The Fab Five took up residence in Philadelphia for the latest season of “Queer Eye,” which began streaming June 5 on Netflix, and the “make better” experts wasted no time getting to work throughout the City of Brotherly Love. The season premiere featured Noah Hepler, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Philadelphia, and one of the few out gay clergy within the denomination. In the episode, Pastor Noah recounted his upbringing within a fundamentalist religious community, journey toward coming out in his 30s and ongoing struggle to feel comfortable as a gay man in public life. The episode also highlighted Pastor Noah’s determination to keep his congregation afloat amid declining attendance.
The experts worked their usual magic, furnishing Pastor Noah with a new wardrobe and grooming regimen, a spruce-up to his living quarters and a much-needed dose of confidence. Their visit concluded with Hepler addressing his congregation at the church’s 125th-anniversary service, where he testified to his ongoing voyage toward self-actualization.
PGN spoke with Pastor Noah about his experience with “Queer Eye,” queer theology, life in his adopted hometown and the state of the church amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some responses have been edited and condensed.
How did the opportunity with “Queer Eye” come about for you?
A member of the congregation found a flyer and filled it out. Then they contacted me and said, “I hope you’re OK with this because it’s already done!” We both laughed, and I said sure because nothing interesting like that happens in my life. By the next week, they were contacting me, saying a casting director wanted to talk with me. One thing led to another from there, and because a church was involved, we had to make sure our whole board was supportive. Luckily, they were, and that’s what got it all started.
During the episode, Bobby Berk spoke with you about his own experiences with religion, saying that Christianity is not always a loving and affirming space for LGBTQ+ people. As an openly gay clergyman, how did that resonate with you, and how do you approach making your church a welcoming space?
What Bobby spoke about was also my experience. We actually began our 125th-anniversary service with a litany of confession, which included how we’ve used the faith to hurt others. Atonement has tried to embody that as a local community in a variety of ways, and some have been better than others. It’s always, and continually, a learning experience. People have shared their experiences — either being on the receiving end or how they’ve had their minds changed by becoming friends with LGBTQ+ people. Over the years, the congregation has had a variety of people who embody different identities. In terms of the larger church, as I may have said in the episode, there was a long time when it was OK to be gay in the pew, but it wasn’t accepted for a pastor. In August 2009, my flavor of Lutheranism changed their rules to allow for openly queer pastors to serve — and as the church was changing its mind, I was wrestling with my own stuff while that was playing out.
What was the experience like for you to tell your own story of self-discovery at the church’s 125th-anniversary service?
The text we had picked for that service was the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. That text is especially close to me because, as I was coming out, an openly gay Baptist pastor who I jokingly call my “gay Obi-Wan” had done a lot of work with that passage. It became very influential for me. I’ve done the sermon in a variety of ways, but less about me so openly. What I found was that after my experience with the Fab Five, a kind of freedom and coming back home to myself happened. It was the first time I really dug into that text about myself. I’ve used the text to talk about helping others, because there’s a great line at the end of the story. Lazarus shambles out of the tomb because he’s still wrapped for burial, and Jesus says to the community, “Unbind him and let him go.” I’ve always found that very powerful, about the community being involved in the act of resurrection, bringing someone back to life. My biggest learning from that week was that these are things I’ve preached before, to others, but I have not let myself experience them. That was the first time I let that text include myself — and then by extension, include others.
You’re a native of North Carolina, but you’ve been living in Philly for several years now. How has it been adjusting to life here?
I moved to Philadelphia sight unseen after I was admitted to classes at the Lutheran seminary up in Mt. Airy. I came with all my stuff packed in a van and a car, and within my first week here, I immediately fell in love. That has just sort of continued to unfold. In Raleigh, where I’m from, there’s a small section that is nicknamed “the Gayborhood,” but it’s just a nickname. Then I came here, and it’s an actual neighborhood!
I have to ask: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Atonement?
It has been a struggle. The community has remained fairly strong through it all. We are getting to feel the fatigue of not being able to meet, and to not be able to celebrate this moment the way we wanted to. We are worried that we may not be able to even do the things we have planned for the fall. We’ve also had members who have been devastated by the virus — we have one entire family where three-fourths of them have been in the hospital or are still in the hospital. We’ve had deaths in the community, and we’re not a large congregation to begin with. In some ways, challenge is too small a word. At the same time, there’s an incredible amount of strength and love in the community, and we are finding ways of staying together.
All episodes of “Queer Eye” are currently streaming on Netflix. For more information on the Episcopalian Lutheran Church of the Atonement, visit elcota.org.