A Conversation with Pastor Howard Bell

Rev. Howard Bell is serving as Sabbatical Supply Pastor during February, March and April 2018.

Besides the church, what makes you excited to get up in the morning?

I love life. I truly treasure every day. I’ve been gifted in life to have so many friends. And I am blessed with multiple families. I was married and have four children and 8 grandchildren, so I wake up each day and rejoice about the gifts of life that are my children and grandchildren.

I met my wife in college, and we married two weeks after graduation in 1969. We moved to New Haven, to Yale Divinity school, she went to work and we postponed starting a family for three years, which was a real sacrifice for my wife at the time. Therefore, we committed to each other to give birth to a child as soon after graduation from seminary as possible. When my wife did not become pregnant in the first six months of trying, we applied for adoption. Due to population growth concerns, we were committed to birthing two children and adopting two children. My wife was an adoption social worker, and we adopted a Native American boy that was on her caseload. When he arrived in the Fall of 1972 we discovered that my wife was three months pregnant. My biological son was born six months later. We then applied to adopt a child from Vietnam, and our daughter arrived in the winter of 1975. Finally, our biological daughter was born in January 1976. Raising these four wonderful children certainly was a joy that got me out of bed every day.

At what point did questions about your sexual orientation enter the equation?

In 1983, my wife and I decided that we needed to separate. I also entered counseling to explore my sexual orientation. My therapist was extremely supportive and non-judgmental. I was exploring relationships with men and women. When I “fell in love” with a man, I knew that same-gender relationships were and would be far more fulfilling for me than opposite gender relationships. My therapist helped me share this with my children. The love relationship that helped me in my coming out process did not last more than a few months; but it clarified so much for my future. I met Christopher Cook in 1990 and we have been together ever since.

I will say the greatest sadness in my life occurred in the mid-nineties regarding my relationship with my biological son. He had become a fundamentalist. He volunteered for what is known as an Ex-Gay Ministry. His only reason for getting involved was that he was distraught over my gay lifestyle. He actually got a job with another Ex-Gay ministry and moved to Memphis with his wife. When he and his wife became pregnant with my first grandchild, he announced that he “would not sit at table with an unrepentant sinner.” Therefore, I have been estranged from my son, his wife and four of my grandchildren ever since.

Tell me about your childhood – what influenced you to become a minister?

My parents met in youth fellowship at the First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Washington, Pennsylvania. My father was an elder, my mother was a deacon, so I went to church as a baby and never stopped. That was just part of our life – going to church, going to Sunday School, every Sunday. Church was where I met all my friends and that was my community, the first place I was in leadership. Just everything about the church I loved.

I was very close to my paternal grandmother who lived in our home. My father and mother had lived in her home when they were first married. My father was an over-the-road truck driver who never had the equipment to make it truly successful, so we were borderline poverty. My mother worked as a meat-wrapper in a grocery store – the highest hourly wage she ever made was $1.25, but in my mind she was the steady wage earner. It was an interesting life. My grandmother was a member of the same church, but she had a much more fundamentalist bent. She taught me and she was my religious teacher.

I was the youngest of three boys. When I was born my mother said, “Oh, no. Not another one.” In some way I became the girl of the family with traditional girl roles. I enjoyed helping my grandmother with the housework. I loved just sitting at her feet and she’d tell me stories, but she also told me that God kept a ledger and you had red marks for every good deed you did and black marks for every bad deed you did. And when you died God totaled up the red marks and the black marks. So you better watch out. You can’t dance or play cards or drink or gamble. Those were all black marks. I mostly accepted this as my way of life.

So your dad was gone for long stretches?

He tried to come home on weekends for church. Sometimes he’d call Saturday night at 1:00 a.m. and tell my mother to come pick him up, because he didn’t want to drive the truck in from the turnpike. So we’d get in the car and go get him and get back at three and get up and go to church. He wanted to be part of the family and be there, but he never knew when the next load would be available – it was a very chaotic life.

My father’s father died when he was thirteen, so he became the head of the household. He was the oldest boy, and took care of his mother since he was 13. My father wanted to be with people – he was a very gregarious person, wanted to own a motel and a restaurant, yet his life just never worked out to those expectations.

You wanted to be a minister at the age of 8. How did you know at such a young age?

Well, one day I was playing baseball in the neighborhood and my grandmother asked me to come in and help her with the housework, and I refused, and kept playing. When I got home that night, my father was home – sometimes he’d be there the whole week because he didn’t have a job. So I was punished. I don’t remember getting the belt that night – sometimes I got the belt. That was often my mother or grandmother saying, “Wait ‘til your father gets home.” But I remember being punished and feeling really bad.

And that evening my grandmother died of a heart attack in our home. I could hear her struggling to breathe. When she died, I believed that I had killed her. I was responsible. So in some ways being a minister was to make up for that big black mark. I remember, it was also the first time I’d ever seen my father cry – I caused my father to cry. I tried to tell them I was sorry for what I done. But they were in their own grief. They never heard me. I had a cousin with whom I was very close, and I told her that I was responsible for my grandmother’s death, and she just dismissed it.

And so I felt unheard. I knew it and nobody else did. So I carried with me a huge guilt and yet it all fit together in my life, anyhow. I remember one time when I was 11, there was an evangelist at church. I knew he was an evangelist because he had swung his jacket off when he preached. My father wanted to introduce me to him because it was a great source of pride to him that I was going to be a minister – he told everybody. And so this evangelist dropped to his knees when I walked up to him, and I looked at him and he said, “I’m on my knees because I don’t want you to look up to me, I don’t want you to look up to anybody but God. And now, I want you to make me a promise. Promise me you’ll never touch a drop.”

And I had to look up to my father and ask, “A drop? What does that mean?” He said, “Alcohol,” and I said, “OK.”

And the preacher said, “Now don’t just promise me; you go home and you promise God.” And I kept that promise – through high school and college. I was a goody-goody. I had to be a model for everybody. I couldn’t do anything wrong. I was going to be a minister.

If you hadn’t been a pastor, what would you have done?

Howard in his Student Church in 1966.

Since I served as a student pastor for the last three years of college, when I attended Yale Divinity School, I didn’t want to do another church job right away. I was very passionate about social justice issues, and so through my seminary coursework and a variety of internships I was an assistant English teacher at an inner-city high school, a counselor at a mental health outpatient clinic, and a law clerk with Legal Assistance in New Haven. These were all part of my Divinity School years, but they evolved me away from what I had always wanted to be, a minister.

William Sloane Coffin was my mentor [see the March LINK for more on this relationship]. And we were anti-war activists. I didn’t have to take any deliberate steps; I avoided the draft purely by luck of my draft number.

At Yale I really thought about going into Law. There was the Black Panther trial in New Haven, the Kent State murders, the Vietnam wars. I was attuned to injustice and had become kind of radicalized. When the Black Panthers were on the New Haven Green, word was in the suburbs that vigilante groups were forming and that anyone black would be shot. And so with Reverend Coffin we planned a civil protest, and I planned to be willing to be arrested. Coffin negotiated an agreement at the last moment to avoid arrest. Every school at Yale had to figure out their role: law students taught people what to do when they were arrested. Medical students were there as medics, and the Divinity School decided to go off to the churches in the suburbs where vigilante groups were formed, and try to teach them right from wrong. They said, “No, thank you!” Nobody likes someone to come in and tell them what’s wrong with them. So the demonstration happened. It was the same day that the Kent State murders happened. Nobody was shot in New Haven but it was a huge event. I considered switching to become a politician – maybe I could do more as a politician! I became a legal assistant because I was still in this mindset to work for justice. I realized that being a minister wasn’t the only way to serve God.

So I was considering maybe I could be a politician, a senator, the President, and I went to Legal Assistance. I managed the intakes, and they put me in charge of housing because the housing lawyer quit the day I started. I was the one that handled all the landlord-tenant disputes to get them ready for court. People came with real need of emotional and spiritual support, but in my role, I couldn’t provide that, only legal assistance in the strictest sense. And I thought, “I’m not going to law school.”

When I graduated from Yale, the Disciples of Christ told me they would ordain me to a call, but the only call they would consider me for was small rural churches. I thought, “I’ve done that.” I wanted to be an Assistant Pastor in a justice oriented church in a large metropolitan area with a university. This was 1972 – as fate would have it, I wouldn’t have that job until 2010 [at Mayflower UCC].

My wife wanted a baby and I needed a job, and so I applied to be a Probation Officer, but I didn’t get it because I didn’t believe in capital punishment. Subsequently I replied to a three-by-five card on the divinity school bulletin board, and applied to be the Program Director at the University of Minnesota YMCA, and was hired, even though I didn’t even know where Minnesota was.

After I was hired by the YMCA, I wanted to be ordained as a campus minister. I first asked William Sloan Coffin to ordain me at Yale. He declined, saying “No, you need to go home,” and he offered to accompany me and preach at my ordination. So I was ordained by my mentor in my home church. That’s one significant reason why I say I’ve been blessed.

While still employed by the YMCA, I studied for one year on a specially funded grant. I studied in London, and I served half-time as the first hospice chaplain at Bethesda Hospital, which was the first hospice in Minnesota. I also founded the Coalition for Terminal Care and served half-time as its first Director as part of the grant. After the grant year, I was asked to help found the Abbott-Northwestern Hospital Hospice Program. I wasn’t the founder of hospice in Minnesota, but I helped pull people together through the Coalition.

At that time the Disciples didn’t recognize my hospice work as ministry, and I didn’t fight it because I didn’t feel like I needed their recognition to be a minister. That’s an interesting thing because as I mentioned before, at eight I really did.

How did you come to join the UCC?

Howard revisiting his original pulpit in 2000.

Well, in 1999 I feel like I came home to the UCC. The UCC was more a part of me than anything else. It was much more like Coffin, more like Yale. The first church I attended in Minnesota was University Baptist where David Bartlett was my minister, the closest thing to Coffin that I could find. When he transferred I ended up moving to the north side of Minneapolis and attended a small Presbyterian church for the next 22 years.

After moving to New Brighton I started attending the United Church of Christ in New Brighton where John Buttrey was the minister. John happened to be a Yale Divinity School graduate. The church was right near where we were living, and the UCC church welcomed me in. I thought that the God is Still Speaking campaign was built for me.

Then in 2002 Karen Smith-Sellers served as the Interim Minister for the United Church of Christ in New Brighton. She encouraged me to get standing – she said you have gifts, and you are already doing ministry, so you should have standing in the UCC. I had left hospice in 1987 to work briefly at the MN AIDS Project. When my position was discontinued there, I was invited to be the founding Executive Director of Pathways, a Health Crisis Resource Center where I served for twenty years. Karen’s suggestion led me to seek a Four-Way Covenant including Pathways which was approved in 2007. This gave me an entrance back into church ministry when I “retired” from Pathways in 2008.

It hasn’t been a self-directed life. I’ve been open to God’s guidance, the slow revealing of a variety of gifts that I have, and God’s encouragement to use them. Being an interim pastor just opened more possibilities. After Christopher and I had been together for 23 years, we got married in 2013 when it was legal. So in the UCC I discovered that I could be gay and still be a Christian, and then lo and behold, I could be gay and in the ministry. Thinking back, once I came to be aware of being gay in the 80’s I thought that ministry was behind me, and I was just lucky to be working in the hospice where they didn’t care. But there was still the fateful pull to church ministry in retirement.

With all due respect, you’ve done one of the worst jobs of retiring of nearly anyone that I know.

Since I retired I served three years at Mayflower, I served as the Minnesota Conference Minister for four months, I served in Falcon Heights for three months, 16 months in Edina, 17 months in Saint Paul Park, and I was ready to pick up the phone to tell Rick Wagner, Give me a break! when he said, “How about Saint Anthony Park Sabbatical?”

How has the UCC changed over the years? What are you excited about for the future of the UCC?

The UCC has much more visibility now as an LGBTQ, open and affirming mainline Protestant church.

Truth is, the UCC never expected to be a denomination for long – it was intending to keep merging with others, reconciling and congregating. For example, the UCC and the Disciples of Christ had concrete conversations to merge, and eventually came into full ecumenical partnership in 1989, but the Disciples had different views on the sacraments of communion and baptism. Also, when I sought to be authorized, the Disciples refused to consider me because I was openly gay. There have been conversations with the ELCA, American Baptists. There’s a part of me that thinks as we grow and align with like-minded congregations on LGBT and other issues that we will have a greater voice for justice in the world.

What question haven’t I asked that I should have asked?

I’m thinking about my time at SAPUCC. When I’ve gone into every other church, I’m there to fix what’s wrong or to look at what went wrong in the past, what went right in the past. This sabbatical, I’m explicitly not doing any of that, which is a welcome break for me, and yet it’s also hard for me. I don’t see anything broken. I don’t see anything that needs to change. And yet it’s what this Lenten season is about, both as individuals and as a community. How can we go deeper? Are we fulfilled spiritually? I see wonderful spiritual leaders at SAP, the Deacon program, the Chancel choir, and the Adult Forum is just phenomenal. I’ve been in churches that had a total of two adult education sessions in 17 months. I treasure the gifts that are here, and yet it’s still in my nature to seek and wonder how can I connect with individuals, how can I connect in a way that will get people to ask themselves, “What is God calling us to, as individuals, as Christians, as members of Saint Anthony Park?” Answering these questions, finding out what more the congregation desires to get from their experience here, this is what makes me excited for each day.

This interview was conducted by Adam Gordon. It has been edited for clarity.

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