Rev. Jim Lewis Sees Remarkable Social Change in W. Va.

Nov 18, 2014

Rev. Jim Lewis

For decades, the Reverend Jim Lewis has been making headlines in Charleston. He's an outspoken progressive in a conservative state. He's known for his efforts to help poor people and his fights against racial injustice -- and for his support for gay families. This weekend, Lewis received a Faith Leadership Award from Fairness West Virginia, a group that promotes LGBT rights. He spoke with producer Trey Kay.

Trey Kay: Reverend Jim Lewis came to Charleston in 1974, to be rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. He wanted the church to have an open door policy – to be a sanctuary. And he says gay people began coming to him, looking for that sanctuary:

Jim Lewis: They wanted a place where they could sit and talk. The guy that came to me was a speechwriter for the governor, he was playing the folk mass at the Catholic church, he knew that if he came out, he would lose both those positions. He wouldn’t be playing the guitar anymore at the Catholic church. He wouldn’t be writing speech writing for the governor. That was the 70s,  wouldn’t have happened! And they had their own personal problems with one another, way they relate to one another as closeted people and they wanted to talk about that in a safe setting, and so the church provided that safe setting.

Trey Kay: Did you just give them a room, and then they went in there and talked, or did you sit and talk with them?

Jim Lewis: Well, I gave them a room -- we were giving the room to everybody. This was my ministry, to open up the church doors to everybody, and so sure, come on in. They asked me if I’d sit in on some of the meetings, and I said well, sure, I need to learn, I’d be glad to sit in and I did. So they trusted me and they came to me and then finally, two couples came to me on their own, two women and two men and said they would like me to bless their relationship.

By the way, God could’ve given me an easier situation. The women, one of them had a child. Oooh! The male couple, one of them was white, one of them was black. Could have been easier! It was a challenge.

Trey Kay: What was the problem with the woman with the child and –

Jim Lewis:  Well, the women, in those days, you see, this was in the 70s, gay people weren’t supposed to be trusted around any children. Some of those attitudes are still with us. But remember, in those days, to have a couple, married, two women, and raise a child without a man? This could be very dangerous, and this was not the way God intended. That was the way we were being told by strong religious force in this country.

So I took them in the church, separately, two separate events, and took the service, the marriage service and I revised it in some ways so that it would fit them, and they took the vows, they kissed and then we had a little champagne or something and that was it.

Trey Kay: Lewis says the church’s governing committee was shocked and some of his parishioners were kind of traumatized.

Jim Lewis:  “Are we gonna be able to pay the bills and keep the church open, Jim I know you welcome these people in, but you know we may not have a church here with all these people and with this gay stuff, this might be the end of the world, the sky may be falling in on us here at the church.” This is something, you know, it’s better not to talk about it. It’s better – I phrase it this way – it’s better that we keep this in the closet.

Trey Kay: Lewis says the marriages weren’t legal – the state didn’t allow that back then. But the relationships lasted.

Jim Lewis: As far as I know their relationships went on for a number of years after the blessing. It’s amazing they went on at all. They had to hide. I used to think, you know, I’ve been married to a woman for 55 years. What would it be -- I used to think this thought to myself. What would it be if I couldn’t take her to a party, if I couldn’t hold her hand, if I couldn’t kiss her in public. And that’s where we were in the 70s. What a hell of a situation that is. Real hell.

Trey Kay: When I first learned of you as Jim Lewis, when I first learned who you were, you were the guy who married the queers. How did that feel? That was my perception. Did that sting a little bit? How does that feel?

Jim Lewis: Well, whenever you’re called a name, the Christian tradition teaches me this – again, it’s something I had to learn, my feet planted in it – count it as a blessing. You want to call me a lover of queers, I do love queers. Thank you. Thank you. But count it a blessing and understand that they’re calling me that because they don’t understand me. They may not even understand the gospel message if they’re yelling it from the pulpit.

I think there’s a friendly attitude here now about gay people in West Virginia. We certainly have our demons to fight, this is not a progressive battle that it’s over with and now we can celebrate. It’s going to – racism and sexism and classism and militarism they continue to bounce up like demons and we have to fight them when they come up. And so the battle’s not over, but I tell you when I see a headline in the paper that the first gay couple have been married here in this state, the size of that print on the Daily Mail newspaper here which is a fairly conservative paper,  is the same size that you see when a war is over. I mean, the war is over! And you see these big, bold, black letters. I said, “Oh, my God, I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.” They were ready to hang me back in the 70s, and now I never thought I’d see this kind of change.  It’s been remarkable, remarkable social change.