The Death of a Personal Hero

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1967

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1967

One of my personal heroes died recently. I met him once or twice and he made an indelible impression on me each time. His name was Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest and author who challenged racism, war and religious complacency in the 1960s and 1970s, and was one of the first prominent clergymen in America to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly. Boyd died on 27 February and a celebration of Boyd’s life was held on 21 March at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles. Malcolm Boyd was 91.

I first met Malcolm Boyd when I was a young rector in a parish church outside of Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, youth in the area were being recruited by an evangelical group known as the Campus Crusade for Christ. I wanted the youth in my parish to hear a different message than they were hearing from this group. A friend of mine told me about this priest in Washington, DC who was very “hip,” dynamic and could relate to youth. His name was Malcolm Boyd. I contacted him and he graciously agreed to come and speak to our youth. I then invited the youth from other neighboring churches to come to hear Father Boyd. What an evening that turned out to be. Boyd was in the process of writing a book on prayer and shared his manuscript with the group. He had not decided on a title yet, but from what I was hearing that evening I knew that it would be a special book. The prayers were unlike any public prayers I had ever heard. They were informal, gutsy and relevant. Boyd took prayer out of church and onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in Sunday missals. Just a few examples will illustrate what I mean:

“Look up at that window Lord, where the old guy is sitting. He just moved a short bit away from the window. Maybe he moved because he felt my eyes on him from the sidewalk down here. I didn’t mean to embarrass him, Lord; I just wanted to let him know somebody understands he’s alive and he’s your brother, so he’s not alone or lost. Does he know it, Jesus?”

“The young girl got pregnant, Lord, and she isn’t married. There was this guy, you see, and she had a little too much to drink. It sounds so stupid, but the loneliness was real. Where were her parents in all this? It’s hard to know. For the girl, they probably seemed indifferent, absorbed in their familiar routines, uninterested in her real life. But did she ever try to tell them about it? And would they listen? There’s nothing ahead for her with the guy. She tells me he’s really in love with somebody else. She’s not in love with anyone; she’s sure of that. And she’s honest enough to admit, even knowing what she does now, that she’d go back to sleeping with the guy. Does she really think that’s all she needs? She admits she’s thought of suicide, but she says she doesn’t have the strength to make any real decision, let alone that one. What am I going to tell her, Jesus? How can I help her understand the nature of the love she’s looking for?”

Well, we were all spellbound with Boyd’s approach. The youth loved what they heard and many said that they found a new way of practicing their faith. So did I. Boyd fulfilled my every expectation – and he did not let any of us down that evening. The manuscript that Malcolm Boyd shared with us that evening became a best-selling book in 1965, entitled, Are You Running With Me, Jesus.

Malcolm Boyd was born in Buffalo on June 8, 1923, to Melville and Beatrice Lowrie Boyd. His father was a New York investment banker and his mother a fashion model. Much of the family fortune was lost in the 1929 stock market crash. His parents were divorced in the early 1930s, and he lived with his mother in Colorado.

Boyd graduated from East Denver High School in 1940 and from the University of Arizona in 1944. It was at the University of Arizona that he came to uneasy terms with his sexual feelings. “I dated girls but I longed for boys,” he wrote in a 1989 essay. “I had to learn to hide my feelings … and show a face that bore little resemblance to my real self.”

Bronchial trouble kept him out of World War II military service. In 1946, he joined Republic Pictures as a publicist, then became a producer. He and the film stars Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers, formed a television production company in 1949. His friends included Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson and Edgar Bergen. He became the first president of Hollywood’s Television Producers’ Association.

Despite his success, Boyd felt that life had become meaningless. In 1951, he quit Hollywood to study for the Episcopal ministry. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California in 1954; traveled and studied in England and Switzerland; was ordained in Los Angeles in 1955; and received a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1956.

Controversy surrounded Boyd from the start. At his first parish – a white parish in a black section of Indianapolis – the all-white membership was distressed when he invited an African American pastor to speak. Later, as a chaplain at Colorado State University, he hosted poetry readings and group discussions in a coffee house. Finding it easier to communicate informally, he met students in coffee houses and became known as “the espresso priest.” His bishop fumed, and Boyd resigned in 1961.

He was next hired as a university chaplain at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he became involved in the desegregation movement and traveled often to the Deep South on voter registration drives. After the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized “Freedom Rides” to challenge segregated transportation in the South, Boyd and twenty-seven other Episcopal priests made a “Freedom Ride” trip from New Orleans to Detroit through angry white mobs in Mississippi and Tennessee. Boyd was among a handful of white clergymen in the 1960s who were nationally known as champions of civil rights and opponents of the Vietnam War, a group that included Paul Moore Jr., the Episcopal bishop of Washington and later of New York; William Sloane Coffin Jr., the Presbyterian chaplain at Yale University; and Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the sibling Roman Catholic priests who were primarily peace activists. It was at a rally held in Washington DC that I saw and spoke with Malcolm Boyd a second time. Again, he impressed me, this time with his commitment to social justice.

In 1965, Boyd was named writer in residence at Washington, DC’s Episcopal Church of the Atonement. He traveled, lectured and read his poetry on college campuses. He and guitarist Charlie Byrd gave concerts, including one at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. Boyd read his poetry and prayers while Byrd improvised on the guitar. Boyd’s “genius,” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, was to illustrate the presence of God “even for those who say they do not believe in God.” That year, Boyd also appeared at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco. Some nights he warmed up the audience for Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist. Every night, Boyd wore his clerical collar and told the audience that he was there as a priest not an entertainer.

Boyd also wrote voluminously – plays that challenged assumptions about race; newspaper and magazine commentaries on everything from politics to global affairs to traffic jams; and more than two dozen books that explored human rights, religion, sexuality and other subjects. Detractors, including many church leaders, called his work trite; others called it witty, provocative and entertaining.

But his book The Lover – his reflections on Jesus (the lover of the title) – drew praise from Bishop Paul Moore in The New York Times Book Review. “He is realistic about humanity,” Moore wrote. “He knows the black scene as well as any white man can. He feels it as deeply as any white man can. He knows prisons, shacks in Mississippi, funky alleys in downtown Indianapolis. He thinks The Lover is really there too.”

Fame came crashing down on Boyd in 1976 when he announced that he was homosexual at an Episcopal convention in Chicago. This announcement was just at the moment when Jerry Falwell was about to launch the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant was preparing to unleash her virulently homophobic “Save Our Children” campaign against Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance. At the time also, most Christian churches including Boyd’s own Episcopal Church, condemned what they referred to as the homosexual lifestyle, which he was living. Boyd followed his public statement with the book Take off the Masks, saying he wrote it because he was tired of living a lie. One former admirer burned Boyd’s books. For years afterward, he had trouble finding work in the church. “It was wilderness time,” he said in a 2003 interview. “There was criticism; there was unemployment. I learned you have to be flexible in life.” It was a lesson he struggled with repeatedly. “The single great war of my life has been against fragmentation and for wholeness, against labels and for identity,” he wrote in his 1969 memoir As I Live and Breathe. After announcing his homosexuality, Boyd led consciousness-raising groups for gay people and wrote books about gay spirituality.

For several years afterward Boyd was turned down for staff positions at Episcopal churches. Today, when sexual difference is generally accepted and embraced and seen as a significant strength within such rising movements as “Black Lives Matter,” it is almost hard to recall a time when the disclosure of sexual difference could lead to disgrace and to severe social exclusion. But it did back in the late 1970s. However, even with the prospect of losing members, the Reverend Frederick Fenton, rector of Saint Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica and a longtime friend, invited Boyd to join his staff in 1982.

While he was based at Saint Augustine, Boyd was elected president of PEN, an advocacy group for writers’ freedom of speech. He started living with Mark Thompson, who was a senior editor for the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newspaper. At the time, it was generally expected that gay Episcopal clergy remain celibate.

Twenty years later in 2004, when Boyd and Thompson renewed their vows in a church ceremony, the majority of Episcopalians had approved of gay marriage at a national convention. Boyd’s anniversary service was held at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles with five bishops among the guests and the Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno presiding. Boyd and Thompson were legally married in July 2013, after Proposition 8 was overturned and same-sex unions resumed in California.

In his later years, Boyd was writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of Saint Paul. He also worked as a chaplain for AIDS patients and helped to establish a gay history archive at USC.

And Boyd continued to write. In a 2014 Huffington Post column, he asked, in his down-to-earth style, for a chat with Pope Francis about religious discrimination against gay people. “Is this asking too much?” he wrote. “Pope Francis, are you on board? I’d like to spend a reflective evening with you, send out for a pizza from a great place near the Vatican, open a bottle of Chianti, put our feet up, relax, and share thoughts and aspirations.” Well, that is typical Malcolm Boyd!

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1990

Malcolm Boyd, circa 1990

Late in 2014, Boyd was found preparing for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 release of Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Anticipating that occasion, Boyd wrote: “My book of prayers clearly now belongs to the world. I know that. I love prayer and am grateful it is a powerful part of my life. I wish we could – or would – pray with more passion, greater sensitivity, even more passion. I identify with what a writer for The New York Times wrote about the prayers: ‘The eloquence of the prayers comes from the personal struggle they contain – a struggle to believe, to keep going, a spiritual contest that is agonized, courageous and not always won.’ I am grateful for his insight. I agree with him.’’

And so do I. Rest in peace, feisty fighter for freedom and personal integrity.

The prayer that started it all:

Are You Running with Me, Jesus?

malcolm boyd4It’s morning, Jesus. It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again. I’ve got to move fast … get into the bathroom, wash up, grab a bite to eat, and run some more. I just don’t feel like it. What I really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers, and sleep. All I seem to want today is the big sleep, and here I’ve got to run all over again. Where am I running? You know these things I can’t understand. It’s not that I need to have you tell me. What counts most is just that somebody knows, and it’s you. That helps a lot. So I’ll follow along, OK? But lead, Lord. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?



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