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Michael J. Hill

Biography

Michael J. Hill is a well-known and respected African-American musician in Northern California. Born on January 1, 1956, in Sacramento, California, he first - and throughout his life - learned and absorbed musicality and the love of music as life expression from his mother, a church organist. At four (4) years old, he remembers sitting next to his mother at the organ and being completely at home in the musical milieu of the Baptist church, expressing its renown, centuries long musically complex tradition of the lived life of an oppressed African people, thrown together on a continent and becoming one from many. 

Rev. Charles Hill, Michael’s father, was a U.S. Military Chaplain (rank of Captain), making Michael a “PK,” a Preacher’s Kid. His paternal grandparents were members of the Apostolic Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He says his father didn’t talk about his family and life growing up in the South, as is a common theme from that WWII generation of Black men. This dovetails with the Great Migration that was documented by Isabel Wilkerson in her seminal tome, The Warmth of Other Suns, winner of at least sixteen (16) national awards. He recently connected with a paternal aunt with whom he has spoken and hopes to visit in Memphis. 

Michael’s mother was Baptist and the church organist in their churches. She was his biggest supporter throughout his life, and they remained very close until her passing. She later adopted twin boys, Michael’s younger siblings. At the time Michael was a child, a family had to be Catholic to attend Catholic Schools, and that is why his mother converted. She came to love Catholicism and remained a devout Catholic church for the rest of her life. Michael said that this was significant in his life, and he became very active in the church himself. He was an altar boy and “loved it,” with all the ritual and ceremony: “high mass, vestments, incense, and the wine. It was fun!” It was during his teenage years that he considered going into the priesthood. However, he had high school friends who were members of the Apostolic Church, the second largest Trinitarian Pentecostal denomination. Michael “loved the spirit” in their services. 

Part of his education and worship as a Catholic child at Holy Spirit Elementary School (first through eighth grades) and Christian Brothers’ High School (Class of 1975) opened avenues of further music training. Every summer the Vatican in Rome sent an organist to tune and repair pipe organs in Catholic churches around the country. The priests in Michael’s parish hired this organist to give Michael lessons on the church’s pipe organ, an unusual opportunity for a thirteen (13) year old Black child in California. Because of this training, Michael was a rarity: a trained Black church musician who could play the piano and the pipe organ. His Bishop from the diocese in Sacramento remembered him after he had moved away as an adult and recommended him to be the first organist to play the new pipe organ in St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco: a young, Black Gay man. 

Michael’s mother, Mrs. Carrie Mae Hill, always “knew I was Gay,” and she was his protector, especially when he “came out” when he was ten (10) years old in 1966. He was bullied all through school as was and, unfortunately, still is the norm in this country. Michael said he had girlfriends but they “didn’t move me.” His father was less than understanding and had a powerful knee jerk reaction to Michael’s proclamation when he was older: he took Michael to a brothel. Michael said, “Nothing happened! What was I supposed to do?” He was attracted to boys and later, men from his earliest memories. Although his father did not approve or accept this fact, he clearly had to live with it because his wife was adamant that her first born son was going to be nurtured and protected. 

Currently, Michael is working toward completing his Master’s in Music Theory from Sacramento State University. Michael graduated from high school in 1975 and matriculated to the University of San Francisco graduating in 1979 with a BFA and BA in Music. He joined the military and played piano in the United States Army Band. For ten years, Michael traveled around the world with the band but was Dishonorably Discharged because someone “outed” him as a Gay soldier. This was long before the December 21, 1993, Department of Defense 1304.26, DADT: “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” He has decided not to appeal his discharge status. 

Following his military service, Michael drove from Virginia to Anchorage, Alaska and lived there for four years, “trying to do something different.” Playing for a Baptist Church in Alaska he enjoyed his time there. Eventually returning to Northern California, he was playing piano and organ for Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland when Betty D. Gadling, Music Minister at Allen Temple Baptist Church and a gifted musician, composer, and music director respected in Europe and the United States, came to hear him play. She offered him a position playing for Allen Temple, and he has been there for twenty-five years. He directs the young adult choir and provides accompaniment for other choirs, church services, and special productions. A significant gift of Michael is his love of African-American hymns and the traditions of the Black music. 

Michael is married to James with whom he has been together for thirty-seven years. They adopted and raised five (5) at-risk infants to adulthood, creating their family of love. He is a member of Bishop Yvette Flunder’s City of Refuge United Church of Christ (UCC) in Oakland, California. His musical career, his military service, and his love of family are well known. What caps his rise as a respected musician is three miracles of his physical survival. His family was told that it was time to let him die after a serious illness that put him in the hospital. With family and friends who love him and as a church family, Allen Temple intensely prayed for him for weeks, even as all were told that there was nothing else that could be done. Michael recovered and was back to his place at the organ a few months later. Ten (10) years ago, Michael was at a bus stop with one of his sons in a relatively upscale neighborhood after a medical appointment. A truck ran into the bus stop, hit and dragged Michael under its wheels. Michael said that he is so grateful that his son was with him: he dragged his father out from under the truck and saved his life. This too was a long recovery with severe internal and orthopedic injuries, but the day he returned to the organ at church, he was given a standing ovation. Finally, about five (5) years ago, he was sitting at the organ, leading the young adult choir and felt a pressure “like an elephant was sitting on his chest,” but he kept on playing. He said that he got home, he told no one and the pain persisted. Finally, he told James, and he was rushed to the ER: he was having a heart attack. Michael shows up every Sunday and rehearsals during the week, commuting about 100 miles by train in each direction from Sacramento County to Allen Temple in Deep East Oakland. He and his spouse exemplify gracious, grateful, loving service, and dignified self-respect. Not to give up on the Black church despite its lovelessness for their LGBTQ+ Brothers and Sisters is heroic. Many have walked away, but Michael J. Hill sums it up this way. “I love God and music. That’s who I am.” One cannot argue that it seems that God agrees and approves. Amen,

(This biographical statement written by Lani Wilson [Burnierose] for a Queer and Trans Theologies class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities from an interview with Michael Hill and was reviewed by Hill.)

Biography Date: December 2023

Tags

Baptist | Catholic (Roman) | The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) | Artist/musician/poet | San Francisco | California | Black

Citation

“Michael J. Hill | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/michael-j-hill.

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