Friday, June 21, 2024

St. Jude’s, a safe haven for the gay community, arose out of unthinkable tragedy

Trigger warning: This article contains a description of a sexual assault homicide.

St. Jude's MCC, founded in 1992, was Wilmington's first openly gay-accepting institution, outside of the bar scene, when it was formed. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
St. Jude’s MCC, founded in 1992, was one of Wilmington’s first openly gay-accepting institutions when it was formed. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

[This piece is a 2021-2022 N.C. Press Association award winner in the religion and faith reporting category.]

WILMINGTON — Communion cups pre-filled with wafers and grape juice are handed to every soul who walks through the door. 

Beneath rainbow banners, one bearing a white dove, the other sewn with St. Jude’s name, two pianists flutter through an instrumental rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.”

As mingling winds down, parishioners settle into the familiar dance of sitting and standing for hymns, readings of scripture, and call-and-response rituals. 

Flanked by the banners, Reverend John McLaughlin delivers a sermon to a diverse, middle-aged audience of a few dozen members. If not for the rainbows, Sunday’s grandeur isn’t any different from a traditional Christian service. 

Donning a tie-dye rainbow stole, McLaughlin tells the congregation a story from the book of Matthew, when Jesus is said to have dined with tax collectors and “notorious sinners,” drawing confusion from the Pharisees.

He wonders whether he or anyone in the room would have been invited to this table. 

“We are the notorious sinners meant to be kept out,” he told the congregation. “We are often the last resort for people who have been turned away so many times. We have risen from the plateau of normal, everyday sinners –– that they think they are –– to notorious sinners, ones who shock the self-righteous when we dare take our place at the table.”

Celebrating communion every Sunday is a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) ritual, practiced across all locations, he explained at the service. The gesture offers grace to everyone who walks through the church’s threshold, knowing they’ve likely encountered shut doors on the way there. 

“What is most unfortunate, is that a lot of those people playing God with how God’s love should be weeded out call themselves Christian –– the keepers of the keys to God’s kingdom, so they think, ” McLaughlin said to the congregation.

After the service, a woman lamented about the 45-minute drive back home. “There’s nothing in Southport like St. Jude’s!”

‘Followers of the Way’

St. Jude’s MCC was one of Wilmington’s first open, publicly gay-accepting institutions when it was founded in 1992. 

“Other than going to a bar, there was only St. Jude’s,” McLaughlin said in an interview. 

The church isn’t typically anyone’s first choice; most members feel slighted by other organizations and eventually find their way to the old Odd Fellows Lodge on Market Street, seated behind a deep grassy lawn. Lately, a majority of new members are actually straight, McLaughlin said, uncomfortable with messages received elsewhere. 

St. Jude’s was Rina Barnette’s fifth or sixth church since moving to Wilmington 11 months ago. She Googled “inclusive church Wilmington” to find it. When she arrives on Sundays, people hug her. She feels welcome. 

St. Jude’s has all the traditional church elements, without the judgement. “I don’t feel like: ‘Oh, you’re divorced, you’re going to hell. Your son is gay, he’s going to hell,’” Barnette said. A divorced mother of two biracial children and a gay son, Barnette said she’s uncomfortable not standing up for her family: “I feel like as a mom, it’s my duty to be an advocate for him.”

When he first came out as a teenager, Barnette said her son received backlash from the church, leaving him guarded in his 20s to tip-toe back into a Christian environment. “He’s been here with me,” she said. “He liked it, but he still is very jaded.”

After a career in marketing, McLaughlin was elected senior pastor of St. Jude’s in 2010. Raised Catholic, McLaughlin said he’s known he was gay since he was at least 3 years old.

In his mid-30s, McLaughlin and a man he was dating were beaten outside a dance club in Washington, D.C.; the man later died from his injuries. He was pointed to an MCC church in D.C. in the grieving process, an offset Protestant denomination founded by the principle of inclusivity. Always emboldened with an organic knowing that who he was isn’t wrong, he one day asked his MCC pastor how to defend homosexuality from a theological perspective so he could academically explain it to others. She suggested he go to seminary, so he did.

Maybe he’d be a chaplain in a hospital, he figured. When a position at Wilmington’s MCC opened, he applied. Even though he had no experience, he ultimately landed the role. Now, he can speak the same language as detractors. 

“There are seven passages in the Bible out of 33,000 that we call the ‘clobber passages,’ that people pull out and clobber gays over the head with them,” he said. 

According to McLaughlin, the etymology of the term “homosexual” in the Bible instead references extramarital sex (he also takes issue with the carnal nature of the term, which minimizes romantic attraction over sexual preferences). He references a passage in Deuteronomy that compels elders to stone rebellious children to death outside of city gates. 

“Do you know how many kids we’d be killing? But the Bible says so,” he said. “Why aren’t we killing children?”

In years past, protestors have picketed ceremonies, with loud speakers and “God hates fags” signs. 

Today, St. Jude’s office administrator fields sinister calls that warn of an everlasting inferno. Every week or so, physical hate mail arrives. 

“I just got one,” McLaughin said. “I can look at the envelope and see the childlike writing on it and be like, ‘Oh, I bet this is hate mail.’ You open it up and it’s fire –– literally pictures of fire: ‘You’re going to hell.’”

McLaughlin cringes at the idea of being grouped in with Christians: “I’ll never give up the word ‘Christian’ but it’s been so hijacked and taken by right-wing evangelical political power players who care nothing about what Jesus said.”

He prefers “Followers of the Way.” 

“My approach to the Bible is not verse by verse, every verse is true,” he said. “My personal theology or understanding of God is that the Holy Spirit, that cosmic energy will meet me every single day and help me be the best person I can be that day, and then I thank God at night and try again tomorrow,” he said. 

Donna Merritt plays the piano beneath a rainbow banner at St. Jude’s in June. Merritt has played at the church for nearly 20 years, first arriving after being told she broke Pine Valley Baptist Church’s “morality clause” for playing at Costello’s, an old gay bar downtown. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Remembering Talana

Cherished as a place for inclusivity, St. Jude’s arose out of an unthinkable form of exclusivity. 

In 1990, no churches in town would agree to bury the body of a 32-year-old gay woman, disemboweled in a heinous murder. 

Talana Quay Kreeger was an earth- and animal-loving carpenter who treated strangers like friends. With thick, naturally curly blonde hair and a distinctive birthmark on her cheek, she was known to sport work boots and jean jackets. After a tough upbringing, her friends described her as easygoing. 

Kreeger and her friends frequented Park View, a lesbian bar situated across from Greenfield Lake (where The Dubliner is today). Park View was one of three gay bars in town, the only establishments in the late ‘80s and ‘90s where anyone in the gay community could settle into a bar stool without looking over their shoulder. 

She had recently painted the bar peach (not pink, she insisted to her friends). On a cool February night, she was working on renovations to fix it up before grabbing a drink to relax for the evening. 

After hours of shooting pool, Kreeger hopped into Ronald Thomas’ sleeper cabin, a trucker who she and her friends met at the bar that night. She had always wanted to ride in an 18-wheeler, she told them. The group had plans to meet up at Hardee’s down the road for a late-night bite, but the trucker and Kreeger never arrived as planned. 

Statements to law enforcement reveal Thomas sexually assaulted Kreeger after arguing with her about homosexuality. He repeatedly punched her; she landed at least one punch back, but his 260-pound frame overcame her. Thomas then raped her with his hand so violently he disemboweled her. 

After dragging her body nearly 130 feet into the woods off Carolina Beach Road, he later told officers she told him: “Leave me alone and let me die.” 

A pathologist later testified she would have remained conscious the entire time. 

When the sun rose, Thomas made his scheduled delivery, dropping off crates of oranges at Hoggard High School. While still on campus, Kreeger’s friend, the bar owner, phoned a school employee and positively ID’d Thomas in his white truck. He denied having met or knowing Kreeger’s whereabouts. 

The son of a fundamentalist preacher, Thomas made it nearly 100 miles down the highway before pulling over to find a priest in a phone book. He then confessed his crime to the priest and a deputy at a convenience store over a coffee. Thomas was given two life sentences; the gay community wanted death. 

The harrowing events are painstakingly chronicled in the locally produced documentary, “Park View,” which premiered last February on the 30th anniversary of Kreeger’s death at the only church that would agree to lay her body to rest. 

Tab Ballis, a private practice clinician, pieced together “Park View” over a 17-year period. “In some ways, it feels like … I’ve been kind of haunted by Talana’s spirit and that she wants her story told,” he said. 

Though Ballis struggled with whether it was his place to make the film, he ultimately relented, believing it may help stimulate healing by confronting unresolved community trauma.

“At times I questioned: Is it right for an older, straight, white guy to be attempting to tell the story?” he said. “As it turned out, it seemed like no one else would or could.”

As technology advanced, Ballis landed more interviews, teaching himself video editing software along the way. The end product is linked together with an “amateur level of editing,” he admitted, but features an otherwise fully untold story that many Wilmington natives have never heard. 

Ballis often hears from new gay residents: “‘Where are all the gay people? They’re not visible, they’re not open.’ That’s part of the long-term result of hate crimes. It traumatizes communities, it drives people underground, it makes people reluctant to be visible.” 

Prosecutors, law enforcement, and the press made no explicit mention of Kreeger’s sexual identity at the time. The omission prompted press criticism featured in the film, with the StarNews (née The Wilmington Morning Star) condemned for rendering Kreeger “a body found in the woods” while her killer was humanized, likened to a “teddy bear,” in court reporting covering the defense’s arguments. 

District Attorney Ben David shared the entire case file with Ballis, revealing Thomas’ lengthy confessions that detail a clear-cut motive orbiting Kreeger’s sexuality. Former StarNews reporter Scott Whisnant, who is featured in the film in a segment documented more than a decade ago, told Port City Daily while it was clear Kreeger was likely a gay woman, not an ounce of solid information to confirm Kreeger’s sexuality was ever revealed inside or outside of the courtroom. Interjecting that wasn’t Whisnant’s role, he said, and based on information available at the time, wouldn’t have been germane.

“You didn’t then, and I don’t think you do now, out people,” he said. “I think the standard in 1990 and the standard in 2021 is people’s sexuality is private and not necessarily the public’s business unless for some reason it drives what’s happening in front of you. In that trial, her sexuality was never made public and it was never alleged Thomas acted the way he did because she was lesbian.” 

After the trial, Whisnant remembers writing a feature story on Kreeger, a piece the paper wouldn’t normally put out, to give her more depth. Whisnant assumes the state was less likely to present Kreeger’s sexuality in court, fearing it would render a jury less sympathetic to her. 

Today, North Carolina remains one of 17 states that does not grant LGBTQ+ motivated offenses a hate-crime designation. This makes accurately tracking attacks on the LGBTQ+ community impossible. 

Talana Kreeger was a carpenter by trade and enjoyed and the outdoors. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy “Park View”)

‘Church in a box’

In the aftermath of Kreeger’s murder, the gay community arranged unpublished plans for her funeral, mapped out by a trail of low-lying balloons. The day of, the pastor was informed the decesed was a lesbian and called off the funeral. Wilmington Police Department officers redirected the procession. Only the Church of the Good Shepherd would take her. 

The mixup pried an already excruciating wound deeper. 

“You had to learn to cling to each other and tote your own crosses,” local activist Frank Harr said in “Park View,” filmed before his 2008 death. “These were our crosses. The only way to do that was to create our own institutions.”

Like Ballis, Harr said Kreeger’s spirit lingered over him, visiting him in dreams, screaming “don’t let them forget me,” he told the filmmaker. 

Harr, his longtime partner Ken Cox, and others started “church in the box” in the years that followed Kreeger’s death, loading crosses and Bibles into the trunk of their cars for a homemade nighttime service at the unitarian church across from Roland Grise Middle School. The congregation eventually blossomed into its first physical location in an old wooden church off Castle and 5th streets. 

They called it St. Jude’s –– the saint of lost causes. 

“Never again will we have to hunt for that place to bury our dead,” Harr said in “Park View.” “Never again will we have to hunt for that place to bless your union. We won’t have to depend on the outside world.”


Following Harr’s death, Cox started the Frank Harr Foundation. Today, it serves as a resource hub for the LGBTQ+ community and organizations. 

Longtime executive director Shelly O’Rourke was neighbors with Harr in the early 2000s, and remembers him for his smooth Southern drawl and a steadfast dedication to the cause. Harr took another neighbor, who admitted she was adverse to him and his partner living together next door, on nightly walks after dinner to try and win her over, O’Rourke remembers. 

“What Frank would say is, ‘We gotta educate the people,’” she said. “His firm belief was that hate came from fear and fear came from ignorance. His mission in life was to show people that queer people were safe and normal –– and that they were everywhere.”

Today, the foundation does just that. The group advocates and educates, most recently aiding Novant Health in reshaping their onboarding paperwork so that a transgender individual isn’t called by their birth name in a waiting room. 

McLaughlin serves on the board of the Frank Harr Foundation and said he enjoys the city’s flexible patchwork of Pride organizations, which all overlap and coordinate in some way. 

St. Jude’s original founders still attend service, nearly 30 years later, bearing scars from a time in town newcomers wouldn’t know to have reverence of. A bench in the church’s backyard –– Talana’s bench –– has survived through multiple hurricanes, while the others were damaged.  

Speaking to the congregation on a Sunday in June, McLaughlin told them not to worry about the self-appointed gatekeepers to the kingdom of heaven’s guestlist.

“When God created St. Jude’s MCC, God had already planned it out that the notorious sinners of the past would become the light-bearers of God’s love for the future,” he said. “That’s why we do not put the light of God’s love under a bushel and hide it from others. We hold that light high and offer that light above to everyone.”

Rev. John McLaughlin has lead St. Jude's MCC in Wilmington for over a decade. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Rev. John McLaughlin has led St. Jude’s MCC in Wilmington for over a decade. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

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