Edifice complex

Walk into the Cathedral of Hope during Sunday services, and the first thing you will likely notice is the number of couples holding hands as they worship together -- women locking fingers with women, men with other men. They do so rising and sitting, singing, and approaching the altar to take communion. They seem especially determined to maintain this connection in a house of God.

Next, your eyes might turn to the windows above and on either side of the pulpit. The stained glass glows with images of intertwined gender signs -- male with male, female with female -- the Spanish word esperanza (hope), an African ceremonial cloth, and an iris, a symbol of lesbian sexuality. The altar is a pink marble triangle -- the insignia worn by lesbians and gays gassed in Nazi death camps.

Symbols are clearly important at this church, located beneath the flight path to Love Field at Cedar Springs and Inwood Road. Indeed, they rise almost to the level of fetishes, flashing out messages of inclusion, diversity, and sexuality alongside traditional Christian images.

Then there's the man in the pulpit, a breathing, preaching example of the blend of the traditional and contemporary that rules at the Cathedral of Hope. This Sunday, the Rev. Michael S. Piazza mixes Catholic and Protestant styles as he delivers his sermon in a soothing Georgian lilt. Blond and elfin, he strolls lightly from one side of the stage to the other, and he can't help but toss a little evangelical urgency into the mix. But more often, his voice is filled with humility, its strains plaintive, imploring, even self-deprecating -- qualities not typically associated with sermons delivered with Southern accents.

You also don't expect to hear a preacher's Dixie drawl discussing, say, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Piazza is famous for playing pop culture off Christian doctrine and vice versa. "I want a raise of hands to see how many people skipped work to see the new Star Wars on opening day," he asks the assembly. "And keep in mind that even in this church, lying is a sin."

Cathedral of Hope is a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation, and with 2,700 members, it's the largest in the world. It's affiliated with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the international denomination of lesbian and gay churches based in Los Angeles.

Since the 44-year-old Piazza arrived in Dallas 12 years ago to become resident pastor at Cathedral of Hope, the church's membership has quadrupled and its influence as a ministry and as a political and religious icon has gained international attention. Now, Piazza is preparing to extend its influence by building a grand symbol cast in concrete -- the new Cathedral of Hope. He is the primary spokesman to raise money for a project that's his brainchild -- a 2,300-seat, $20 million edifice designed by 92-year-old Philip Johnson, considered America's most famous living architect.

Piazza's plan comes at an ironic juncture in the troubled relationship between gays and organized religion. Leaders of the religious right are retrenching, withdrawing from politics, struggling with schisms in their ranks. Then there's Piazza, author of a book called Rainbow Family Values, who is attempting to domesticate and institutionalize gay and lesbian life through a network of church programs that deal with relationships and parenting, prayer fellowship, counseling work, and community-service programs.

The power of presiding over a huge church institution has won him national exposure for everything from excoriating the Republican's top presidential contender to successfully suing a cable superstation after it reneged on a contract to air a Cathedral of Hope infomercial. Piazza's position also has garnered him surprising affirmation from his own community: In July, the Advocate, America's lesbian and gay newsweekly of record, will name Michael Piazza one of the top national gay activists of 1999.

It is indeed a sign of changing times when the not-so-long-ago-radical Advocate gives a nod to a man of God trying to build a mega-church in the conservative capital of American mega-churches.

The Cathedral of Hope's resident pastor isn't afraid to call himself an activist. Yet he insists the tone of lesbian and gay politics has shifted from movement to institution, from rootless individuals scampering from issue to issue to fortresses of influence where officials who want support do the calling.

"The establishment used to be nervous when we'd show up at public events, because it would mean we'd try to make them feel uncomfortable," Piazza says. "Now they come to places like Cathedral of Hope looking for support. It's a different kind of power."

Making the establishment nervous is a familiar role for Piazza. In the '80s and early '90s, while gay activists protested what they saw as government inaction during the AIDS crisis, Piazza didn't raise Cain as much as he stirred up discomfort with a nonverbal mixed message -- a homosexual wearing a cleric's collar.

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Jimmy Fowler