Fire Guts LGBTQ-Embracing Middle Collegiate Church

Firefighters work to put out heavy fire at the roof of Middle Collegiate Church during a six-alarm fire.
Lloyd Mitchell

Firefighters battled through the morning on December 5 to bring under control a massive inferno that gutted the historic Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village.

The six-alarm blaze began at 4:48 a.m. inside a vacant, five-story building adjacent to the house of worship at the corner of Second Avenue and East Seventh Street. Flames then quickly spread to the church, constructed in 1892 as a new home for one of the first religious congregations in New York history.

Fire Department officials said the flames first developed on the first floor of the vacant building, then rapidly spread to the floors above and the adjacent Middle Collegiate Church.

Middle Collegiate has for decades served as a beacon in New York, championing social and racial justice issues and making itself a welcoming home for many in the LGBTQ community.

Within moments of the fire breaking out, flames could be seen pouring out of every floor of the vacant building and many of the church’s dozen Tiffany stained glass windows. City Councilmember Carlina Rivera reported on Twitter there is “significant damage” to the house of worship.

Firefighters on the scene on Second Avenue just below East Seventh Street.Lloyd Mitchell

No civilians were reported injured, but the Fire Department said three firefighters wound up being hospitalized for injuries not considered life-threatening. After daybreak, firefighters were still at the scene working to extinguish hot spots.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Reverend Jacqueline L. Lewis, Middle Collegiate Church’s senior minister known to her congregants as Reverend Jacqui, expressed heartbreak over the destructive inferno, but also resolve to rebuild and continue the church’s mission.

“We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love,” Lewis tweeted. “We thank God that there has been no loss of life. We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones.”

Members of the Middle Collegiate Church have been holding virtual services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lewis wrote that would continue on Sunday in spite of the tragic fire.

The roots of Middle Collegiate Church date back to 1628, when Manhattan was part of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.

The church’s current East Village sanctuary was constructed in 1892 and houses what the congregation calls New York’s Liberty Bell, which rang on July 9, 1776 — five days after America declared its independence from Great Britain — from the church’s original sanctuary on Nassau Street in the Financial District.

The bell moved with the church over the years and is traditionally rung to mark every inauguration and death of an American president.

The late Jerriese Johnson, who founded Middle Collegiate’s gospel choir.Middlechurch.org

Co-affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church of America, today’s Middle Collegiate Church takes pride in having “one of the leading multicultural, multiracial congregations in the United States” and promoting marriage and racial equality.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Middle Collegiate Church has allocated 10 percent of its budget to programming related to the Black Lives Matter movement, and allocated grants to help struggling individuals pay their rent or mortgages.

For many queer New Yorkers, Middle Collegiate is a bastion of inclusiveness and love.

Writing in 2008 in Gay City News, Kate Walter recalled first attending the church after a difficult break-up with a longtime partner. She arrived there shortly after Middle Collegiate had come under fire from its parent denomination, the Reformed Church of America, for its advocacy of marriage equality.

“I like being pastor of a church that is being disciplined for its positions,” Reverend Jacquie told her congregation.

A dance performance during a service at Middle Collegiate Church.Middlechurch.org

The church’s motto is “Welcoming, Artistic, Inclusive, Bold,” and Walters recalled a dance theater piece staged for World AIDS Day and the December Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas that was centered on an HIV-positive pregnant woman on the Lower East Side.

The church’s renowned and rocking gospel choir was founded in 1986 — when the beloved Reverend Gordon Dragt was still pastor — by Jerriese Johnson, an HIV-positive, African-American gay man who was an actor and singer. When Johnson died several years later from AIDS-related causes, the choir was renamed in his honor.

In 2016, the choir was awarded the Best Float Prize in Manhattan’s LGBTQ Pride March. A decade earlier, Gay City News’ Andy Humm wrote about the church’s float that included “a boisterous mix of brilliantly-clad drag queens and congregants wearing identical lavender T-shirts,” joined by Reverend Dragt, who was by then retired.

The Jerriese Johnson Gospel Choir has been featured on NBC’s “Today Show,” and has performed at numerous prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall and the Public Theater.

Middle Collegiate is also noted for its World AIDS Day commemorations, including playing host to Downtown Music Productions’ musical series of works composed by composers who died from AIDS causes and named for the late Eric Benson, a gifted composer, performer, and writer. The 2015 program included pieces by Chris de Blasio, Kevin Oldham, Richard Jetter, and Robert Chesley — as well as from other LGBTQ artists, including songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and “A Simple Song,” the first movement of Copland’s “Sonata #1 for Violin and Piano.”

One regular attendee at Middle Collegiate was Tituss Burgess (best known for his role in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) who in 2012 gave a live streaming concert of his gospel album “Welcome.”

Photographer Bill Bytsura, who two years ago published “The AIDS Activist Project,” an astonishing album of portraits chronicling leading figures in the AIDS activist community in New York and worldwide, first displayed his collection at Middle Collegiate before taking it to venues around the globe including the National Gallery of Australia

For decades, Middle Collegiate has also opened its doors to LGBTQ recovering alcoholics. The East Village Group, which originally had meetings on Tuesdays and Saturdays — and has since expanded its schedule — helped countless queer New Yorkers struggling with the disease find a venue where they felt comfortable talking about the fullness of their lives.

This story is adapted from Robert Pozarycki’s story that appeared in Gay City News’ sister publication amny.com. To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.

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