The congregation of this former church was led by the pioneering, openly gay Reverend Paul M. Abels from 1973 to 1984.
The church and neighboring parish house also provided meeting space for a number of LGBT groups, most notably the Salsa Soul Sisters – the oldest black lesbian organization in America – from 1976 to 1987.
Credit: Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.
The Washington Square United Methodist Church was known for its progressive stance on a number of issues, including its acceptance of the LGBT community. A large number of gay men and lesbians were among its members.
From 1973 to 1984, the Reverend Paul M. Abels was head pastor and led a campaign to restore the church. After publicly acknowledging his homosexuality in 1977, he became the first openly gay minister in the country with a congregation in a major Christian denomination. He also performed “covenant ceremonies” for LGBT couples who were forbidden by law to marry. Although his bishop called for his removal, both regional and national church authorities ruled in his favor. However, in 1984, Rev. Abels left the ministry amidst continuing criticism over his homosexuality.
From October 1976 to May 1987, the black and Latina lesbian group Salsa Soul Sisters also met in the parish house. Founded in 1974 by Reverend Dolores Jackson, Sonia Bailey, Harriet Alston, and others, the group had grown out of the Black Lesbian Caucus, which formed in 1971 as a subcommittee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
“There was no other place for women of color to go and sit down and talk about what it means to be a black lesbian in America.”
Candice Boyce, Salsa Soul Sisters member, date unknown
As an alternative to bars where lesbians of color had historically faced discrimination, the Salsa Soul Sisters’ space here provided welcoming social events and weekly meetings on topics such as racism and single lesbian parenting. The group also published the quarterly magazines Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians (1977) and Salsa Soul Gayzette (1982), and formed the Jemima Writers Collective, all of which were written by and about lesbians of color. In 1987, the Salsa Soul Sisters moved to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) and later changed its name to African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC). It is credited as the nation’s oldest black lesbian organization.
In 2004, the church building was sold and converted to private condominiums. The congregation merged with two others to form The Church of the Village on Seventh Avenue and West 13th Street.