By Jim Schutze
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Although national and international attention is certainly a part of the motivation for the new Cathedral of Hope, Piazza insists that his pursuit of Johnson and his desire to build a grand church is not just a matter of ego.
"I wouldn't need to have Philip Johnson build our new cathedral if all I wanted was publicity," Piazza notes. "The Cathedral of Hope and I have already been covered by almost every major newspaper in America, and several papers overseas, just because of who we are and the region where we're located. The goal here was to build something that would last longer than a 30-second Superbowl commercial. People don't tend to donate large sums of money to media campaigns, but they love the idea of contributing to great architecture. We wanted to build something so when people thought about lesbians and gays, they'd think 'great church architecture' first instead of [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell's The Gay Agenda."
But might the $20 million Piazza proposes for what he calls a "psychological center for gay and lesbian Christians around the world" be better spent elsewhere? AIDS Resource Center board member David Taffett, incoming president of the board of Beth El Binah, the largest lesbian and gay synagogue in the Southwest, says that's not really an issue.
"To be honest, I'd love to have $20 million to spend on more AIDS services," Taffett confesses. "But would that extra $20 million have come in for anything besides Cathedral of Hope? Probably not. Donations to the AIDS Resource Center have not slacked off since the Cathedral started its campaign, and they offer a variety of AIDS-related services themselves, independent of us. It's not like all the money they get pours into this proposed building. They put a lot of money back into the community too."
The community has responded in kind. Membership in the Cathedral of Hope has grown from 600 when Piazza arrived in 1987 to a current list of 2,639. Randy Sprayberry, director of development at Cathedral of Hope, has been an employee there for eight years and a member for more than 10. He says that while Piazza's mixture of the ancient and the contemporary in his sermons attracted members, much of the growth is an issue of timing. The terror of HIV brought a desperate need for community, and the grieving from mass deaths needed a spiritual outlet.
"One of the things Reverend Piazza has always emphasized in his sermons is service," Sprayberry notes. "And this is a community primed to have that sanctified, with women and men attending to so many dying because family or other churches wouldn't. That, combined with the fact that Piazza is a real professional. He takes great pains to put together well-thought-out, well-executed services. He doesn't quote harsh passages in King James language, but compares Biblical text to today and reminds us that these stories were about people."
If the Johnson cathedral is intended to stand as the timeless monument that Piazza hopes, the current building at Inwood and Cedar Springs looks and feels a lot more intermediate. Maybe it's because of that peculiar mixture of religious and secular imagery distributed throughout the sanctuary. The political symbols in the mix might be called the fingerprints of activism left on an institution. It seems an inversion of fundamentalist activism; the religious right, by the admission of some current dissenters in the ranks, has "politicized Jesus" and appropriated multi-thousand-year-old texts like Leviticus for political ends. Cathedral of Hope, meanwhile, has taken contemporary political symbols -- the African kente cloth, the iris, the pink triangle, the same-sex gender symbols -- and used them for spiritual ends.
"We took secular symbols and baptized them," Piazza admits, "because there are no religious symbols right now that feel inclusive to gays and lesbians. Our purpose was to bring together spirituality and sexuality. You might come one Sunday and never hear the 'L' or 'G' words, but we wanted there to be reminders that although anyone is welcome, this is a predominantly lesbian and gay congregation."
Informing the world that homosexuals can be Christians too is only part of the message Piazza hopes to promote with his church. He also wants to nudge other denominations toward serving their communities better. He claims that ministrations to the poor and needy are not high on the list of the Southern Baptists, among other large local denominations.
Messengers at the just-ended Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta acknowledged the need for more evangelical work in major U.S. cities. That admission comes as the ranks of conservative Christian leaders are split, with many questioning whether it's time to abandon the political goals set by the religious right and return to community ministering.
How deeply disillusioned the religious right has become with the political process was abundantly clear several weeks ago, when Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich appeared on television's 60 Minutes with far-right presidential candidate Gary Bauer. These two veteran right-wing activists were pitted against each other in a bitter debate over the future of religious conservatism.
The program focused on the recently released book Blinded by Might, written by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and minister and former Jerry Falwell assistant Ed Dobson. The book, like the groundbreaking Washington Post essay written by Weyrich that preceded it, essentially conceded that the religious right had lost the culture war. Weyrich's disgust with public ambivalence over the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and its appetite for violent and sexual entertainment led him to declare that the American culture had become so "debased" that conscientious religious conservatives should pull out of the political process (though not refrain from voting) and concentrate on saving individuals soul by soul. Weyrich went on to suggest that one of the seminal institutions of the religious right, his own Moral Majority, should close up shop.
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