The Rev. Dr. Rodger DeLong Harrison was born in the Mary Imogene Bassett hospital, Cooperstown, New York, on June 16, 1928. His mother, Marion DeLong Rose Harrison, was a stay-at-home-mother in their Mount Vision, New York, house. She was born ten miles away to the prosperous hop-raising Rose Family. Blue mold and a red spider outbreak ended the hop crops for this family in 1913 and 1914. His father, Horace Mickel Harrison, was born in Filer's Corner, New York, in November 1900, but when three weeks old his family moved to Mount Vision.
Life in Mount Vision was basic but pleasant. Rodger remembers his mother starting a fire in the wood-burning kitchen stove. This stove produced hot water for the kitchen sink and the upstairs bathroom. The main roads were dirt until he was four or five years old.
One of his earliest memories was that of sitting on his father's lap in the First Baptist Church (founded in 1804). The church supported 10 a.m. Sunday school, 11 a.m. worship and a 7 p.m. evening service, sometimes called "Christian Endeavor." The church organist, Miss Delia E. Smith, lived across the street. Sometimes she was the babysitter for Rodger and his younger brother. She taught Rodger to play the piano. It was not long before he was playing the piano for the evening service.
The Mount Vision school house was a two-story wooden building that was heated by a wood stove. There were only two classrooms with grades 1-4 in one and 5-8 in the other. On a cold Sunday in the winter of 1934 the school house caught fire and burned down. The school moved into the Baptist Church where there were two classrooms on the ground floor. A new school was built. This had only one floor with 3 rooms—two classrooms and a teacher's room.
Growing up in Mount Vision was a rich agricultural adventure. In spring maple trees were tapped and the sap boiled down to make maple syrup. There was always one cow that produced milk to sell and cream for butter. The vegetable garden produced Golden Bantam sweet corn, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and peas. Frozen vegetables were unknown at that time. There was no electric refrigerator. In spite of the summer heat in the kitchen corn, peas, tomatoes and beans were steamed for up to three hours in a "Conservo" that was heated by the wood fire. There may have been a kerosene stove in another room. Rodger's mother tended the flowers. He worked in both gardens.
The Mount Vision School stopped teaching grades seven and eight so Rodger began to take the school bus four miles to the Laurens Central School. It was here that he graduated as valedictorian in 1945. There were only three men in the graduating class. All the rest were in the military.
Rodger took the exam for the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program. The family 1940 Pontiac took him and another student eighty miles to Albany, New York, for a physical exam. This passed; he was shortly on the train from Oneonta to Albany, New York City, and Newark, Delaware, where he studied three quarters at the University of Delaware. The Army told him to report to Ft. Dix, New Jersey, in the summer of 1946.
Another train trip, this time to Ft. Knox, Kentucky. After basic training he applied to go to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for paratroop training. At the last moment the company commander asked for him to stay on to help train new troops. After several months he became company clerk. Sundays were devoted to chapel services in the morning and evening. He sometimes played the organ for five services in one Sunday. Eventually he was invited to become a chaplain's assistant. It was during this time that he slowly began to hear about gay people. One of his trainees was kicked out of the service for being the passive person in an incident of oral coupling.
In spring of 1948 Rodger met two brothers who were enlisting in the Army. One had been a Marine; the other, a Navy man. The three became friends and made weekend trips to Louisville. It turned out the Marine was straight and the Navy man was gay. When it came time for them to be shipped to the Pacific the Navy man wondered if he should kiss Rodger "goodbye." It was later that Rodger fell in love with one of his chapel contacts. Even though they were separated by college and work this warm relationship survived forty-six years when separated by death.
It was in Greek History 301 that Rodger met Mary Angela Gomez Botella. She had lost a year at Hartwick College (Oneonta, New York) for Hodgkin's surgery. He had lost a year with polio. They became an "item" during their junior and senior years at Hartwick. In 1952 they packed up and drove across the U.S. in a 1949 Studebaker convertible to Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (BBDS). Mary found a job as a mathematician with the Hydrogen Bomb project at Livermore. Those were the halcyon days for BBDS. The beautiful new library and faculty buildings were completed. Students lined up to move books from the old library to the new. Berkeley Baptist sent out more missionaries than any other American Baptist Convention (ABC) school. After the first year Mary and Rodger flew back to New York and were married in the First Baptist Church of Mount Vision. Rodger had taken a course in the rural church. He wrote a paper on his hometown church in which he questioned the survival of a church based on the society of farmers. Sunday was a day of celebration for neighbors who had little contact during the week. Cows had to be milked morning and night. Worship, Sunday school, socializing, sometimes food and then evening service were all squeezed in the day of rest. Sadly the congregation voted to leave the ABC and join the breakaway fundamentalists produced by the Johnson City (New York) Bible School. When the congregation dwindled to six or eight persons, the church closed its doors and died.
The honeymoon involved a trip to the Grand Canyon and working in A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. After graduating from BBDS, Mary and Rodger headed to his first job as Associate Minister to the Rev. Dr. C. Elroy Shikles, First Baptist Church, Everett, Washington. Harrison was ordained an American Baptist clergy there in early 1956. Dr. Shikles remained a strong supporter to his death at 95 in 2007.
Catalina Baptist Church (Tucson, Arizona) called Rodger as pastor in August, 1957. The Church was only five years old and the future was bright. Through the years Mary has been treated with radiation. In Tucson Mary found a radiologist who was ready for retirement. He aimed x-rays at a tumor in her abdomen. Rodger returned to the parsonage one November evening to find Mary crying. In the bathroom was a perfectly formed baby girl who had been killed by the radiation. They went to the hospital immediately. Mary's health declined and she died on February 11, 1958. In lieu of flowers friends were ask for gifts to the pipe organ fund. Enough was received to pay for a four and one-half rank pipe organ which was installed in the multipurpose room and later moved to the new hyperbolic paraboloid sanctuary.
It was not easy to be a gay pastor of a Baptist Church from 1957 to 1964. There was very little literature on the subject of gay people in the church. American Baptist seminaries were deep in "don't ask, don't tell." Catalina Baptist grew and in summer 1964 the Foreign Mission Society of the ABC sent Rodger to Sweden where he served as Pastor to Foreign Students at the Universities of Uppsala and Umea.
In 1967 the ABC sent him to Moscow, USSR where he served as chaplain to the British and American Embassies. It was here that he learned about the Rev. Troy D. Perry and his "missionary" work with lesbian women and gay men. Mr. Perry was impressed with a postcard with a lot of Russian stamps.
Rodger served in Moscow from 1967 to 1969. He discovered that foreign students had only one place to do laundry in Moscow, a city of 8 million. He had taken a new washer and dryer to Moscow as part of his "pervi instalatci." When he invited foreign students to his seven-room apartment for a "wash in" some forty students brought their laundry. The bar was opened at five and dinner served at six. The U.S. Army provided a Hollywood film and projector. This went on every three weeks. Rodger's philosophy: the church is to serve people where they are.
From Moscow Rodger drove to Helsinki, Umea, Sundsvall, and Uppsala. It was in Uppsala that he met Hakan Peterson. It was love at first sight. They spent the summer in Spain and the winter in Solna, Sweden. Rodger did Russian Studies in Stockholm University. He worked on his book "Moscow Parish." He also had more communication with Troy Perry. Hakan arranged a charter flight to New York. His father gave them a 1967 Chevrolet and they drove to Costa Mesa, California. On July 4th, 1970, Sam Warren called Rodger with the offer of a modest apartment in Costa Mesa. The Rev. Troy D. Perry told Rodger to start a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Orange County. Rodger was the sixth clergyperson to join MCC.
Church in the world guided Christ Chapel, MCC. Rodger felt strongly that if Christ were not at the center of the new work it would fail. Hakan studied French at Orange Coast College and later at the University of California, Irvine. It was a surprise to Rodger to discover that the same programs used in the straight church also worked in the gay church. He started a "couples" dinner club and a "singles" group. Pot luck dinners were regular fixtures. All people were welcome to the worship and fellowship. One Sunday in the middle of a sermon Rodger looked to the front door and saw a drag queen struggling to get through the door with "her" dinner item and "My Fair Lady Hat." Christ Chapel started in the Costa Mesa apartment in September 1970. Rodger and Hakan lived off the offerings which ranged between $15 and $35 each Sunday. By Easter time the congregation was bulging and the group moved to the Unitarian Universalist Church. There had been fears about anti-gay prejudice in Costa Mesa but nothing serious transpired. There may have been one time when "fag" was shouted from a passing truck.
Rodger felt that he had to use everything he had learned in the church to keep Christ Chapel on a steady keel. Before the first year passed two members withdrew and started a splinter church. This died within a month and Christ Chapel continued to grow. The MCC accepted Harrison's ordination in the American Baptist Church and "laid hands" on him at the 1971 General Conference at MCC Los Angeles. Hakan went home for Christmas in 1971 and did not return to Costa Mesa. This was a great blow to Rodger because Hakan had been a strong support throughout the founding of the Church.
American Baptist Convention
Rodger maintained a tenuous connection with The American Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches of USA). At one point Christ Chapel applied to ABC for dual alignment with MCC and ABC. This was eventually refused. Ken Losh of Southern California Association of the American Baptist Churches gave Rodger the job of Chaplain at University of California, Irvine and Long Beach State for $150 per month. This helped pay for groceries and pay the rent. He was invited by Dan Carney, who was the staff for "Alternative Lifestyles" for the ABC National Ministries, to help provide a presence for gay Baptists at the ABC biannual convention held in Denver in 1972. Rodger provided a visible presence for gay Baptists at the next year's convention in Lincoln, Nebraska. He, John Preston, Bill Johnson (UCC), Louise Rose (ABC from Wayne, Pennsylvania) and Roy Birchard (MCC from New York City) represented the ABC on the National Task Force for Gay People in the Church. Somehow or other it was possible to hold a meeting for Gay and Lesbian American Baptists.
When the Southern California Association of the American Baptist Churches learned the true nature of Christ Chapel MCC, Ken Losh had to deliver a termination message to Rodger. He explained that it would be best if Rodger would resign. Rodger replied that he loved American Baptists and did not want to resign. Later he received a letter saying that ABC had no money to fund the chaplain position for 1972.
In 1971 the Kalas Agathos Foundation contacted Rodger to teach an upper division course on Human Sexuality at UCI. The foundation paid to bring in authorities in the field. Ninety-five students were exposed to the broad range of sexuality among humans.
American Baptists Concerned
In 1973, Rodger bought a home in Laguna Beach overlooking the Pacific and was still pastoring Christ Chapel. In the summer of 1973, Dan Ladue, a teacher in Plattsburgh, New York, volunteered to come to Laguna to help Harrison with the organization of American Baptists Concerned. (That name was chosen because it was felt that "Gay Baptists" was too explosive.) Dan helped start a newsletter and organize a mailing list for the new organization.
By 1976 Christ Chapel was strong enough to buy the church and two houses at 8th and Bush in Santa Ana. This building was burned by a church member and worship moved first into a rented trailer and then into the larger of the two houses.
In 1980 St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Laguna Beach, began looking for a gay priest to work as an assistant to the rector. Rodger was chosen and said goodbye to Christ Chapel in 1981. Laguna was presumed to be 20 to 30% LGBT. St. Mary's is the rare church that has passed through the gay revolution. People are accepted as people and respected.
St. Mary's didn't make the budget in 1982, so "last hired, first fired." Rodger finished writing his thesis for a D.Min at The School of Theology at Claremont. Howard Clinebell accepted him as a student. It was a time when Billy Graham had the President's ear and Jerry Falwell was pushing his anti-gay line. "Toward a Theology for Counselors of Lesbian Women and Gay Men" was only the third thesis to deal with LGBT.
Rodger sold his ocean view house in Laguna Beach in 1988 and moved to his roots and built a house near Mount Vision. In 1989 the new house burned. He took 88 year old "Cousin Mary" to Cuernavaca, Mexico and learned Spanish. For ten winters he was in Nosara, Costa Rica. He thought that he might start another church, but slowly learned that the ex-pats didn't want another church, just another bar. They now have two more bars on the beach and crimes changed to armed robberies.
Rodger left Costa Rica in 2002 and now summers above Arnold Lake, New York, and winters in Cathedral City, California. On Christmas Day 2006 Dante C. Nagtalon came for dinner. Dante and Rodger have been an item since then. Rodger is now planning his 80th birthday party. It will be celebrated at Arnold Lake and later in London, UK.
(This biographical statement submitted by Rodger Harrison, September 28, 2007)
Biography Date: September, 2007
“My partner (Gary Conway) and I met Rodger through friends, Bill Dickenson and others, while he was heading the Unitarian Universalist Church in Costa Mesa, California. We attended many of the "pot luck" dinners there. I drove him in our '67 Lincoln Convertible in the first Los Angeles Gay Parade from Gruman's Chinese Theater to Vine Street. Gary rode 'shotgun' and someone sat between us in the front seat. We had the top down with Rodger sitting up on the trunk with his feet resting on the the back seat. There were two other people who sat with him to his left and right but I don't recall their names. We had a curious crowd of onlookers and business owners standing along Hollywood Blvd. who seemed transfixed wondering what the hell was this supposed to be? A Gay Parade?
– as remembered by Carl Ljungquist on September 24, 2012