Making peace in Pleasant Ridge: One pastor’s journey to save a progressive church

Reverend Derek Terry didn’t plan to come out on national television.


In fact, he wasn’t sure he was ever going to tell people that he’s gay, with the exception of a few close friends.


“It’s really weird, because on the one hand, they were conservative and respectable, but as far as social justice and equity and freedom were concerned, they were very progressive but there were some hang-ups,” he says about growing up in an African American Episcopal church in Louisville. “Women could be ordained, but certain things weren’t affirmed. It’s one thing to bash and condemn, another thing not to affirm at all.”


Rev. Terry is referring to the church’s stance (or lack thereof) on LGBTQ people.


He started therapy when he was 26, which helped him heal from childhood sexual assault and repressed desires. It was a long journey, unpacking abuse from basketball teammates that happened when he was 8, and then again as a teenager.


“That (26) was the age where I was mature enough, ready enough to explore the idea (of being gay),” he says.


“Two things happened,” he says. “I was supposed to get engaged soon, but my childhood pastor, who I believed was gay, was murdered … he was stabbed about 50 times in Chattanooga, and they stole his car and his money.”


The second was that he had a girlfriend who he had been with for many years. He was a pastor and she was a school counselor, and they were talking about getting engaged.


“Had [my pastor] been able to live his truth, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” Rev. Terry says. “I was just 26, on the floor of my bathroom thinking, ‘What if I marry this girl, and we have kids, etc., and [coming out] ruins the family’s life.”


He broke up with his girlfriend (and didn’t tell her why), then came out to a few friends.


In January of 2015, a producer at Oprah contacted him, inviting him on a panel featuring six Black, gay ministers. Resistant at first, Rev. Terry ended up being only one of three who showed up.


“I always knew that I’d have to go public with this, help to change the narrative, to help the community,” he says. “God really prepared me, so this is what I was meant to do.”


It filmed in March and aired for three consecutive Saturdays. He came out to his family on a Friday, filmed the show on Saturday, and on Sunday, he invited the entire community — friends, families, teachers, his grandmother’s friends, and other members of the community — to a special sermon.


“I was petrified. I honestly was going to run away,” he says. “I was dressed, had on the robe, and was going to run across the street to hide in Graeter’s. Whenever you feel like you’re supposed to do something, [that collides with] all of those moments where you don’t think you’re supposed to do something, but when the moment it comes on, it’s the feeling of ‘I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’”


After he came out, he didn’t know if he could still be a pastor in his hometown and be an openly gay Black man. Even though he knew it was a powerful and important step to get to where he is now, he has generations of family in Kentucky, knew people in all the churches, and everyone in the community was connected.


A complicated relationship with Cincinnati

Rev. Derek Terry outside of St. Peter's UCC.


Nine years ago, he applied for the reverend job a St. Peter’s United Church of Christ (UCC) in Pleasant Ridge.


“Finding UCC was like finding a breath of fresh air,” he says.


UCC churches are known for being more welcoming and progressive, but it was still a bit of a battle both with a few members of the congregation and his feelings of loneliness.


“I honestly thought, coming from Kentucky, that Cincinnati would be a lot more progressive than it was,” says Rev. Terry.


The congregation had never had a Black or openly gay pastor and, in fact, hosted Blackface shows up until the 70s. He didn’t expect to get the job with a bunch of white, older, German Evangelicals.


Most of the congregation welcomed Rev. Terry, including the oldest member, a 97-year-old woman who was confirmed by the pastor who built the church in 1921.


Still, there were some dissenters and that, combined with what he says was his own insecurities, made it a difficult job to walk into. By the time he arrived, the church hadn’t had a pastor for a year and had very little money. Many people in the community thought it was closed.


“I knew what I needed to do as far as a professional,” he says, “but I hadn’t been there long enough to do it. There’s a honeymoon period where you can do a lot and people are excited, but too many changes too soon, too fast, would be bad.”


One or two vocal people worried he was going to turn it into a Black church, and he told a member that if he didn’t make some changes, they were going to close.


But he worried about chasing people away from the family.


Rev. Terry’s relationship with Cincinnati was complex as well. As a child, he came up here with his family for shopping and dining excursions not available in Louisville. But he was a senior in high school when the uprising happened in OTR after Timothy Tomas’ murder. The students planned to go to King’s Island after the prom — a tradition — but decided against it that year.


Still, he chose the job and stuck through the sadness and stress, creating a large, healthy congregation.


And, in an odd way, he says the pandemic has helped.


“I hate to say it — I hate to use 'helped' — but it’s allowed us to reach people that we wouldn’t have reached,” he says.


They’ve been remote since before the state closed down last March, on the advice of a member who was paying close attention to the spread and effects of COVID-19. But he’s been holding zoom race discussions since 2016 and, where used to get 40 people, now he’s seeing a couple hundred from places as far away as New Zealand and Europe.


It’s a new church — antiracist, open, and affirming — that shows change is possible, he says.


“I preach a lot about justice and fairness and not just as it relates to race or gender or that type of stuff. Environmental justice. My ministry is love, peace, hope, joy, and justice,” he says. “And anything that I do, it has to touch on one of those.”


“In the short time I’ve lived here, there have been lots of positive changes, he says, “and I’ve done my small part for those changes.”

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Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.