Fr. Joseph Wallace-Williams, an out gay Black man, will be installed as rector of the church St. Luke and The Epiphany (SLATE) on March 5. It is believed that he will be the first Black rector of the historically white Episcopal church located in Center City.
“It’s very warm and it’s very different from all the congregations where I’ve served,” Wallace-Williams said. “I literally was looking through the profile that the parish posted on the Episcopal Church network for clergy and they piqued my interest, with their history and what it was that they were about.”
SLATE has a history of fighting for the inclusion of LGBTQ people and caring for and supporting people living with HIV. Rev. Rodger Broadley, who retired from SLATE in 2020, began his work in HIV support in the 1980s. As part of the SLATE ministry, he provided funeral and counseling services to people living with HIV and their families, and with Mercy Hospice established an AIDS-focused ministry called St. Luke’s Hospitality Center.
“I think my work here with St. Luke and The Epiphany is that these people have always been about bringing in those who are on the margins,” Wallace-Williams said. “One of the things I said to them in my first sermon was, what would it be if a bunch of blue-haired, old gay men did something for people who didn’t look like them, didn’t talk like them, didn’t love like them, didn’t live like them?”
He was referring to the fact that many white, straight women stood up and fought for men living with and dying from HIV during the early days of the HIV epidemic.
“This parish stepped up and stepped into that,” Wallace-Williams said. “Frankly, I think it’s great that they’ve worked themselves out of a mission. Now my job is to help them to discern, who now can we serve? My prayer is that they’ll work themselves out of that mission too.”
When Wallace-Williams said that the SLATE congregation worked themselves out of a mission, he clarified by saying that society has come a long way in terms of preventing, treating and developing cures for HIV. PrEP is available to people who need it, people are living long lives with HIV and Timothy Brown was cured of HIV via an experimental procedure over a decade ago.
Prior to joining SLATE’s ministry in 2021, Wallace-Williams became the first openly gay person to be ordained in the Diocese of Louisiana, and served in associate clergy positions at parishes in Memphis, Tenn. and St. Louis, Miss., and for three years as a Monk at a New York monastery.
In the St. Louis church where Wallace-Williams served not long after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Busch Beer Barons and members of George Bush’s family were congregants.
“It couldn’t be more different — Republican central [and] a place where the word liberal was probably a cuss word,” Wallace-Williams said. “What I’ve found in the south is, people are shocked that this gay Black guy really loves Jesus, and there’s no cognitive dissonance, that I can freely talk about God and God being love, and that there’s plenty of good room. And also be able to walk over to an HIV/AIDS facility and be with trans women and hand out condoms, encouraging people to wrap it up, or talking about PrEP and why it’s important.”
Conversely, liberal ways of being and thinking abound at SLATE. “I find myself building bridges,” Wallace-Williams said.
When members of SLATE’s church committee were in the process of looking for a new rector, their feelings about the murder of George Floyd and the escalation of racial injustice in the U.S. played a large role in their decision-making, said long-time congregant Rick Dickson.
“[Fr. Joseph] has been a dynamic, a very strong presence since he’s been there,” Dickson said. “It’s been a joy to be challenged in new ways, in the way that an African American person can do in a largely white congregation. It’s been really rewarding. It is consistent with what the church has stood for for many years and goes deeper. He has worked very hard to develop strong relationships. He is both encouraging and challenging, and we’re very happy to be part of his ministry there.”
Wallace-Williams said that he has seen the members of SLATE continue to evolve, especially in the absence of white leaders who were able to model the discomfort of struggling with racism and other forms of bigotry.
“I think it is a challenge because now they don’t have a white minister to model off of,” Wallace-Williams said. “They have a Black priest who has spent years and a lifetime struggling with this and looking at it, and comes from a totally different perspective. They really are stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘we hear you and we get it.’”
Dickson discussed the impact that the pandemic has had on the church congregation in the last two years, since the departure of Broadley in 2020.
“There was a real sense of floundering – where do we go, what do we do,” Dickson said. “I think this is a joyous event in the life of the church. We’re ready for the next phase of this. Fr. Joseph has filled that role of giving us hope, optimism and commitment to continue leadership of all the things that are really important.”