It’s a new era at Holy Trinity Community Church.
Nearly three years after the departure of the church’s popular founding pastor, The Reverend Dr. Brice Thomas answered the call last September to be Holy Trinity’s lead pastor. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he never thought he would be pastoring a church in the American South. “I never, ever expected I would ever move down here!” he said, laughing.
Ordained in the United Church of Christ back in 2005, Thomas’ first assignment was to a church in a conservative farming community in Southern Ohio that was on the verge of closing. The UCC wanted to re-launch the church as openly LGBTQ+ affirming and, being openly LGBTQ+, Brice Thomas fit the bill. The church saw slow, steady growth over the next five years, utilizing a contemporary-styled service that attracted a younger-skewed crowd, only to fail because it also attracted the ire of that farming community by its acceptance and success.
“We got stuff nailed to our front door,” Thomas explained. “People were picketing outside and local leaders were drafting petitions to move us out of the city. It was pretty tragic.” The church eventually had to close, and Thomas went to work for his seminary and the United Methodist Church afterward, earning his Doctor of Divinity degree during this second period of seminary education.
The Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas is an Air Force veteran from the 1980s, with a coming out story familiar to many who served back then. Rumors of a boyfriend had led the Air Force to suddenly pull his security clearance and place him under formal investigation while he was serving as a Russian language linguist in cold war era Berlin.
Thomas eventually got his clearance back, but the experience left him badly shaken, and he soon left the military. “The minute I got my discharge papers, I walked down the street and got both my ears pierced,” Thomas laughed. His next stop was to audition as a performer in a nearby amusement park, leading to a career in entertainment.
His job would eventually take him to New York City, and there he would face a crisis of confidence that would lead him back into the closet for a season. “I couldn’t handle it anymore,” Thomas explained. “I could not handle the culture, and I could not handle me… I was trying to figure out if I really ‘wanted’ to be gay.”
Estranged from his family and from church, Thomas felt his homosexuality was the problem and had never heard before that he could live his truth as an LGBTQ+ Christian. So he took what he felt was the logical step and tried to live as someone he was not, enrolling in a very conservative Bible college in Texas and voluntarily undergoing so-called “aversion” therapy to control his natural thoughts and feelings. One year later, he was asked to leave the college after admitting that the therapy was not working.
Thomas admits that the time spent at this college had deeply affected him. Their version of Christian practice “was not a message of love and it had nothing to do with people caring for your soul,” he reflected. “It was a religious view steeped in homophobia and fear…It is those types of very fundamentalist Christian communities that do the most damage to our community. Because they communicate this idea that people like us are bad or evil. There is something about each of us that needs to be changed. We’re taught that and we struggle with our identities as a result.”
“From a progressive perspective when we say Jesus is our savior…I am able to interpret that from the idea that Jesus showed us an alternative view of God,” Thomas said, gently trying to explain to this non-Christian writer how he considers himself a progressive-minded Christian while trying to stay true to traditional Christian teaching.
“We have to unpack all that,” Thomas says. “How does what Jesus represents affect us? How do we read that within sacred scripture? How do we interact and connect to other faiths? To the spirit of G-d that is within everyone?”
Thomas understands that it takes time for those who have lived through a negative experience with religion to be healed from the damage incurred and to be reconciled into a relationship with God. He’s been there…
“Sometimes people get upset with me because they feel that I am really hard on the Church,” Thomas followed. “They ask why I am not as hard on other faiths about LGBTQ+ people? That is because there is nothing in my Bible that says to go criticize other religions. Jesus did not do that. He wanted to reform his own community of faith and was calling attention to when religion was being used as a way to control people, where religion was used to separate the elite from those who had no voice.”
Thomas related to me that his friends back in Ohio share the opinion that Southern cities such as Nashville are just not progressive enough for LGBTQ+ people to thrive in. His interview experience last summer convinced him that they were wrong. “I just fell in love with the community here,” Thomas said. “Especially with the community that is Holy Trinity. They are openly accepting and more than just friendly: they are genuinely welcoming.”
He told me the story of his first time at the church, sitting anonymously with the rest of the congregation, bawling his eyes out he was so moved. Holy Trinity represented the kind of church community that he had always longed to be part of.
Thomas says that when he sent his resume out to churches on the West Coast, they told him that his style was a little too contemporary and oriented towards a younger crowd. The coast may rightly be perceived as more LGBTQ+ friendly, but their churches have not fully embraced what the contemporary South has long pioneered: the use of current topics, current music and multimedia technology in a worship service.
When he realized this, and the fact that Nashville had an active drag show ministry (“you’re kidding me!” he remembered thinking, now as one of their biggest supporters), Thomas was sold.
Holy Trinity’s congregation splits about eighty-five percent LGBTQ+ and fifteen percent “straight but not narrow” per Thomas’ estimate. He sees his church as a beloved community of choice, made up of many who are estranged from the birth families and churches that they grew up with.
Thomas feels humbled to be surrounded by the kind of love and affirming identity many LGBTQ+ Christians share. “We have been kicked out, discriminated against, judged and shamed by many of the churches where we were introduced to G-d,” he explained. “What helps us to heal from this oppression? Coming back into a relationship with G-d as your authentic self, as G-d created all of us to be and to affirm in each other.”
That is why Thomas loves Holy Trinity, he confided. He was always looking for a church like this growing up, one focused on healing and acceptance. He truly feels honored to be called as its new pastor.
“Holy Trinity is a place for believers and questioners,” he says. “We’re a place where people can live out their lives and faith together with others who choose to do the same.”
For more information, please visit htccnashville.com or call 615.352.3838