Calm and sincere, the sermon washed across the pews and echoed off the back wall of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mount Pleasant.
Zachary Dearing was transfixed. The Central Michigan University sophomore watched and listened as his uncle, an openly-gay ordained priest, was changing the face of their faith.
“He’s a gay priest,” Dearing said. “Most denominations do not ordain gay ministers of any sort. If I was breaking ground in a profession that has been traditionally hostile to me, I would have gone insane by now.”
Dearing moved to Mount Pleasant in January 2011 to live with his mother’s brother, Harry Kelley, and his husband – the Rev. Wayne Nicholson,65. He found the pair’s sexuality to have little baring on their innate spirituality.
The 23-year-old came to town from Virginia to attend CMU and work through his attention deficit disorder and autism. Three years later, the couple has helped Dearing immensely with spiritual advice and even prioritizing his classes.
“I don’t know what to say to emphasize how grateful I am for their guidance and advice,” Dearing said. ”They’ve helped me with every aspect of my life.”
Nicholson began serving as rector, managing the daily operations at St. John’s, in 2006. Before that, he worked in and eventually left a parish in upstate New York, where he began performing same-sex marriages between 2003-04.
He and Kelley have found peace of mind in their new home, despite a chaotic past. The couple said they’ve faced rejection, and violence for their beliefs.
“We’ve had people throw rocks through our windows before,” Kelley said. “Some people are just insane.”
Besides his duties as priest at St. John’s, Nicholson meets with non-members for counseling sessions on topics ranging from substance abuse to suicide.
“My experience as a gay man and a recovering alcoholic inform my spiritual life, but also how I relate to those going through those issues,” Nicholson said. “I’ve helped a lot of kids who are feeling left out, marginal or unaccepted for who they are.”
Nicholson was initially rejected from priesthood when he applied to the clergy at a church in California in 1976.
He said the rejection was because of his sexuality, and for the next 16 years, Nicholson took a hiatus from the church while he struggled with drug addiction.
“I was turned down because I was gay,” Nicholson said. “I wasn’t comfortable being publicly gay. I got too busy drinking and drugging. I had other priorities besides the Church.”
It was during a group therapy session that Nicholson was reintroduced to the idea of joining the clergy and becoming dedicated to worship. A friend going through the same recovery program urged Nicholson to come to their church, where he felt welcome and at home.
Nicholson was able to find a measure of acceptance in his denomination, although some have challenged his place within the Church.
“The Episcopal Church is very open to opinions,” Nicholson said. “Some are very conservative and think I’m very inappropriate, but the official stance is that there are no barriers. We were slower in ordaining women than gay people.”
Returning to the Church in 1994, Nicholson entered seminary studies in 1999. He was ordained at an Episcopal church in upstate New York in 2002, where he served for four years.
“I was ready to leave the church I was in,” Nicholson said. “It was just too small. There’s also a difference between being gay and single, and being in a relationship. I didn’t want to throw the parish into a fit.”
After marrying Kelley in 2008 in Michigan, Nicholson maintains that while the marriage isn’t legal, the couple is married “in the eyes of God.”
Their relationship evolved from online conversations to a 2005 meeting on the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The pair looked for solace in the slower pace of a smaller town.
After Kelley poured over online profiles for Episcopal churches for Nicholson to work at, they settled on Mount Pleasant for its progressive and relaxed culture.
“There were a lot of places we wouldn’t go because of the politics,” Kelley said. “(Mount Pleasant) wasn’t boilerplate. It wasn’t outrageous or super progressive, but it was careful.”
Nicholson was impressed with the parish’s immediate acceptance of his relationship with Kelley.
“They invited me out to see the place, but normally they’d invite the wife, too,” Nicholson said. “Before I could say anything, they asked for Harry to come out too. We all fell in love with each other.”
Activism for peace
Kelley remembers living in San Francisco during the dawning of the gay rights movement.
He remembers when Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual politician elected to office, was assassinated and the streets came alive with protest.
He even remembers when AIDS threatened the gay community, and he traveled from house to house checking on the afflicted and finding many who died in silent anonymity.
“When AIDS came, it was like a plague you read about in textbooks,” Kelley said. “There wasn’t room in the hospitals. We were there for people who had nowhere to go. Many of their families had rejected them.”
Nicholson suffered many injuries during his career. He was beaten unconscious and called offensive names aimed at his sexuality.
Although the church has yet to fully accept homosexuality, he said it will soon have no choice.
“There are a lot of gays in the church,” Nicholson said. “I think we have become a society that is so involved in opinions that we’ve stopped seeing how complex life is. We’re more comfortable with answers, rather than questions.”
Living in California and New York for 15 years each before coming to Michigan, Kelley and Nicholson have found a new kind of peace in the quieter, less-political pace of Mount Pleasant.
“There’s kind of a spontaneous activism to the bigger cities,” Kelley said. “When an issue comes up, there are people in the street showing support. We don’t have those big political issues here.”
Coexisting in a more spiritual community, Kelley plans on spending his later years self-reflecting and finding time to relax with Nicholson.
“When you’re an activist, you are always finding yourself in a fight or flight mentality,” he said. “What’s good in a Christian community is you can sit and look at yourself reactively. As I enter my golden years, I can begin to look inside.”
A family of faith
Before coming to Mount Pleasant with his uncles in 2011, Dearing found himself struggling to cope with multiple mental health conditions.
Suffering from severe attention deficit disorder, and a mild form of autism that has been compared to Asperger’s Syndrome, the conditions have put Dearing through difficult challenges at colleges in Vermont and Virginia.
He came to live with Nicholson and Kelley in the hopes of finally addressing the issues, and moving on with his life.
“I decided I needed to deal with my disability and work on it,” Dearing said. “Harry and Wayne offered to help. They’re kind of part of my support team. I’m doing very well now.”
Dearing started at CMU with just one class per semester. This year, he’s been taking two classes and hopes to add a third in the fall, giving credit to his uncles for his increasing academic success.
“They are immensely helpful in strategizing and solving problems,” he said. “I’m not so great at that sometimes.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Nicholson’s career, Dearing is happy to recognize his uncles as both mentors and friends.
In his nephew’s eyes, Nicholson is most impressive in his unwavering dedication to his profession, against the many challenges he has faced.
“It is still really contentious with the other priests, but he has cordial relations with the other clergy in town,” Dearing said. “Some are just polite enough, but he has never complained about it and that amazes me.
“It inspires me to work harder.”