First Church Celebrates its LGBTQ Allies
“Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This was a small headline buried in The New York Times on July 3, 1981. The rare cancer spread rapidly in the early 1980s, mainly within the gay communities in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These gay urban enclaves were largely responsible for the burgeoning LGBTQ civil rights movement that had coalesced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which focused primarily on employment protection and overturning laws which criminalized LGBTQ relationships and permitted harassment of that community by law enforcement. As the gay cancer spread, the movement pivoted to saving lives.
In 1991, Rev. Jack Shriver was pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Concord, California. “I was focusing my ministry on ‘Jesus, the Prince of Peace’ in those days,” said Jack of his time in the pulpit there. “The first Persian Gulf War was just gearing up, and people seemed too excited about the prospects of war and victory.” By 1991, the gay cancer had been identified as AIDS, the final, lethal stage of an HIV infection. Becoming infected with HIV was a death sentence, and in the ten years between the New York Times’s first reporting of the new disease to 1991, the AIDS pandemic had taken 102,551 lives, according to the CDC. Actual deaths were significantly higher, as many victims of the disease refused to allow the diagnosis to stigmatize them, or “out” them as homosexuals. For many of those who died, funeral services often had the feel of a protest rally.
The Concord City Council had passed an employment protection measure in 1988. The measure specifically offered job protection to those infected with HIV AIDS. But voters overturned the protection measure in 1989, and by 1991, the measure was back on the ballot. “I received a phone call from a woman – I don’t remember her name,” said Jack. “Her son had just died of AIDS, and she was looking for a facility large enough to accommodate the memorial.” Knowing that the memorial would in part be a civil rights meeting, Jack demurred. “We spoke for about ten minutes, and I tried to persuade her all of the reasons that we wouldn’t be a good facility for her. When our conversation had reached in impasse, she told me ‘My son was discriminated against his whole life, now he’s being discriminated against in death.’ It was like a sword to my heart.”
“I took council from a member of the congregation whom I respected, and she persuaded me to reach back out and extend an invitation,” said Jack. “By this time our roles had changed, and it was I who was pleading with her to hold the memorial at First Pres. The memorial was held, and officiated by the pastor of First Christian Church, who did a fabulous job honoring this young man’s life. I was invited to participate in the service. At the conclusion of the service, we all walked to the square, just a block away, for more remarks. Balloons were released. It was a very moving event.”
“As I walked back to my office, I was approached by a woman,” said Jack. “She asked if I would write a letter offering my public support of the employment protection ballot measure, which I agreed to do. I wrote my letter on church letterhead, and then the trouble started.” The letter resurfaced at the annual congregational meeting. Members of the congregation, upset at having the church associated with a gay-AIDS memorial, and upset that their pastor took a public stance without their backing attempted to have Jack fired. “The attempt failed, a slim majority of the congregation wished me to stay on,” said Jack. But the Presbytery did not offer similar support, and the Committee on Ministry (which oversees pastor’s relationships with their congregation) did not support Jack’s actions. “I felt like I was answering God’s call and doing the right thing,” said Jack. “What, did God talk directly to you?” rebuked one of his colleagues. It was clear to Jack that the congregation did not wish to be defined by its stance, or lack thereof, on this civil rights issue, or on his actions, so Jack resigned.
“It was demoralizing. I was really depressed for months afterward. It took a long time to heal,” said Jack. “I didn’t consider myself a liberal at the time. I didn’t have any personal exposure to the LGBTQ community, but I knew that I had done the right thing for them. That letter really felt like the nail in the coffin of my career at First Pres.”
Jack went on to interim pastor ministry and served at First Church twice, from 2000 – 2003 and again 2009 – 2013. He is currently retired from ministry, though remains active within the Presbytery. He preached as pulpit supply for several weeks following the resignation of Pastor Debra Avery in 2017. On one such Sunday a protestor stood outside the church with a sign which read “WHO WILL JESUS DAMN?” (pictured front cover). The sign condemned the LGBTQ community and those who support it. Jack confronted the man, who soon left.
Taking risk is at the core of following Christ. Peter, a fisherman, was asked by Jesus to “put down your net and follow me,” giving up his security, comfort, and livelihood for the hardship and eventual sorrow of following Christ. He is regarded as the rock upon which the church stands. Jack Shriver answered that call as well, ironically putting down the net of his own career as a pastor and answering the call to be a minister of Christ’s compassion and justice to a community that was being ravaged by death and discrimination.