The Pink and Purple Church in the Castro

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An online exhibition by Lynne Gerber, Siri Colom, and Ariana Nedelman

The images and sounds echoing through to the present from the intertwined histories of HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ communities, and religion in the United States conventionally resound with righteous anger and cacophony. As powerfully portrayed in the documentary United by Anger, ACT-UP protestors invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1989 with an unholy din of chants, whistles, and anguished shrieks. One of the most shocking aspects of the infamous protest was its sonic disruption of a solemn religious space, illuminating the sensory dimensions of how religion, politics, sexuality and ritual have been understood in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 

Yet a new wave of historians have demonstrated that the intersection of religion and LGBTQ communities during HIV/AIDS is far more complex than fundamentalist bigotry on one hand and ‘Stop the Church’ on the other. Studies by Anthony Petro, Dan Royles, and others have portrayed the varied ways that faith communities grappled with sexuality and HIV/AIDS and how LGBTQ communities engaged religion during the epidemic. While some of these accounts have engaged oral history methods to enrich their narratives, none have specifically focused on the sensory or auditory dimensions of this intersection. 

Fortunately, a new digital humanities project that engages audio archives alongside oral histories has been created that explores precisely this angle, offering an innovative and moving new approach to histories of religion and sexuality. The Pink and Purple Church in the Castro is an online exhibit documenting how the San Francisco congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a LGBTQ-focused Protestant denomination, experienced the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the late 1980s into the early twenty-first century. As the disease devastated the city’s gay community and many members of the congregation fell ill and died, the ‘church with AIDS,’ as the exhibit describes it, provided a critical space for witnessing, grieving, resisting and remembering the epidemic.

A full sanctuary at MCCSF, Easter 1988. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Jim Mitulski

Jim Mitulski talking about how they thought about Christianity and sexuality

The archival core of the exhibition derives from a cache of over 1,200 audio cassettes of MCC religious services, dating back to 1987, that a member of the congregation had stored beneath the floorboards of the church’s sound room. Upon learning of the tapes, independent scholar Lynne Gerber teamed up with sociologist Siri J. Colom and podcaster Ariana Nedelman to undertake a set of projects to bring to life the stories of the San Francisco congregation’s engagement with HIV/AIDS through the lens of their faith. In addition to the archival recordings of MCC services, the exhibit includes excerpts from oral histories conducted by the authors with both clergy and lay members of the congregation. The interviews flesh out the story while providing intimate first-person accounts of the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS as well as the significance of the church as a venue in which to make sense of and respond to it. The three authors are producing a forthcoming documentary podcast titled When We All Get to Heaven that will trace the story of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the congregation, and have discussed their work on an episode of the Sexing History podcast. With this exhibit, their research comes to life in an interactive format. 

The exhibition is hosted by the American Religious Sounds Project (ARSP), an Ohio State University-based research initiative that poses a thought-provoking question: ‘How does our understanding of religion change when we begin by listening for it?’ The project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and other academic and philanthropic sources, aims to assemble a sonic archive documenting religious histories in the United States and to support scholars, teachers, journalists, and the broader public in creative storytelling about religion in American life. Along with an archive of field recordings, maps, and teaching resources, the ARSP site includes a gallery of digital exhibits on a variety of themes, including The Pink and Purple Church in the Castro. 

The opening page adopts the design of a 1980s Sunday bulletin for an MCC Eucharist service, welcoming the user into the exhibition as a worshipper would have been welcomed upon arriving for a service. Upon entering, we see that the entire exhibit unfolds within the format of a bulletin, with a design template of two open booklet pages blending text, images, and embedded streamable audio. A table of contents with clickable ‘page’ numbers is complemented by a dropdown menu for easy navigation throughout the sections of the exhibit, along with arrows at the bottom of each page to simulate skimming forward and backward through the bulletin. 

The titles of the subsequent sections curate an experience of the history that parallels a MCC religious service. The ‘Liturgy of Preparation’ sets out the context of LGBTQ religious history in San Francisco, the rise of the MCC denomination, and the emergence of HIV/AIDS. ‘Opening Hymn’ explores the significance of sacred music within the MCC congregation, including four archival recordings of hymns sung during services supplemented by oral history commentary. ‘Liturgy of the Word’ describes how church services used sermons and readings from the Bible and other texts to make sense of lesbian and gay identities and HIV/AIDS theologically, illustrated with audio excerpts from sermons and including a pop-up section featuring a New Testament verse of particular significance to the community. ‘Community Prayer’ offers a deeply personal window into the spiritual lives of MCC congregants, sharing recordings of prayers that reveal how both clergy and lay members gave voice to their gratitude, concern and grief as the epidemic intensified. ‘Liturgy of the Eucharist’ conveys the significance of the communion ritual to LGBTQ Christians, while the closing ‘Call and Response’ section concludes the exhibit with an interactive comments board on which users have shared gratitude and reflections.

The Pink and Purple Church in the Castro is a strikingly creative digital humanities accomplishment. The seamlessly-integrated archival sound and images, oral history excerpts, interpretive text, and interactive features not only tell a powerful story, but do so in an immersive aesthetic format that cleverly simulates the visual as well as auditory experience of being in a MCC Church during the AIDS epidemic. Of particular interest to oral historians is how the curators blend interviews with archival audio embedded among text and images in a user-friendly format. The exhibit exemplifies not only innovative LGBTQ and religious history storytelling, but a digital history approach that makes the most of the sonic and visual potential of the medium. 

How to cite this article

Shepard, Nikita.  Review of The Pink and Purple Church in the Castro Online Exhibit, by Lynne Gerber, Siri Colom, and Ariana Nedelman. Oral History Journal Online Reviews Section (October 2021).

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