December 8, 2021
In a coifed pink wig, varnished acrylic nails, platform boots and a sparkling, fringed dress, pastor Craig Duke strutted before an audience in southern Indiana as he lip-synced to Kesha’s “We R Who We R.”
“I just wanted to say this,” he said following his drag performance on the HBO series “We’re Here.” “If you’re a person here tonight and you’re wondering if there’s a hope and a future and a god who loves you – oh, yes, there is. Don’t wait until you have permission to do what you were made to do. Go out and love everybody.”
But Duke’s message to the spectators was not met with equal acceptance from some members of Newburgh United Methodist Church, where he served as lead pastor. In an email to the congregation, church leaders said Duke was “relieved from pastoral duties” effective Dec. 1, according to Religion News Service, which first reported the story.
Mitch Gieselman, superintendent of the Indiana United Methodist Conference, said in the email that Duke was not fired and did not resign. He will receive a “significantly reduced salary” through Feb. 28, at which time he and his wife, Linda, will have to move out of their home, which is provided by the church.
“While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke’s actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline,” Gieselman said, according to the Evansville Courier & Press.
Duke did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Tuesday. In an interview with Religion News Service, Duke said he requested a new assignment at the “insistence” of the conference after he received a “negative, bullying, attacking email from a church person.” It was one of several Duke said he received after HBO aired the episode in which he appeared on Nov. 8.
“It just got to the point where the conflict, the anger grew too much, and so for my mental health, too, I started to back away, and I told my district superintendent that the conflict was so much, it was at such a level from some, that I was unable to be an effective leader,” he said.
The church’s leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.
The HBO series Duke participated in follows three drag performers – Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Eureka O’Hara and Bob the Drag Queen – as they travel to small towns across the country transforming locals into drag queens and putting in a performance. The show is meant to inspire acceptance and inclusion for the LGBTQ community.
Duke anticipated there may be blowback from his appearance on the series.
“To do a show like this, it makes me vulnerable to those that are saying that I have crossed the line, that I’m participating in something that is unbecoming to the ministry,” he said in the episode, which took place in Evansville, Ind.
In a conversation with O’Hara, who served as the pastor’s mentor on the show, Duke said he was worried he would lose his ordination. But the possible backlash was worth it, he said. His primary motivation for participating was to show support to his daughter, Tiffany, who had come out as pansexual.
“I think what is special to Tiffany is that Craig is willing to take the risk of losing their house and their position in the church just to show his daughter, like, ‘I’ll support you, I’ll support the community you’re a part of because God loves all of us,'” O’Hara said in the episode.
Duke also wanted to put himself in the shoes of his LGBTQ constituency – “I want to learn to be empathetic, not just sympathetic,” he said. The moments of feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable felt worth it to create more acceptance in the church’s community, he said.
“I go back to so many of the gay constituency that I’ve met who put themselves on the line every day just for being gay,” Duke added. “I think I should be able to do this for them.”
In the email to the congregation, Gieselman said that he received “numerous calls and emails,” some of which were “highly critical” and others that were supportive of Duke’s actions, according to NBC News.
“In such a polarized climate, our main intent is to foster an environment in which both NUMC and the Duke family can move forward in grace,” he said, adding, “In short, Craig has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present.”
In the climax of the episode, choral music played as Duke was introduced by his drag name, Miss Jonah Fark O’Hara. The red curtains opened to him in a white robe with his back to the audience – he was preaching to a group sitting in a half-circle onstage.
“Are you listening? I’ve got something to tell you. Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength; for Jesus said, ‘I do not come into the world to condemn it but to save it.’ And finally, hear this, this is my commandment – that you love one another, not hate one another.”
He then ripped off the robe and turned around, his face made up, eyes adorned with fake lashes and dramatic pink and purple shadow. O’Hara joined Duke onstage, and the two danced to a choreographed routine.
Duke’s daughter looked lovingly at her father with a wide grin – and then her eyes filled with tears.
“You can’t do a drag show like this in southern Indiana and not offend someone,” Duke said earlier in the episode. “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 that my voice will become stronger.”