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National LGBTQ Task Force gala puts faith front and center: Miami reverend breaks ground in United Methodist Church

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Rev. Kipp Nelson — Courtesy photo
Rev. Kipp Nelson — Courtesy photo

The presenting sponsor of this year's National LGBTQ Task Force gala may come as a surprise.

St. John's on the Lake, a United Methodist church, is the presenting sponsor of the annual soirée in Miami Beach. It's an attempt to cast Christianity in a different light for a community often targeted by its conservative factions, said the church's pastor.

"The fact is, Christianity has been used for so much harm, and now we as a church are taking this opportunity to use Christianity to fight for what we believe in is good and to really promote a positive and healing message during a time when so much harm is being done to our community," said Rev. Kipp Nelson.

Nelson, who is Gay, knows firsthand about the harm the church has done to Queer people. Last year, he was denied a promotion on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

"That was a very discouraging and disheartening moment last summer that knocked the wind out of me in a way that I didn't expect," he said.

It also derailed the hopes of 15 others who wanted to become clergy members or advance to senior positions. Because the church confirms these positions as a slate, Nelson's denial held the entire class back.

The rejection was crushing.

"It came with health complications and a flare-up [of] an autoimmune disease that I'm still trying to heal from," he said. "It had a pretty significant effect, but we've continued to fight for the good and plant our feet firmly and say, 'This is not okay, and we're not going to let unjust policies destroy the church and destroy peoples lives.'"

The group stayed together, however, and grew even closer, and this summer, the tide changed. At the state's annual clergy conference, they were all confirmed, making Nelson the first out Gay man to hold the title of reverend in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

It was a huge moment in UMC history, Nelson said, as church leaders recognized the group's unity.

"Seeing us holding hands and knowing we come from diverse backgrounds and were committed to each other made a difference," Nelson said. "Our class has become so close through this journey we've been on. We've trauma-bonded through the experience of rejection."

Protecting Queer spaces
Now Nelson is helping others heal and reconcile their faith. In Florida, the battleground is littered with damaged souls from political culture wars, and there's a need to protect spaces for Queer people to gather and connect, Nelson said.

Venues that have drag performances have become major targets of Gov. DeSantis's administration. For example, R House in Wynwood recently agreed to pay a $10,000 fine after state regulators accused the restaurant of violating decency laws by exposing minors to "sexually explicit drag shows."

"If our governor succeeds at shutting down drag shows, that would be detrimental to the LGBTQ community," Nelson said. "Particularly places like the Palace here in South Beach and ... Gaythering and Nathan's, where drag is a big part of our community. So there is a big need to work to protect our community and the places in which we can find belonging."

Finding belonging
It took Nelson a while to find that belonging, although he first realized he was Gay at 14. Growing up in Alabama, however, left little room for expressing his true feelings, much less dating.

And he wasn't going to give up his faith.

"I wasn't raised in a place where those two things were reconcilable," he said.

A lifelong Methodist, Nelson did his seminary studies in Washington, DC, where he was finally able to come out.

"I found the community that helped me come out and celebrate the person that God made me to be," Nelson said. "It was very unexpected finding a loving, Christian community that helped me come out of the closet. That was a true gift."

After DC, he went to Miami on a summer internship that turned into a full-time position, fulfilling a childhood dream to live in tropical South Florida.

"All humans are of sacred worth"
During his time in Miami, Nelson has worked to make the church more welcoming to LGBTQ families, while occasionally hearing that the two worlds cannot coexist — a misconception he quickly corrects.

"I simply tell them, 'That's your opinion, and that might be what you've been taught, but that is simply wrong,'" he said. "In the Methodist church, something that we believe, that is within our specific discipline, is that all humans are of sacred worth, and that is an unconditional worth that is bestowed on every human being. Humans have no power to change the values of another human's life. A beloved child of God is the starting point."

Through the Task Force gala, St. John's on the Lake has an opportunity to raise its profile and introduce its reconciling message to a new audience. And if Florida is to repair its reputation as a true free state, Miami is where it begins, Nelson said.

"Back in the '90s, Miami was a mecca for Gay people. It was a place that people were flocking to to live their independent, free lives as Gay people," Nelson said. "I think that is still why there's a very prominent Gay community in Miami Beach.

"I think if there is change that is going to happen in the state of Florida, I firmly believe it has to begin on the local level, and Miami would be one of those places that has the biggest footprint and stronghold to make that difference across the state, for sure."

The National LGBTQ Task Force gala will take place on Oct. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Miami Beach Convention Center. For more info, visit https://www.thetaskforce.org