It’s Sunday night in Atlanta. Hundreds of people pack a popular place to hear some good gospel music. The organ music begins as the people chat with each other and make themselves comfortable. The music builds and the announcement is made, “Please welcome, Morticia DeVille and The Gospel Echoes!” The crowd applauds as the trio moves to center stage, and breaks into song, singing “Let’s Have A Revival.”
But the crowd is not dressed in their Sunday best, they are not sitting in church pews. Many sit instead on bar stools, smoking a cigarette and cradling a beer as they applaud. They are not worshipping God in church, they are praising God in a gay bar.
The group known as The Gospel Girls began ten years ago when Morticia DeVille transformed herself into the first drag queen to sing gospel music in Atlanta, maybe even the first in the world to ever do it. “It was certainly not my life’s dream to be a drag queen,” DeVille says. “But, my mother came to one of the shows and she told me it must be a calling from God, because she says she always knew that I was destined. She sees it as a ministry and so do I.”
By watching the crowd, you can see how deep that ministry goes. Along the front row sat a crowd of men who knew the words to every song, and sang along with gusto. People raised their arms in praise, and some cried. When asked by DeVille for an “Amen, somebody,” they scream with enthusiasm, “Amen, somebody!” God’s presence was felt, even in a gay bar.
The members of the Gospel Girls don’t see anything odd about praising God within the walls of a gay bar. “For some of them, this is their only outlet to worship,” says Gospel Echo Phillip Messer. He and Mark Roberts joined up with DeVille a few years ago. “I tell everyone I can about the MCC church I go to,” Messer continues, “but these people are afraid to try because they’re afraid they’ll get slammed again. Here it’s anonymous and they can come and hide and do their own individual worship.”
One of the Gospel Girls admits she falls into this category. Tina Devore, a beautifully tall and graceful African American drag queen, joined the group six months after it began. “I don’t feel comfortable in a traditional church setting and this is an wonderful outlet.”
Like DeVille, Devore always felt drawn to gospel music. “I sang in my church and played piano before my feet even touched the floor. It’s in my soul.”
Today the Gospel Girls include Morticia DeVille and The Gospel Echoes, Tina Devore and Ramona Dugger, a straight woman who boasts that she is the only “biologically-ordained female” in the group. They moved around from bar to bar in Atlanta, and now peform every Sunday night at Burkhart’s in the heart of Atlanta’s gay and lesbian community.
The Gospel Girls have taken their act on the road around the Southern United States, mostly performing for very receptive crowds, but they’ve gotten a chilly reception or two. “The first few songs they sit and stare at us,” Messer says. “Then they realize we’re real people and we’re singing songs they know. By the end of the show they are all up singing. I think it touches a place in their hearts that haven’t been touched in a long time.”
“People come for different reasons,” observes Devore. “Some are here for entertainment, some for inspiration and some come because they think it’s campy and funny. I don’t care what they are attracted to as long as they hear the message and take something away.”
The main message the Gospel Girls convey is that God’s love is for everyone. “I’ve heard preachers say negative things,” says DeVille. “But my faith is strong. I didn’t choose to be gay. I am what God made me. The Bible says we should be tolerant of each other. That goes both ways.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.