An Indiana pastor, who thought he had the majority of support from his 400-member congregation for his LGBTQ inclusive views, was forced out of the church after appearing in drag on HBO's reality series, We're Here.
Reverend Craig Duke, the former pastor at Newburgh United Methodist Church, appeared on the series to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
He also participated to support his 23-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who identifies as pansexual.
The 62-year-old was nominated and chosen by River City Pride organization–an LGBTQ+ pride group in nearby Evansville–to participate in the Emmy-nominated docuseries because of his vocal advocacy for equality and social justice.
Now in its second season, We're Here is a series led by renowned drag queens Shangela, Eureka O'Hara and Bob the Drag Queen.
They travel to small towns across the US, transforming locals into drag queens and "promoting/creating safe and inclusive spaces for the community's queer population."
In last month's episode, Duke flawlessly lip-synced and danced to Kesha's "We R Who We R."
You can watch a clip of his performance in the video, below.
"It was an incredibly wonderful, refreshing, deepening, powerful spiritual experience," Duke told Religion News Service at the time.
"I was surrounded and immersed in a culture that I've never been immersed in, and one of the things in ministry, if you want to involve people different than yourself in your ministry, you have to go to where people different than you are."
"The invitation to be part of the show allowed me that."
But a "prominent" individual, backed by a few other members of the congregation at Newburgh United, strongly objected to his donning drag.
Emails began circulating attacking Duke, who said they "felt personal."
One of the emails from a disgruntled congregant, read:
“You have thrown NUMC under the bus to elevate a minority of individuals."
Another email, according to Duke, said "Satan must be pleased with the discord over LGBTQ rights."
Prior to the episode being broadcast, some congregation members complained they weren't warned about his appearance on the show, which included some filming taking place at the church.
In response, Duke wrote a letter to the congregation and apologized for damaging their trust in the leadership but said he was "willing and excited to share God’s love with the LGBTQ community on a national level.”
Under United Methodist Church protocol, a pastor does not have the option to resign.
But after being concerned for his mental health due to the backlash, Duke spoke to his immediate supervisor, regional superintendent Mitch Gieselman, and requested to be moved to a different church.
"It just got to the point where the conflict, the anger grew too much, and so for my mental health, too, I started to back away, and I told my district superintendent that the conflict was so much, it was at such a level from some, that I was unable to be an effective leader."
Insider said the church confirmed in a statement Duke had been "relieved of his duties," following his appearance on We're Here.
The church said:
"While there is a diversity of opinion regarding the moral implications of Rev. Duke's actions, he has not been found to have committed any chargeable offense or other violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline."
"In short, Craig has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present."
He wrote to the congregation explaining he was nominated to participate in the series because of the division in both his own church and the UMC.
He expressed his “only hope and goal was and is to bring the message of God’s unconditional love to a community that has been greatly marginalized."
The co-creator and executive producer on We're Here said everyone on the show's team was "heartbroken" over the news.
The controversy caused a ripple effect, resulting in the resignation of Duke's wife Linda, who was the pastor of youth ministry.
The church administrative assistant Erin Sexton also resigned.
She and her husband, Chris, organized a GoFundMe campaign to help cover living expenses for Duke and his family.
So far, the campaign has raised over $58,600.
Duke will still be allowed to live in the NUMC parsonage with a reduced salary from the church, but he and his family must relocate no later than February 28.
"My message all along has been: 'God loves you, period, as you are, where you are.' Not, 'God loves you if —.' God loves you unconditionally, and that hasn't changed," Duke told Religion News Service.