Fallen Angel

Under the Reverend Michael Piazza, the world's largest gay and lesbian church soared, only to tumble into divisiveness and anger

Preparation for Sunday-morning services at the Cathedral of Hope resembles backstage on opening night of a Broadway production. The halls bustle with activity as volunteer coordinators and staff tick off their to-do lists. Everything must be perfect, from preparing urns of coffee to ushering in latecomers to ordering multimedia presentations that flash headlines, film clips and still images on a large screen behind the pulpit. Timing is essential. One mistake--a missed beat, a flubbed line or a crying baby--could ruin the performance.

On such a Sunday a year ago in November, minutes before taking the stage, the Reverend Michael Piazza and his assistant ministers gathered in Piazza's office to quickly review the program before taking the pulpit. As eyes scanned the script it became clear that something had gone wrong. A song the senior pastor objected to had made the playlist. It was an instrumental score that included a piece for the lowly kazoo.

A slightly comical mistake, but Piazza was apoplectic. He slammed his fist repeatedly on his desk and screamed that if one of the assistant ministers snickered, heads would roll. So help him, if just one of them deigned to clap after the recital, it would be the end of his or her career. The pastor's usual pallor had turned beet red.

People flocked by the hundreds to Cathedral of Hope to hear the sermons of senior pastor Michael Piazza.
Mark Graham
People flocked by the hundreds to Cathedral of Hope to hear the sermons of senior pastor Michael Piazza.
Attendance at Cathedral of Hope rose quickly under Piazza's leadership, before tumbling in recent years.
Mark Graham
Attendance at Cathedral of Hope rose quickly under Piazza's leadership, before tumbling in recent years.

The clergy were cowed into silence. Ten minutes later they took to the chancel, the pictures of serenity and compassion. No one could see the trembling beneath the robes.

One associate pastor who stood onstage that day had an epiphany. The church, it seemed to her, was unraveling at the seams. The gap between what the congregation saw and what took place in boardroom meetings was widening. As church leadership dissolved into bitter squabbles, attendance declined, as did donations. And what was intended to be the church's crowning jewel, the grand cathedral that had been six years in the making, was no closer to breaking ground.

Nearly a decade earlier ministers had stood before a couple of thousand congregants instead of several hundred. Back then, people came in droves to hear the renowned pastor whose sermons were a mix of the literary and the liturgical; a pastor who was known for bringing to life the stories of saints and sinners, their deeds spun with a mix of radical queer theory, old-fashioned morality and gentle, self-deprecating humor--all told with a lilting Southern twang. People drove from miles around to listen to the message of a brilliant orator and visionary: Michael Piazza.

It was a time of tremendous growth and giving. The church needed more buildings, more pews, more parking spaces, more clergy and more services. Money was heaped upon the donation plates. Easter services were standing room only. At its pinnacle, the cathedral implemented a regular third-Sunday service.

To top it off, Piazza had plans to build a massive cathedral designed by premier architect Philip Johnson, the so-called dean of American architecture whose stark modernist style spawned a movement and can be seen in such buildings as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and Pennzoil Place in Houston. The church was glory-bound, but something went terribly wrong.

Of those present for worship that November morning in 2002, few knew of or suspected the battle that lay ahead. The church was hemorrhaging members and operating far in the red. Employees were quitting the church on an average of one every six weeks, and people were beginning to speak openly about what's been whispered about for years--that Piazza's personal life hardly befits that of a man of God. And as for the Philip Johnson cathedral, former church leaders say it probably never will be built and allege that the church has, in fact, misused some funds earmarked for the building.

Piazza soon would find himself under attack when members of his congregation initiated a clerical investigation accusing him of financial mismanagement, insurance fraud and abusive leadership. The investigation would end with the cathedral's separation from the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the umbrella denomination to which the cathedral belonged. The MCC acts as an overseeing organization and provides spiritual and material assistance to churches that primarily target the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.

The Dallas Observer interviewed more than a dozen former church members and clergy and reviewed many of the church's internal documents. Together, they describe how one man's ambition divided the world's premier gay and lesbian church.

Rain Maker

The Cathedral of Hope has come a long way from its humble beginnings when a group of 12 friends met in 1970 to discuss forming a church that would embrace the gay and lesbian community. During that first year, meetings were rotated among the friends' homes until the newly credentialed church was established in a run-down neighborhood on Ross Avenue. Over the next several years, membership exploded as word of the openly gay church spread. In just six years membership had grown from 40 to more than 400, and the congregation found a larger sanctuary on Reagan Street in the Oak Lawn neighborhood.

The Reverend Don Eastman served as minister to the church for 10 years. For years he divided his time and attention between the church and its parent organization, MCC, until he could no longer serve two masters and resigned in 1986 to fulfill his obligations as an elder in the denomination, a supervisory position not unlike a bishop.

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