Shunned by his own church, how a gay music minister holds on to faith

CHATTANOOGA, TENN. — If this were any other year, John Thomas McCecil would be busy prepping for another weekend service, planning Advent, the annual children’s program and Christmas Eve celebration near here at Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church.

But after a decade as the minister of music at the church in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and in a sad turn of events a few months ago, John Thomas says he was forced to resign because, in church parlance, he was in a “questionable” relationship.

Let that simmer for a moment.

If you’re still wondering what that means exactly, here it is in more simple terms: John Thomas is happily married to a man. He’s gay.

That fact was known by church administrators at Our Lady, and as far as he could discern, no one really cared.

Then John Thomas Cecil had the audacity to fall in love, marry Jesse McDowell and post his nuptials on his Facebook page.

That was in May.

John Thomas Cecil, 35, and Jesse McDowell, 37, were married May 11 in the backyard of their home in Chattanooga, Tenn. CONTRIBUTED

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In June, he received an email from Our Lady’s pastor, Father Tom Shuler, requesting a meeting with him. John Thomas was in the midst of directing an opera. The earliest he would be available, he told Shuler, was July 1.

What would they be discussing? he asked Shuler.

No preparation necessary, the priest responded.

After the smallest of small talk that Monday, John Thomas says he handed the priest a copy of his new driver’s license and Social Security card to update the church files for tax purposes.

That’s what I wanted to meet with you about, he says Shuler told him. I have to ask you to resign.

John Thomas was shocked. Jesse was angry.

Did they have the right to discriminate? Jesse asked.

Neither Shuler nor the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which includes Our Lady as one of its member churches, would comment about why he was let go, saying they were bound by confidentiality rules.

“I can’t confirm or deny anything that’s a personnel matter,” Shuler said.

Asked if he knew John Thomas was gay, Shuler said yes, he’d known for at least the past five years. Asked if he had a problem with that, he said he did not.

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Like so many gay men before him, John Thomas had endured years of bullying and sat through countless sermons condemning him to hell.

“I never felt accepted,” he said.

When John Thomas left home in 2002 to attend Austin Peay State University, he left the church, too. How his faith remained intact is anyone’s guess, but in the process of earning two degrees, one in music vocal performance and another in communications theater performance, he managed to make peace with the Catholic Church.

When he finally returned in 2009, he was pretty sure the God he fell in love with as a boy had led him back there.

It might not have happened had his mother not encouraged him to answer a newspaper ad. Our Lady of the Mount was looking for singers. John Thomas decided to audition.

Over the next several weeks, he’d make the trip up Ochs Highway to Our Lady, each time experiencing what he’d later call divine moments of clarity.

“I remember feeling that I would be spending many seasons with this parish,” he said. “That impression was so clear that I committed fully my talents, my faith and my resources, all which God provided.”

It was just as Proverbs 18:16 promises: “A man’s gift maketh room for him.”

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Within three years of coming to Our Lady, John Thomas was named the church’s minister of music. In addition to singing and planning music for services, he hired guest singers for special holiday programs.

Indeed for 10 years, through three changes in leadership, more sermons condemning homosexuality and being made to feel less than human, John Thomas remained true to his calling, often to the neglect of family and friends.

Now with Shuler asking him for his resignation, it was like he was back in grade school. He didn’t belong.

“When he let me go, there was no comment about my work ethic,” John Thomas said. “Father Shuler simply stated it was because I made my marriage public.”

John Thomas’ sister reminded him, there was a clause in his contract — “to make known any questionable relationship” — that might explain everything.

Here’s the problem with that. Not only did parishioners and Shuler know John Thomas is gay and was in a committed relationship with Jesse, John Thomas never considered his relationship with Jesse questionable.

Well, not until now.

If he refused to resign, Shuler told him, he’d be forced to terminate him.

John Thomas asked for time to talk to his husband first. Shuler told him he needed an answer the next day.

After talking, John Thomas and Jesse decided it was best to stay on as long as he could. They needed the income.

John Thomas reported back to Shuler the next day and offered to leave Aug. 4. Shuler accepted.

As a parting gift that Sunday, Shuler gave him a crystal cross but no severance.

On his final day at Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church, John Thomas McCecil says the church presented him with this cross. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

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Vikki Mills, 62, a member of Our Lady, couldn’t believe it.

“I thought I was in the church of love,” she said, her face red from crying. “Not the church of condemnation and judgment.”

Vikki Mills of Lookout Mountain, Ga., said she left Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church after learning John Thomas McCecil was forced to resign. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

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Mills and her husband, members of Our Lady for six years, have since left the church.

“We’ve really been struggling with it,” said Mills, the mother of a gay son. “He took away the most beautiful singer that brought us to tears, over and over. For years, he completed the Mass with his beautiful songs. The rest of us are suffering because of this awful decision.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meanwhile, John Thomas is working two jobs, one as an eligibility specialist for an insurance company and as interim music director at Rivermont Presbyterian Church to help make ends meet.

Are they aware he’s gay? Yes, they are, but church officials have assured John Thomas the Chattanooga congregation welcomes everyone.

When he and Jesse went to experience the two liturgies there, they were introduced as the new music director and his husband.

“No one was avoiding us,” he said.

I hope they never do. I hope, as John Thomas does, they understand what it truly means to love thy neighbor as thyself because he’d like to remain there. Jesse, too, hopefully.

“My husband is agnostic and he’s been watching me to see how I respond to such a hateful act done by Christians,” John Thomas said as we finished talking the other day. “I’ve kept my focus on how to show him the love of Christ, knowing he might be the only world that I change.”

I know what you’re wondering. Other people have asked John Thomas the same thing. How does he reconcile his faith with his sexuality? His answer is always the same.

“Salvation only has to do with accepting Christ as your Lord and savior,” he said.

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