Glide Urban Center at Glide Memorial Church. Lewis primarily focused on the Council and the Foundation though he also did some work with the Mission Rebels, a local gang. McIlvenna focused on youth organizing, but also used the connections cultivated by the National Youth Organization and National Council of Churches to start the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH). When Ted and Lewis joined the Glide staff in 1962, Glide had lots of money from an endowment, but no programs. This made Glide an ideal location for the new program. An additional benefit for having the youth work at Glide, was that it had a foundation with a separate board. This separation protected the National Council of Churches, the Methodist Bishop and other congregations, when donors, congregations, the media, police and others complained about the radical ministry taking place at Glide. John Moore was the pastor at Glide when Lewis and Ted began working there in ’62. A year later Cecil Williams joined the staff and in ’64 he become the head pastor when John Moore left.
Lewis worked with the board of directors (which included the Methodist Bishop Donald Tippett) to educate them about the work they were doing in the neighborhood. This not only allowed the board to stay informed, but also enabled them to defend the ministers when conservatives, pastors, donors, press and the police tried to scandalize, defrock, arrest or shut them down. One of the many times the Glide pastors needed support was when Vanguard, a group of gay youth, had a dance in the sanctuary (which was a gathering space for lots of gay organizations). A reporter published a column in four hundred newspapers “talking about this awful thing that had happened in Glide where young men were dancing cheek to cheek.” As a result telegrams were sent by Southern bishops and conferences in Texas and Alabama to Bishop Tippett demanding that he to [sic] defrock [the Glide pastors]. The Bishop picked up the telegrams and letters and said “Lewie, you answer them. I haven’t got time.’”
Lewis remembers that Glide was harassed and tracked by both the IRS and the FBI. The IRS investigated allegations that Glide was not actually a church and the political nature of their activities. In the late 60s the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH) began having trainings for clergy, doctors, psychologists and others who were in positions to help decrease the discrimination faced by gay people at Glide. The process for the trainings was to desensitize people through the use of sexually explicit film.
At a conference for Lutheran clergy in Minneapolis the FBI seized the films and began showing them to church folk (presumably as a way to shame or scandalize CRH and the Glide pastors). After being advised by lawyers that they getting their tapes back would look bad in the press (as the names of the pornographic films would be released), the CRH clergy went to the local FBI office in robes and performed an exorcism ritual. Lewis remembers, “We were quite impressive, you know, and there’s pots swinging and we exorcised them, and said, oh, God forgives you taking our films.”
Lewis tells a number of stories [see reference to oral history interview below] about the radical ministry that was happening at Glide. The stories include: hippies; orgies; skinny dipping; preventing riots by paying off gang leaders; encouraging nonviolence at violent protests; civil rights trips to participate in the March at Selma; removing the pews and putting them out on Turk street; a bonfire in the building with nuns and bread fed to drunk passersby; a Joan Baez concert where draft cards were burned on the altar; sunrise Easter services in the streets, urban plunges for young clergy to survive the streets for 24 hours; a coffee house for youth; creating the first 24 hour shelter for runaway youth (it was illegal when it was created); and helping to found the Night Ministry.
The pastors at Glide foundation and the church saw themselves as missionaries, who did the work important to those in the neighborhood. This included working with gays, sex workers, “young chickens,” youth, hippies, gangs, drug addicts and others. Because the pastors saw themselves as missionaries or “enablers,” as Lewis called it, they listened to the people about what the issues were in people’s lives that the church needed to address. “We didn’t really decide sex is something we’re going to, you know, it came out because people said that’s an important issue. And then it became important when we found out that nobody was dealing with it.”
Lewis left Glide after ten years, when he realized he was tired of it all. He saw that each metropolitan area had a Tenderloin and that the problems weren’t going away. He also became disenfranchised by the Methodist Church's inability to handle the issues of sexuality nationally. After his experience at Glide Lewis drifted away from the Methodist church.
“In some ways, the one thing that I feel more successful about, is the fact that, you know, the Church did what it can do best and that was it endorsed and validated the gay movement. And a lot of gay movement and Pride and all that thing and self-confidence came because of the initial endorsement the Church gave to people, like you’re okay, you go ahead and do what you need to do. We’ll help you. And so you had people that would just feel better about this.”
Durham died on April 18, 2002, in Ukriah, California.
[This biographical sketch edited from a synopsis of an oral history interview with Lewis Durham written by Megan Rohrer for the Vanguard Revisited Project. The original interview was done by Paul Gabriel on July 18, 1998, and can be found at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.]
Biography Date: October, 2009
Methodist (UMC, United Methodist Church) | Council on Religion and the Homosexual | Glide Memorial United Methodist Church | Clergy Activist | California | San Francisco | McIlvenna, Ted | EXHIBIT Council on Religion and the Homosexual
“Rev. Lewis Durham | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 21, 2021, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/lewis-durham.