The Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow (he/him/his), Senior Pastor and Teacher of the Metropolitan Community Church (sometimes referred to as the MCC, also known as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, or UFMCC) in Detroit, Michigan, has lived this statement out in his ministry: “In order to do anything in the world, you have to understand yourself.” A leading voice in advocacy and activism for the LGBTQ+ community from adolescents to elders, Stringfellow’s journey has led him to a spiritual life anchored in a progressive, fifty-year-old denomination. Through the establishment of The Umoja Project, he aids participants in understanding the impact of exclusion from church life and broader communities.
Born on December 6, 1968, Roland Stringfellow is the youngest of three children born to Henry and Helen Stringfellow, and has two older siblings, a brother and a sister. Through the support of his parents, Stringfellow and his siblings grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a close-knit, suburban community, sustained by the Midwestern values of faith and quality time.
With a year bracketed by the academic and liturgical calendars, Stringfellow came of age in an environment punctuated by summer cookouts, pool parties, and winter holiday parties. What he relished about these opportunities for casual intimacy were being welcomed and invited with the expectation that his presence would be noticed. He was expected; his company would be missed.
Motivated to stick close to home after graduating from high school, Stringfellow attended Indiana University, only three hours away from the town in which he grew up. He also became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. After having majored in Special Education and subsequently teaching at his former middle school, Stringfellow earned a Masters Degree in Counseling from Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne in 1997 and a Masters of Arts in Ministry from Grace Theological Seminary in 2002. Stringfellow eventually became a pastor during the 1990s at a conservative Baptist church, following a sense of call that became complexified as he learned more about himself.
Rev. Stringfellow was passionate and zealous about holy things from a young age, so the realization that he was gay while on the road for mission-based work in Venezuela seemed at the time to invalidate his sense of vocation. “Clearly, I’d misheard God,” Stringfellow said. “Because who had ever heard of a gay minister?”
Thus began a difficult period of life for the young man. Facing pressures to consider marriage seriously, he faced difficulties in his personal life. After going to his pastor - the same one who ordained him and filled the role of Stringfellow’s father in ministry - Stringfellow was told that his sexuality was a phase that would come to an end when he found a wife. As Stringfellow was spiraling into a depression, these words became wounds. They echoed anxieties from his youth that the 'thorn in his side' would never fade, ever puncturing through all of his best attempts to draw close to God and do God’s will in the world.
To reconcile his sexuality with the sense of vocation he felt in his heart, Stringfellow sought books and counseling for guidance, and attended an Exodus International conference for people who wanted 'freedom from homosexuality'. Pursuing the eradication of alleged obstacle that served as a barrier between Stringfellow and the call on his life seemed like the only way to be a holy vessel for divine work.
After these experiences and much time in prayer, Stringfellow’s desire to live into his identity was the path that promised the most peace. And so it is the one he decided to follow.
Communicating his emotional turmoil surrounding his truth, Stringfellow came out to his mother and brother in a letter that affected them profoundly and consequently experienced estrangement from his family for five years.
During that time, Stringfellow initially remained in Indiana and began to meet other out members of the LGBTQ+ community. From the lesbian who called his home and asked in coded language if he was gay, to the man into leather who indirectly helped Stringfellow become Indiana’s Leather Sir in 2003, Stringfellow formed connections that would remain embedded in his spirit. These connections remained in his heart even as he accepted an offer to study at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley, California, in autumn of 2003.
In the years between his coming out in the early 2000’s and his graduation from Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in 2006, Stringfellow earned his Master of Divinity and Certification in Religion and Sexuality, the first of which focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender spirituality.
Stringfellow found a challenging campus culture at PSR, even amidst the shock of going from being closeted to people to not caring that he was “out." Stringfellow articulates, “I had a burden to help people who struggled with their sexuality to find their path [...] I called this sacred activism.” Living into that calling, Stringfellow found Berkeley and Oakland to be good soil for him to be planted in, and time off of Holy Hill also provided an education outside of the seminary classroom.
Landmarks from his time at PSR as an M.Div. student involve community building and working towards a sense of wholeness, laying the building blocks for The Umoja Project, so named for the Swahili word meaning ‘unity.’ Among them are the connections he made with Dr Bernard Schlager (he/they). Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Studies, and Executive Director of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies at PSR, Schlager linked Stringfellow with the founder of the African American Roundtable. The Roundtable seeks “the full inclusion of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender people in communities of faith” as well as the mobilization of black faith communities in support of Social Justice for LGBTQ+ people.
Recalling it as one of his best memories of his time in seminary, Stringfellow also threw a wedding reception for the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) students. The reception was for those who decided to wed after then-mayor Gavin Newsom directed the San Francisco city-county clerk to give same-sex couples marriage licenses in 2004. “At the reception someone asked me, ‘So, when are you getting married?’ and that was the first time marriage seemed like a possibility,” Stringfellow said.
In the weeks leading up to Stringfellow’s ordination and graduation in 2006, he decided to reach out to his estranged family members so they could share in the opportunity to celebrate his accomplishments. His mother, sister, and brother traveled across the country and not only met his then-boyfriend, but also saw him walk across the stage, and receive an award for his LGBTQ+ activism. His willingness to embody the risk of vulnerability had lasting effects on his family.
It was a cookout that brought Stringfellow’s family back to a sense of wholeness. Invited by the then-Associate Pastor from MCC Sacramento to eat together in the beautiful Sacramento sunshine, the Stringfellow family came from a similar background and Roland’s sister, who is also a mother, had children of a similar age to this pastor. Perhaps it was this confluence of commonalities, but Roland’s sister stepped into a side room for a private conversation with this woman, and emerged on the other side ready to change the timbre of her relationship with her open, out, queer, activist brother. Recalling that afternoon, Stringfellow remarks, “I don’t know what they discussed, but after that, our relationship had healed quite a bit. The coldness and iciness left her eyes [...] she became the strongest advocate for me within our family.”
Roland Stringfellow at rally
In the years that followed, life brought people and opportunities into Stringfellow’s life. He began working with Los Angeles-based California Faith for Equality as the Director of their African-American faith community outreach in 2010. The following year he was elected Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s Pride Parade in June. He organized a press conference with at least 60 different faith leaders to celebrate the repeal of Proposition 8 in 2013. Stringfellow ended up going viral thanks to a well-timed photo that day and received a shout-out from Rachel Maddow. Stringfellow legally married his husband, Gerald, on his birthday in December that same year.
To all things, there is a season, according to the book of Ecclesiastes. This is true not only of joy but of grief. When Roland’s mother passed away in 2015, that event brought someone from his past into his present. His father in ministry, who rarely called him “Reverend” after he came out, didn’t acknowledge Stringfellow’s husband when the couple stood in the receiving line at the funeral. Yet, Roland didn’t hold it against him, instead reaching out when the pastor’s wife passed away a few years later and again when the pastor became hospitalized. To this day, his father in the ministry is still in contact with Rev. Stringfellow.
“Your place will be found when you follow the path of peace,” Roland says in his deliberative, quietly dynamic tone of voice. Describing how his faith practice has shifted, Stringfellow moved from a Baptist framework that sought to stifle his authentic self to a ministry that helps pastors and laity understand that they can love their LGBTQ+ community members and still be good Christians. He attributes this transformation to the power of prayer and being present.
Reading works by influential spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle is what continues to sustain Stringfellow in his current roles as the board president of Inclusive Justice (a coalition of congregations committed to LGBTQ inclusion in Michigan) and Senior Pastor and Teacher at Detroit MCC. “Being in the present, being in the now, has helped settle my heart and my spirit [...] To this day, I’m in love with Detroit and all that’s here.”
(This biographical statement written by Zebulon Hurst from an interview with Roland Stringfellow and edited by Stringfellow.)
Biography Date: January 2020