Pastor Scott Imler says it was his controversial views and background, as well as fallout from Proposition 8 that led to the .
“I’m a gay, pro-medical marijuana pastor,” Imler told Weho Patch as he prepared for the church’s final worship service to be held this Sunday at 11 a.m. “The United Methodist Church is becoming increasingly conservative and our church is too gay for them.”
Crescent Heights Methodist, located on the southeast corner of Fountain and Fairfax, is being “discontinued,” a decision made by officials from the Los Angeles district of the United Methodist Church. The official reason given is that the church is no longer financially viable due to its small congregation of 39 members.
Although the congregation is being dissolved, the building will stay open and Imler will remain its caretaker. The nonprofits and 12-step groups that meet there will still be able to call the church home, at least for now.
“They’ve asked me to stay on here without a congregation and to maintain the ‘ministry of hospitality,’ ” said Imler, who has been pastor of the church since 2005.
“They say they want me to transition my Midnight Ministry into the future, which means, ‘We love that you’re working with homeless, drug addicted, LGBT prostitutes and hustler boys, but it’s a little too edgy for the United Methodist Church,' " Imler added. "So keep up the good work, but as an Un-tied Methodist instead.’”
Church district officials declined to address Imler’s allegations. However, Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth, the superintendent of the church’s LA district, told Patch, “Our hope, our strategy, is that we will continue. Our commitment is to still be here. That is the message. It doesn’t benefit anyone to have another empty building.”
Proposition 8 problems
Imler says church officials began having problems with him after he persuaded delegates at the church’s annual conference, a gathering of 380 Methodist churches from Southern California, Hawaii and Guam, to oppose Proposition 8 in 2008. That voter initiative made same-sex marriages in California illegal.
“The church was left with egg on its face for supporting a losing campaign,” says Imler, who married his boyfriend of 20 years, George Leddy, during the five months when gay marriage was legal.
Imler says he knew there would be trouble ahead when he got an icy reception at a church district gathering held a week after Proposition 8 passed. “No one would even say, ‘Hi, Scott.’ Nobody can shun like church people,” said the pastor.
Beyond Proposition 8, Imler believes the United Methodist Church has grown increasingly conservative. He says there has been exponential growth of Methodism in areas such as West Africa, Asia and Latin America. That growth outside the U.S. has contributed to a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the 10-million member worldwide denomination that remains deeply divided on LGBT issues.
“As the oldest, most visible and potentially nettlesome LGBTQ- reconciling congregation in Southern California, Crescent Heights Methodist was once a badge of distinction and progressive honor for the Cal-Pac Conference,” Imler said. “Now, in the face of a reversal of LGBTQ fortunes, we are perhaps just too painful a reminder of the denomination’s failure to live up to its advertising of ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds and Open Doors.' "
In its 97 years, Crescent Heights Methodist Church has flourished and floundered. As recently as 2004, the congregation was growing so much, it asked the many 12-step programs meeting there to find other spaces. The West Hollywood Recovery Center was started as a direct result of the church closing its doors to the 12-step programs there (12-step groups have since been allowed to meet there again).
During that time, Pastor John Griffin was holding Sunday services that incorporated Broadway show tunes, bringing in a lot of new members. But when Griffin was reassigned to a church in Long Beach in 2005, the people who loved the Broadway tunes left with him.
In the ensuing years, the congregation dwindled. Imler was away in Missouri in late 2007/early 2008 burying his parents and settling their estates (they died within four months of each other). When he returned, he found he had missed a deadline for submitting paperwork to receive an annual $5,000 stipend from the district.
More important, he also found church district officials had placed Crescent Heights Methodist on a list of churches marked for discontinuation. He says he went to church officials who told him not to worry, that they would work everything out.
Imler took them at their word and threw his efforts into the Proposition 8 campaign, which he admits consumed most of his attention in 2008.
“I spent like a drunken sailor during Prop 8,” he said. “I opened the doors to any Marriage Equality group that wanted to meet here and I didn’t charge them a cent.”
By the time Proposition 8 passed and the church was left embarrassed for supporting a losing campaign, Imler said church officials were no longer anxious to work things out. "Once you’re in the discontinuation box, you can’t get out of it,” he said.
Imler first came to Crescent Heights Methodist in December 1995, hoping to recruit people to work on the medical marijuana initiative (Proposition 215). Having previously worked on anti-nuclear organizing, he had been sent to Southern California from Santa Cruz to spearhead Proposition 215 efforts. Imler, who has epilepsy, says medical marijuana helps with his seizures.
“I hadn’t done church since I was a kid,” he recalled. “When I was told about Leviticus [which says homosexuality is an abomination], I never looked at a Bible again.”
But when he got to Crescent Heights Methodist, with its largely gay congregation, something felt different. His says his first two impressions about the church were that it was “close to God’s unfinished business” in that the church was ratty and in desperate need of repair, and secondly, it would be “great to be a pastor of a little church like this.”
He soon joined the church and even attended the California Pacific Annual [Methodist] Conference where he got delegates to endorse the medical marijuana initiative.
In 2003, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he pledged that if he survived, he would devote his life to service of God. When his cancer went into remission, he kept his promise and enrolled in seminary school at Claremont College.
Within 18 months of entering seminary, he was named the pastor at Crescent Heights Methodist.
Future of the building
Although the ministry of hospitality will operate at the church for now, the long-term future of the property remains in doubt. With the dissolution of the congregation, the title to the property reverts to the church’s district offices.
One plan is to create an LGBT Cultural Heritage Center, which would include a performing arts space and a gallery for LGBT items of historical significance, as well meeting spaces for LGBT and 12-step groups.
Another plan is to create a homeless shelter there. The much larger and wealthier Hollywood Methodist Church (the church on Highland at Franklin with the large red AIDS ribbon on its exterior) has been in talks with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) about the building.
Whatever happens with the property, Imler is left saddened and frustrated.
“They say the important thing is the people. They say the building is not important, it’s just four walls,” he laments. “But now that the congregation is being dissolved, it’s all about the building.”