By Denny Patterson
The Sunshine Cathedral, located at 1480 SW Ninth Ave, is a different kind of church where the past is the past, and the future has infinite possibilities. The Cathedral’s sole mission is to rescue religion from irrelevance, practice positive thinking, be justice workers, build community, value diversity, and help people experience peace, hope, and joy in their lives. Rooted in the Christian tradition and the Gay Rights Movement, the Sunshine Cathedral is an inclusive church for all kinds of people. There is no need to feel afraid or judged. Sunshine Cathedral will welcome you with open arms.
Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins was ordained in 1997 and served as a student pastor for four years before being ordained. He says that he is on a lifelong spiritual quest, and the last 13 years of that quest has been right within the walls of Sunshine Cathedral. I had the pleasure of chatting more with him about the Sunshine Cathedral, why people should join, and how religion and churches have been evolving in terms of catering to the LGBTQ community.
Let me start off by asking, why did you choose this profession?
This is the sort of profession that chooses you. In my case, I was always a religious person, and I knew that religion would always be a primary part of my life, but that is just the beginning. Ministry is a lifetime commitment, a lifetime of ongoing education, and a lot of hard work. If one feels called to it, pursues it, sees the fruit of the labor, is energized by the work (even in the hard times), and continues to offer the work as service to the God of one’s understanding and to the community of faith, then one knows that ministry was the work she or he was meant to do.
Does Sunshine Cathedral belong to a certain/specific type of religion? Catholicism, Presbyterian, etc.?
Sunshine Cathedral is ecumenical. We have a historic relationship with Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), but we are also a member church of the International Council of Community Churches (ICCC), through which we have representation on World and National Church Councils, and we hold membership in the Divine Science Federation. Our parishioners are mostly Christian, but we also have Jewish, Muslim, and even Agnostic members. Our clergy come from Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic backgrounds. We tend to think of ourselves as post-denominational and trans-denominational.
And the majority of your parishioners are people from the LGBTQ community?
About 90% of our congregants identify as LGBTQ.
Why did you want to be involved with Sunshine Cathedral?
Sunshine Cathedral is a progressive, vibrant community situated in Paradise. It had a solid foundation and unlimited possibilities for future outreach and good work. In the last 43 of Sunshine Cathedral’s almost 48-year history, there have only been three senior pastors. John Gill (eight years), Grant Ford (22 years), and myself (13 years so far). Its history of long serving senior ministers says something positive about Sunshine Cathedral. My two immediate predecessors were both people I admired. It was an honor to follow them.
What kind of impact has Sunshine Cathedral made not only on the LGBTQ community, but the South Florida community overall?
That is for the people who have been served to determine. We have become a major arts venue, and we have developed food sharing programs by helping people get their nutritional needs met. Our campus is home to dozens of organizations: 12 step groups, the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida, the Metaphysical Chapel of South Florida, the McArtor Senior Center, and some SunServe programs. Our worship services are “progressive, positive, and practical” which can appeal to people of all orientations. Our facilities are used for weddings, funerals, and even preschool graduation events. We offer pastoral care, like visits, prayer, referrals, etc. to hundreds of people each year. We collaborate with other faith and service organizations like SunServe, BOLD Justice, The Global Justice Institute, etc, and we have satellite worship and support services at Rehab and Assisted Living facilities. So, we make real efforts to bless people of all walks of life. Again, to what degree we have succeeded is for others to decide, but our efforts are sincere and continuous.
What would you say is the number one reason why people should join Sunshine Cathedral?
People should seek spiritual growth and fulfillment, and while some soul searching can be done in solitude, we also need community. Sunshine Cathedral is a place where we are encouraged as we pursue our spiritual journeys. Sunshine Cathedral affirms the omnipresence of an eternal Love that many call “God” and we further affirm that since we are all in and a part of this divine Presence, we each, without exception, have sacred value. I believe that is a faith experience worth sharing. Also, we have a lot of fun.
What is your opinion on the facts that many people are turning away from churches and religion?
As you say, it is a fact that many people are searching beyond church and synagogue, mosque and meeting house for spiritual fulfillment. I believe that people who are honestly seeking will find something wonderful on their search. I also believe that when religion gives up guilt and shame and focuses more on hope and love and compassion, that more people will find religion useful again. At Sunshine Cathedral, we try to practice guilt-free religion. Spirituality should be joyous and empowering, never onerous or scary.
Why do you think many churches and religions specifically target the LGBTQ community with hate and discrimination?
Misogyny has something to do with it. Attitudes about gender roles play a huge part in homophobia. Beyond that, people who do not feel good about themselves will seek a group to look down on. Jesus, quoting the Torah, said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The truth is, that is what we are always doing. We are always loving others as much, or as little, as we love ourselves. People who have been taught to hate themselves need someone else to hate more. Queer people are one of the targets. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, strong women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities and others have also been targets. Until we love ourselves, hate will always be a problem.
Has Sunshine Cathedral ever been directly targeted by hate? If so, how did you overcome it?
We have had to paint over a few swastikas, and we have gotten some hate mail now and then. There is the occasional snarky comment on social media, but we focus on the good we wish to do in the world and on the light within our faithful members. We feel very blessed to be able to serve this community and we are focused on the work we feel called to do. Luckily, we live in an enlightened community. Fort Lauderdale is not perfect, but it is a lot more diverse and tolerant than many other cities.
Although many churches and religions discriminate against the LGBTQ community, do you think there are many that are also becoming more accepting?
Definitely. There are more affirming congregations and denominations and more vocal LGBTQ advocates in mainline pulpits than ever before. Queer people are both students and faculty members at many seminaries. There is still a lot of hate and misinformation and fear in the world, but there has been a lot of progress, too.
What do you hope Sunshine Cathedral accomplishes within the next year?
We always have goals, but all our goals are variations of the primary goal: to help more people believe in and celebrate their sacred value. We want more people to be healed of the pain imposed on them by fundamentalism. We want more transgender people to live with freedom and joy as the person they know themselves to be. We want more straight allies to find a place where they can offer their love to LGBTQ people while also being affirmed for who they are. We want more people who are grieving to know that they need not bear their burdens alone. The programming will grow, the efforts will expand, but the goal is always the same, to let more people know that they are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
For more information about Sunshine Cathedral, visit www.SunshineCathedral.org, call (954) 462-2004, or connect with them on Facebook and Instagram. Worship services are on Sundays at 9:00AM and 10:30AM.