Rev. Jim Mitulski (right), pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of SF, hands a volunteer a bag of marijuana after church services as part of a relief effort in the summer of 1996 to help people suffering from AIDS. (Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
When you think of gay activists and icons in San Francisco history, leaders like Supervisor Harvey Milk and Sally Miller Gearhart or recording artist — and Castro staple — Sylvester might first come to mind.
These pioneers did their work in the public eye and are recognized for their achievements, but they weren’t the only ones on the front lines fighting for the rights of the city’s queer community.
In a small church a few blocks away from the Castro — during the height of the AIDS epidemic — a much lesser-known activist was fighting to provide comfort to a dying congregation of LGBTQIA Christians.
Not your average pastor
“My earliest survival skill in church was: Don't listen if they're talking, just pay attention when they're singing,” said Rev. Jim Mitulski, the former senior pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco’s Castro district.
Growing up in northern Michigan, Mitulski, now 63, was immediately drawn to church: the ritual, the kindness and, most of all, the music. “I don't think I've ever met a piece of music I didn't like, especially in a religious setting,” he said.
Mitulski attended New York’s Columbia College in the 1970s (then an all-men's school) and immediately felt at home there. “Who do you think goes to a men’s college in the '70s?” he said. “Gay guys.”
While in New York, Mitulski says he was focused more on political activism and sex than on his schoolwork, “and my grades reflected it.” He eventually dropped out of college and continued to pursue his activism work. “I was a political gay,” he said.
After discovering the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Mitulski began considering a new career path. In this new gay denomination — founded in 1968 by and for LGBTQIA people — Jim found a spiritual family.
“It didn’t occur to me that you could be gay and be a priest,” he said.
Mitulski went back to school to become a pastor, and would help lead the MCC in New York for several years, a time he recalls as magical.
“It was church, not like church. We were anti-church,” he said. “We were 'deconstructing Christianity' church. We were 'out in the streets protesting' church. We were 'wear T-shirts, not wear vestments' church."
San Francisco in crisis
In the mid 1980s, Mitulski moved to San Francisco to become the senior pastor of an MCC congregation in the historic Castro District. He arrived to find a city “in the midst of a terrible tragedy unfolding.”
“But still, it was a cool place to be,” he said. “It was still happy.”
Located a few blocks from the shops and gay bars of Castro Street, the church served as a de facto LGBTQIA community center, hosting meetings, same-sex weddings (which would not be legal for two more decades) and an ever-increasing number of funerals.
In 1988, The LA Times, under the headline "City Under Siege," reported that about 4% of San Francisco’s population, including an astonishing half of the city's estimated more than 60,000 gay men, had AIDS. Without a cure or effective treatment, most would end up dying within the next 10 years.
“I just wasn't prepared for the sheer numbers of it,” Mitulski said. Seemingly healthy young men in his neighborhood, he recalled, would simply just disappear and be assumed dead.
In 1995, Mitulski received his own HIV diagnosis.
“Facing my own mortality made me realize we're only here as long as we're here. 'What are you being so cautious about?'” he said he asked himself. “My ministry changed right after that.”
Marijuana and AIDS
Marijuana is known to help ease the nausea and pain associated with HIV and AIDS. The drug also enables many patients to eat by helping to increase their appetites, while providing pain relief and aiding in sleep.
“They would actually feel pain relief and relief from the stress around worrying about mortality,” Mitulski said. “It lasts for half an hour, an hour or whatever, not all day, not all night. But sometimes the freedom from the omnipresent anxiety is important. ... It’s welcome.”
In California, marijuana is now legal for adult use, both recreationally and medically. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, things worked a bit differently. Medical marijuana clubs, the underground predecessors of dispensaries, provided the drug to people in need — and law enforcement generally looked the other way.
Enter California Attorney General Dan Lungren, the state’s top cop for much of the 1990s. In anticipation of his (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for governor in 1998, Lungren “saw [marijuana] as an issue that he thought could be a popular enforcement issue as a law-and-order guy,” Mitulski said. “And without consulting with city officials, [he] exercised his authority as a state official — probably with the support of the federal government — to crack down on and close, without warning, all of the marijuana outlets and distributors in San Francisco.”
Almost overnight, marijuana patients across the city, including those with HIV/AIDS, lost access to one of the few treatments that had been available. It wasn’t long before the gay community sprang into action.
'Acts of great love'
Within a few days of the crackdown, Allen White — a queer journalist — approached Mitulski with the idea of distributing marijuana from his church to patients in need.
“They wanted to see who could they get to distribute marijuana that the government would think twice about arresting,” Mitulski said.
The risks were high: The federal government could seize the property of people found to be participating in a federal crime — including the distribution of marijuana.
In the summer of 1996, Mitulski began distributing small bags of marijuana to HIV/AIDS patients after his church services. The pot was all donated, no money could be exchanged, and the patients were required to have a doctor's note.
Mitulski said the media reported on it when he first started distributing marijuana in his church, but the police never cracked down on him. “I think they knew we were doing the right thing,” he said. “I think angels protected us.”
Despite Lungren’s campaign to stop it, voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana statewide.
Mitulski shut down his marijuana ministry right after the results were announced. But the impact of his efforts was evident: In just over a few months, he had used prayer, music and marijuana to serve a few thousand people in dire need of comfort.
He has only one regret from that period of his life: “That we did all that activism on AIDS care in the '80s and '90s, and somehow did not end up with universal health care. Crazy.”
In 2000, Mitulski left the MCC in the Castro where he had served for more than two decades. He is now interim senior pastor of Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth, Minnesota, where he continues to push for marijuana legalization and gay rights.
“Let your acts of love guide you, even if it means great risk,” Mitulski said.
He’s still proud, he says, of the work he did at that little church in San Francisco more than 25 years ago.
“I took a risk. I used my body. I acted on a belief that was motivated by my desire to provide healing and comfort for my friends,” he said. “And I didn't know what else to do that I could do, but this was something I could do. And I did it.”
Mitulski says he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again.
“The greater the love, the greater the risk, and you will never regret acts of great love,” he said.
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