At the age of 59, Wesley Rowell became a preacher. This was not something he had ever imagined doing.
“I turned 59 on Sep 21 and on Sep 22 I preached my very first sermon. In a church! I was asked and honored to preach. It was amazing and I am very proud of what we did. I love that at 59 years old I can still do brand new things.”
Spirituality in all its varied forms is something we find so frequently in our people. For some it is a daily meditation, for many it is a nature experience, and for others it is leading a group of like-minded people in a traditional religious service. What I have often heard said is that one of the keys to happiness is realizing that there is something bigger than one’s self, in whatever form one may choose to understand that.
I am sitting across the table from Wesley, a man who is completely different from me in almost all the usual check-the-box ways. As we are speaking and I am listening to his slow, opera-trained voice, I am struck yet again by how, in this age of definition by difference, there is such tremendous commonality between all people.
Hi, Wesley. How old are you?
I am 59.
Where are you from?
Originally from Fayetteville NC but I’ve lived in NYC for 23 years.
Finding Inner Freedom at Fifty
You mentioned that you were uncomfortable letting people know your age in your 40s. Why was that?
I felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough. And I also felt that gay men in their 40s were ghosts in the gay world. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then something happened at 50 and your attitude changed?
At some point, I looked at myself and became sick and tired of being sick and tired. And I literally stopped giving a fuck about what I thought people were thinking about me.
How did you come to sing in this choir? Do you have a background in singing?
I was told that I sang before I talked! I went to college to be an opera singer but by my 40s I had stopped singing professionally. Part of my 50s’ reawakening was literally finding my voice again.
“Love is love is love”
What sort of church is it?
Middle Collegiate Church is probably the most progressive church in the country. It is multi-racial, intergenerational and inclusive with a mission statement that is basically: love is love is love is love is love.
I had ZERO intention of becoming a part of Middle Church. I was going to sing, get my check and maybe get a bit of the message. But Reverend Jacqui had other plans. She saw through my NYC “been there, done that” attitude and kept asking me to do more and more. And since I was in the emotional space to say yes, I said yes and yes and yes.
Queer Black Men in the Middle
What is QBMM?
QBMM is Queer Black Men in the Middle, a group I started at Middle Church to address the spiritual lives of black gay men of faith. It was something I didn’t know was needed until it was needed.
How do religion and spirituality fit into your life?
I think I’ve been a spiritual seeker my whole life but I didn’t feel I fit into anybody’s idea of what that looked like. It’s taken me a life to come back to myself and discover the God and the grace that’s always been in me — in all of us, no matter how we choose to name it or not name it.
Becoming a Preacher at 59
How did you become a preacher at 59?
The amazing senior minister at Middle Church, the fabulous Reverend Jacqui Lewis, saw something in me before I saw it in myself. When it was decided QBMM was to do a worship service, I asked Jacqui who was doing the sermon and she looked at me incredulously and said: YOU. And I said yes.
I may be going to the seminary next year. Or maybe not. I’m really trying to be open to whatever opportunities arise. And at the same time I need the universe to be blatantly obvious and hit me over the head with what I should do. I don’t do subtlety. In the meantime, I’m already trying to minister to queer black men and it’s filling and fulfilling.
How did that feel to deliver a sermon?
It felt like coming home.
Weekly Spiritual Practice
What is your own weekly spiritual practice? Has this changed from your 40s?
Every morning I try to have a few mins of complete silence and contemplative meditation. Which is much simpler than it sounds. Some days it’s literally not looking at my phone for the first 30 mins of the day. I’m also on 2 daily gratitude lists with 2 groups of men. It puts everything in perspective to be grateful for things like clean drinking water. Or for Greek yogurt with walnuts and honey. Or for Lenny Kravitz. I also try to move my body in some way which perhaps doesn’t seem like a spiritual practice, but I think nothing is more spiritual than embodiment and being aware of the space we physically occupy.
In my 40s I did NONE of this. And it could be easy for me to think of my 40s as lost, but now I understand that time as gestational and entirely necessary. And bittersweet. And beautiful. Most spiritual awakenings come out of some wound or pain. Frankly, I wish this wasn’t true. I just want to wake up fresh and be like: Boom, thanks for the new perspective. It’s totally not fair lol. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s an old gospel song, “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Indeed.
Tell us about the intergenerational aspects of the church. How is age 59 regarded there?
The last thing I said at the end of the sermon was a quote from The Color Purple musical “I don’t think us feel old at all. I think this is the youngest us ever felt.”
There seems to be an entire section of gay men of this age that is missing. How does that make you feel?
We lost an entire generation to AIDS. It’s heartbreaking. It’s horrible. It’s traumatic. It also makes me feel incredibly grateful to still be here and I feel a real sense of responsibility to live my life to the fullest.
What are some of the concerns of your congregation?
Middle Collegiate Church is perfectly named because we are in the middle of everything. Last week, Reverend Lewis got arrested in DC protesting climate change and climate discrimination. Middle is anti-racist and pro-Black Lives Matter. Middle is feminist and pro gender equality. Middle is so gay. And Middle addresses all these things at macro and micro levels. Meaning we are in the streets protesting but also (and equally important) practicing radical self-compassion and self-care.
Influences and Heroes
You’ve quoted The Color Purple; what are some of your other influences or heroes in books and movies?
I adore James Baldwin and the legacy of queer black writers that stretches from Baldwin to Audre Lorde to Essex Hemphill to today’s queer black creatives like Casey Gerald and Michael R. Jackson and Jeremy O. Harris and so many more. I feel a certain way towards these young creatives: a paternalistic/maternalistic pride. And a fierce determination to keep them safe. Omg and I forgot Tarell Alvin McCraney and Randall Kenan and Saeed Jones. I could go on and on. Oh crap, and also amazing amazing beautiful dancers like Alvin Ailey and Kyle Abraham and, and, and. It’s always expanding and never complete. Just like life.
So many heroes. Prince. Bach. My granddaddy Rev John Wesley Hatch Sr. Bayard Rustin. Sylvester. My ex, Michael Sinkus, who died of AIDS in 1996. Willi Smith. Jessye Norman. Mr. Rogers.
And living heroes like Billy Porter. My sister, Marrea and my brothers, William, John, and Raymond. My 89-year-old mom Elsye Davis whose amazing vitality and strength and joy is a model for aging beautifully. Nick Cave (both the artist and the singer). Rev Jacqui Lewis. Barack Obama. The bravery of QBMM. André Leon Talley. Maurice Hines.
“Don’t quit before the miracle”
I also need to mention that the QBMM chorus is the first queer black men’s choir in history and big things are happening in 2020 so stay tuned.
I never expected for one moment that life would get so big after 50. I thought I was done. Thank God I was completely wrong. There’s a saying, “Don’t quit before the miracle.”
I CAN’T WAIT FOR 60.
I have to ask, the outfit you are wearing is magnificent. What is its origin?
Haha, thanks! Pants by Qasimi; sweater, shirt and coat by Calvin Klein Collection (back when there WAS a collection and designed by the brilliant Italo Zucchelli); shoes, Saint Laurent.