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Photo Credit JMH Creative

Celebrating A Half Century of Sunshine

By John Hayden

From the exciting early days of the gay liberation movement to the depths of the AIDS crisis to the triumph of marriage equality Sunshine Cathedral has been a constant guiding light in South Florida. Now they are preparing to celebrate a half century of service. October 2021 marks their 50th anniversary and the pastors and congregants know this is a special milestone. “It’s amazing to be part of something that came out of the gay rights movement,” Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins told OutClique. “In 1971 it was part of that time when liberation was in the air and movements were started. We’re from the early days of that and still here. I’m proud of how we stood up for gay rights. I’m proud of how we were a comforting presence in the AIDS years and I’m very proud of how we stood up for marriage equality.”

As Senior Minister, Watkins believes Sunshine’s future is as bright as its past. “Sunshine Cathedral continues to grow up and now grow old. It’s amazing to be part of a legacy and a part of history. A lot of things come and go but to be still here and adapting and growing and changing.”

The church has been a touchstone and meeting place since its inception. Executive Minister Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin says the community formed organically and continues to weave itself into the fabric of Broward county. “People either met here for their organizational meeting or people from the church started those organizations or somehow there’s an affiliation even down to the softball teams or the soccer teams, whatever it was [Sunshine Cathedral] spearheaded a lot of these groups and activities.”

The  Church originally hoped to have a year of celebratory activities, but most were cancelled due to the pandemic. Now Rev. Griffin says they are scheduling a packed month. “One weekend the Cathedral Foundation is going to have a reception and lay out plans for the capital campaign. Another weekend is going to be a concert.” Planned celebrations include their Anniversary Concert on October 2, 2021, a historic display at Stonewall National Museum & Archives on October 6, 2021, and an Anniversary Community Choir Concert on October 16, 2021. Scheduled to appear are Opera Fusion, Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida, Pride Wind Ensemble, NOVA Singers and the Sunshine Cathedral Choir.

While celebrating the present and the past, the church is also excited for the future, a future that Minister of Connections Rev. Dr. Anne Atwell says will be largely shaped by lessons learned during the pandemic. “The last year was eye-opening for us. It showed us that there are a lot of ways we can reach the LGBTQ+ community. For quite a long time we had talked about doing a live broadcast and then all of a sudden this is what we’re doing. This is what we have to do and this is what we want to do.” The streaming services have created new opportunities to reach new communities. “Our Sunshine community global fellowship has just exploded. It’s not uncommon for us to have 30,000 views for our live worship during the course of a week. We went from a congregation of a few hundred during season to a weekly attendance of people watching our worship service throughout the week of up to 30,000 people. It’s incredible”

Sunshine Cathedral _Exterior
Photo Credit JMH Creative

The pandemic turned many people into shut-ins, and Rev. Atwell and the team saw another need to be filled. “We do a midday prayer Monday through Saturday at noon. People know they can log on and will see one of the clergy staff doing a midday prayer. It’s five minutes, it’s not an extended thing but it’s something. For people who were stuck in their homes for a long time and not able to get out it’s a point of connection.”

Sunshine Cathedral has also expanded its food sharing program, and continues to serve as a place for the community to gather for more than just spiritual needs. Rev. Watkins says it’s something that comes with the church’s age and experience. “The more you serve a community the more needs you will see and reach out.”

He believes their biggest strength, a diverse congregation, will only make them stronger in the coming years. “We’re so diverse. We have Mormons, Catholics, Muslim members, some Jewish people who are still Jewish. They’ll go to temple on Friday night then come here on Sunday. People come from everywhere.” Rev. Watkins says that leads to a welcoming, ever changing vision. “That’s what I love about Sunshine Cathedral. We’re not telling you what spirituality has to look like. We’re inviting you to bring your spirituality in and then we’ll see what ours looks like once you add yours to the mix.”

Rev. Watkins says Sunshine Cathedral will continue to remind everyone that our community is special and help us stand out. “We have special gifts, we have special things to offer. We are like everyone else and we are like nobody else. We are a community. We are a tribe, and we are very committed to remaining the spiritual voice and the symbol of our tribe.”

For updates on 50th anniversary plans, services and programs visit SunshineCathedral.org.