People lined the walls of the tiny sanctuary of Atlanta’s St. Luke Lutheran Church, anticipating a type of worship that had never been done before. The summer heat climbed into the 90s that day, typical during Georgia’s midsummer, but that didn’t stop the excitement from building as several drag queens joined the pastor for “Drag Me to Church,” a community worship service in partnership with the Atlanta Pride Committee to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.
The power cut out moments before the service was to start, before Miss Holly Walden could start singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or Matthew O’Rear, St. Luke’s pastor, could welcome everyone. But not even that could dampen the enthusiasm. Congregation members and performers joined together to pass out candles used during the Advent and Christmas seasons, singing the popular children’s hymn “This Little Light of Mine” as they illuminated the sanctuary.
“One pastor said to me afterward that the whole feeling was Pentecostal,” O’Rear said, adding that a rush of wind swirled around when the power cut out, adding to the feeling of the Spirit filling the church.
After everything was set up the service began. With a host of drag queens by his side, O’Rear dove into worship, filled with New Testament readings, poetry, prayer, a children’s reading and a sermon. A community that normally sees about 35 worshipers on Sunday welcomed more than 200 members and nonmembers alike—worshiping together and embracing the sacred and spiritual nature the service provided.
Commemoration of the Stonewall Riots is not unique to Atlanta; communities across the country celebrate this opening salvo of the gay rights movement (and later the LGBTQIA+ rights movement). At that time, same-sex activities, including kissing a partner, were prohibited; cities like Atlanta and New York city had laws against people wearing the clothing of a different gender. In cities across the country, LGBTQIA+ people looked for safe spaces where they could be themselves, even for just a few hours.
New York’s Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, with a popular club for the community, especially gay men and “cross-dressers” (the word “transgender” was still five years away), was targeted periodically by the police department’s vice squad. Typically, police would notify management of raids in advance, allowing people to escape arrest. But on June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall without notice, creating a spectacle around the neighborhood. Tensions between police and the gay community were already high, and the raid erupted into a weeklong riot. More than one source has confirmed that Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman, threw the first stone—a shot glass—at a mirror and started the uprising. It took several days before tensions cooled down, but the gay rights movement only heated up from there.
O’Rear said that St. Luke intended the service not only to commemorate the historical event but also to minister to people who have been turned away by the church and to reflect on the church’s role in that trauma. Index cards were provided for people to fill out. The cards could be nailed to a red door at the front of the church to tell us how the church needs to change and reform, O’Rear said. But that night,said he added, was nothing but holy.
“People there could see and feel that God is love and love knows no bounds,” he said.
Daniel Quiggin, St. Luke’s council president, said the members had wanted to launch some variation of this ministry for years.
“The planning [of this service] was mostly by them,” Quiggin said, speaking about O’Rear and Josh Pitre, council vice president. Quiggin’s reading of Romans 15:1-7 during the service included the church’s welcome statement: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
St. Luke is the first and one of the few Reconciling in Christ congregations in Metro Atlanta, a sprawling area that comprises more than 6 million people and the offices of the ELCA Southeastern Synod.
“As you gather in worship, may our hearts be opened to the transformative power of God’s grace,” wrote Bishop Kevin Strickland in the worship folder. “May this service be a source of healing, hope, and empowerment for you all. May it strengthen our resolve to dismantle barriers and build a more just and inclusive society where all voices are heard, valued, and celebrated.”
Quiggin said he could see that many people attending the service loved God despite people telling them that God hated them for who they are or whom they love.
“I was moved to tears at several points in the service to see people who had been told ‘there is no place for you here’ before but were here with us.”
Ruby Redd, one of the queens performing that night, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the service showed how religious organizations might embrace the drag community and LGBTQIA+ culture at large.
“There’s a lot of the community that over the years have felt slighted by religion,” said Redd. “This is a way that they can come and worship and still be gay in a safe spot, surrounded by safe people and not worry about whatever their past scars are.”
O’Rear admitted that St. Luke has gotten pushback from beyond its walls. The pushback coincides with the increased political tension over the past few years, with more than 500 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills submitted to state legislatures across the country this year, neighboring states Tennessee and Florida have banned certain types of drag performances and every state in the region has banned some form of gender-affirming care to transgender children. Those developments, O’Rear said, are central to the church’s ministry.
“We’re down the street from the governor’s mansion,” he said. “This is a neighborhood where the needs of the community are different than the needs you might see elsewhere in Atlanta.”
O’Rear and Quiggin both expressed hope for future community-worship opportunities, especially with Atlanta’s Pride celebrations coming up in October. O’Rear indicated that he would happily welcome back to St. Luke anyone who attended the “Drag Me to Church” service. But as Steven Igarashi-Ball of the Atlanta Pride Committee said the church’s larger ministry is to repair the trauma it caused in the past.
“The Atlanta Pride Committee recognizes the sacred space that the art of drag has always held, while also acknowledging that LGBTQ+ performance spaces have often served as surrogates for churches, offering queer people both community and sanctuary,” Igarashi-Ball said. “This event serves as a blessing to the modern-day performers who place themselves in harm’s way to defend our very right to exist, and the drag and trans elders who paved the way for such artists, activists and community leaders.”
As the worshipers finished the candlelight service, sweating from the lack of air conditioning but filled with the spirit through song, prayer and reflection, the crowd broke out in a sending song not written by Martin Luther or J.S. Bach but instead made famous by Sister Sledge: “We Are Family.” Though O’Rear said someone might want to talk to Reba McEntire.
“‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’ has a whole new meaning now.”