Leading the fight for gay marriage, sponsoring refugees from Iran, harmonizing a Burt Bacharach tune—there’s little Toronto’s Metropolitan Community Church can’t do.
Halfway into the Sunday service at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, senior pastor Brent Hawkes invited his congregation to line up and be anointed by volunteers. Each person was given a dab of oil on the forehead and blessed—a quiet moment during the church’s famously vibrant, musical services. Although it’s a ritual that Hawkes said is more common at a conservative Catholic church than the one that led the fight to legalize gay marriage, he introduced it at the MCC, a denomination founded by the LGBT community, because its message touches on a core need of his members. “In the book of James, it says people who are ill are to go to the elders of the church and be anointed with oil for healing,” he said. “A lot of people come to the MCC hurting, whether they’ve had a tough time with their partner that week, have HIV/AIDS, or are just trying to find a place to be accepted for being gay or lesbian.” It’s not uncommon for first-time visitors to break down into tears of relief.
Hawkes, raised as a strict Baptist in New Brunswick, can relate. The 63-year-old began his own journey back to god in 1975, while sitting in his Pinto flipping through the gay magazine The Advocate for the first time. Seven years earlier, he had given up on his teenage dream of being in the ministry once he realized he was gay. “I felt like I was abandoning my best friend,” he recalled, and yet he knew he couldn’t stand behind his church’s values any longer. When he saw a cross in the magazine on an ad for the MCC, it was a revelation—he had found his new home. “I just started to cry and cry and cry,” he said.
Of course, Hawkes’ mission to help LGBT Canadians doesn’t end at consolation. Over the past 36 years of his ministry, he has chained himself to the provincial legislature, gone on hunger strikes, and been beaten by the police. He keeps a bulletproof vest at home. He helped lead social-justice campaigns that made it illegal to fire someone based on their sexuality and gave gay and lesbian partners the right to visit their loved ones in the hospital, as well as—in 2003—the right to marry. During that last battle, Hawkes had 12 bodyguards accompanying him at all times, and 50 police officers were brought in during a Sunday service to protect him and his congregation.
Sitting in the pews of the Riverdale church 10 years later, listening to the 400 worshippers harmonize “What the World Needs Now is Love,” it’s hard to imagine all the strife. Although founded in Los Angeles in 1968 for faithful LGBTs, Hawkes said heterosexual couples with kids are the fastest growing group in his congregation, which is one of 222 MCC chapters in 40 countries. And yet the recipient of the 2007 Order of Canada is not resting on his laurels. “There are 68 countries in the world where straight people and gay people in a group would all be arrested simply for being together,” he said. “In 10 of those countries, I would be executed simply for being gay. So there’s a lot of work still to be done.” Along with running a monthly support group for transgender kids and the Triangle Program for LGBT youth bullied out of their high schools, the MCC sponsors refugees. During that Sunday service, Hawkes made a passionate call to members to help settle three gay and lesbian Iranian immigrants.
Of the nearly 800 refugees the church has supported to date, one story stands out. A few years ago, Immigration Canada contacted Hawkes to see if the MCC could sponsor a young man from a Middle Eastern country whose life was in danger. A day later, members had found guardians for the teenager and picked him up at Pearson airport. The timing was perfect. “It happened during Pride week,” Hawkes said. “So here’s this kid with his two guardians on Church Street at the parade and 24 hours earlier he was in hiding. He was just looking around and he was absolutely amazed.”
At more than 1,000 congregants, the Toronto location is one of the MCC’s largest, and that number doesn’t even include the remote members to whom Hawkes reaches out through a live-streaming webcast. Each Sunday, LGBTs from Jamaica to Nigeria, who are not as lucky to have such a community, join the service from in front of their laptops. As members in this city wrap up the morning with a rousing rendition of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” these few hundred people from around the world begin to sing along.
Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, 115 Simpson Ave., 416-406-6228, mcctoronto.com.