(RNS) — “Welcome to church,” Pastor Craig Duke said before stepping onstage.
But this wasn’t the usual Sunday service Duke oversees as lead pastor of Newburgh United Methodist Church. It wasn’t held within the walls of his church near Evansville, Indiana. And Duke doesn’t normally deliver his sermons while wearing a tall pink wig and 4-inch-heeled boots — or follow them by lip-syncing to Ke$ha’s “We Are Who We Are.”
This service was part of a drag show that aired on Monday night’s episode of “We’re Here” on HBO.
The Emmy-nominated reality show follows renowned drag artists Eureka O’Hara, Shangela and Bob the Drag Queen as they travel to small cities and towns across the United States, transforming locals into drag queens. This week, the show came to Evansville — and for Duke.
“It was an incredibly wonderful, refreshing, deepening, powerful spiritual experience,” Duke told Religion News Service.
“I was surrounded and immersed in a culture that I’ve never been immersed in, and one of the things in ministry, if you want to involve people different than yourself in your ministry, you have to go to where people different than you are. The invitation to be part of the show allowed me that.”
Duke had never heard of the HBO show before he was contacted by Evansville’s Pride board, asking if he’d be interested in participating.
While he’d performed in theater in his younger years, he said, he’d never performed in drag — something he described as way outside his comfort zone.
However, he said during the episode, he knew there were LGBTQ people in his community, and he wanted to learn to be “empathetic, not just sympathetic.” He also wanted to show his support for his daughter, who came out two years ago as pansexual.
“I’m hoping it’s a bridge — for my daughter, for the church I serve, for the denomination I love and for me — and I’m hoping my voice will become stronger,” he said on the show.
Duke is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which is currently deadlocked over the inclusion of its LGBTQ members, including whether LGBTQ United Methodists can be ordained and whether clergy can perform same-sex marriages.
United Methodist leaders introduced a proposal to split the denomination ahead of the 2020 meeting of its global decision-making body, the General Conference. But that meeting — as well as any action on the proposal — already has been postponed twice by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Conference currently is set to begin in August 2022.
Before the episode of “We’re Here” aired Monday night, Duke said his congregation, like many others, includes people who support LGBTQ inclusion within the church and others who don’t. There are people in his pews who he predicted will watch the show and people he knows won’t.
Those differing views within his congregation made his appearance on the show a “challenging experience,” he said.
Still, Duke said, he has spoken with his bishop, the executive assistant to his bishop and his annual conference superintendent about the show since his episode was filmed. “There is nothing that I have done in my participation that can be brought up on any formal charges,” he said.
More than that, he said, his experience has been nothing compared to what many people face every day just by leaving their homes.
“When the episode is over, I go right back to my home, my neighborhood, my church, my experiences as Craig where my pronouns, my race, my sexuality and the way I express my faith is completely accepted,” he said. “There are some that think that I’ve risked so much, and I appreciate that. I’m humbled by that. But I would say that’s not the case.”
Participating in the episode of “We’re Here” turned out to be a “worshipful” experience, Duke said.
“Any time there is a community of people that are willing to welcome other people, together with a commonality of affirming each other, helping each other rise to the occasion, and add into that a heartfelt care and love for one another, it has the trappings of a church,” he said.
The pastor recalled O’Hara — his “drag mother” on the show, who helped him develop a performance inspired by a line in Ke$ha’s song that says “I’ve got Jesus on my necklace” — asking to pray with him before their show in Evansville. At first, Duke said, he thought O’Hara was asking “in character.”
Duke quickly realized the offer was serious — and how much he himself needed that prayer in that moment, he said.
For O’Hara, it was emotional to hear someone viewed as a religious authority affirm that God loves them, a message Duke repeated throughout the episode.
That’s something O’Hara wishes they would’ve heard growing up, they said.
O’Hara was raised Southern Baptist in east Tennessee, attending “every bible school known to man during the summer,” they said in an email to RNS. Their grandmother was Pentecostal and taught them “how to be spiritual even though I was different.”
That stuck, O’Hara said, even after they were kicked out of their church.
“I’m such a spiritual person and I do believe in God. For a long time, I hated myself and who I was because I had been taught my entire life that I was going to burn in hell, and that I was a horrible person,” O’Hara said.
That’s not an uncommon experience for many in the LGBTQ community, they said.
“I think it’s really hard for queer people to get past the trauma that was inflicted on them by people in the church growing up. Being treated like a monster and being mistreated, it’s unfair,” O’Hara said.
“We deserve to know that God loves us (too). Because God loves everyone, God loves all their children. I think that’s an important message for people to hear.”
Duke said he also hopes anybody who identifies as LGBTQ or who is wrestling with their sexuality will take away from the episode that “God really does love you for who you are, period.”
And he hopes he’ll get phone calls about it — if only so he can assure people that he is serious.
“When I said, ‘Welcome to church,’ I really meant that to the people sitting there, because God was present. I never denied God’s presence through this whole experience,” Duke said.
“The truth is, God is always present.”