Michael Morgan - A Beautiful Life
This week's interview is with a new and dear friend. Michael Morgan is one of the first people I met when I started school at Columbia. He is our extraordinarily talented organist. More than that he is beloved by students, faculty, and staff for his joyous personality and easy smile. He is arguably one of the staples of our school and I am honored to share some of his story.
Name: Michael Morgan
Hometown: Pine Mountain, GA
Work: Church organist (now free-lance) & a Seminary Musician at Columbia Theological Seminary
What is your favorite book: English Bible/Psalms
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small country Baptist Church in rural west Georgia, so the whole idea of anything gay never entered my mind until I started college.
What role did growing up in the church play in your life?
Throughout high school I attended an amazing little congregation. We had maybe 40 people on a Sunday. Our preacher (who later served as a faculty member at Columbia Theological Seminary for 20 years) changed somewhere along the line from Baptist to Presbyterian and became a minister at Decatur Presbyterian Church for a number of years. I have no doubt that he and the little old lady, Mrs. Blanche, who played piano in that little church are the two people who inspired me to go into church music.
Why somebody would go pursue degrees in organ performance - when the church he grew up in for 16 years had nothing but an old upright piano - is beyond me. There was something in his ministry and her music that led me down this way. Recently, he served his last Sunday before retiring and asked me to play the organ. It was a real honor for me.
When did you begin to realize your sexual identity?
It wasn’t until I got to college at Florida State that I began to realize that there was something different about the way I felt inside. People frequently used to ask me, “When did you come out?” And I would respond, “Well, to be perfectly honest, I was never really in.” But I didn’t know that about myself until my last couple years at Florida State. It was at Florida State that I met a lovely guy at a concert I was performing and he and I became friends and then partners fairly quickly. His name is Barry.
Tell me more about your relationship with Barry.
Well, when I finished graduate school and he finished his graduate degree, he accepted a job in California and I decided that I really wanted to go and be with him. So I told my parents that Barry and I were moving to California and my father said, “Well, I don’t think we can let you do that.” And I remember saying, “You don’t have the power to say that at this point, maybe when I was in undergraduate and you were paying all of my bills, but now, I’ve supported myself for two years and this is a choice I want to make.” I feel like he sensed what was happening. When we left Georgia, I was afraid that I would never get to speak to him again, but in the year we were in California, my father did a lot of self-examination. He was a dairy farmer who didn’t have much of a psych background to rest on, so he had to do a lot of work.
Did your father come around?
Yes. The next year, Barry was transferred back to Atlanta. When we came home, both of my parents welcomed both of us home. My parents and his parents even became very good friends and went on vacations together. Everything was really fine from then on.
What ended up happening with Barry?
Well, Barry and I decided in 1985 after we had been together for 14 years that we could be better friends than lovers and parted on very amicable terms and we’re still good friends to this day. I remember talking to my father during that time and him asking me, “Are you sure this is the step you want to take at this time?” And it seemed to be. I never really had the experience of that life style that was so prevalent among our kind back in the 70’s and early 80’s. When we split at the end of June in 1985, I thought, “well, maybe now I’ll have a chance to enjoy some of that nightlife that I’ve heard so many stories about.”
So did you enjoy some of the nightlife next?
Most of the month of July that summer I was on the faculty at Mo-Ranch at the Presbyterian Music and Worship Conference. I did some recitals and played in San Antonio then I came back to Atlanta in August. Then, August 15th I met Richard, my spouse, and we decided to get together.
How did you meet Richard?
A mutual friend who knew we both loved church music introduced us. That night we went to dinner and we kept getting dinner together. We would go down to one of the bars on Peachtree and watch "Dallas." Everything seemed to be going well. The amazing thing is that it was only two weeks after I had gotten back from traveling and only one month since I had been single.
I guess one of the first thoughts in the back of my head was, “Am I getting into this too quickly?” or “Maybe it’s because I am missing that relationship with Barry.” But things continued to work out with Richard.
What happened next?
The next thing that happened was our move to Little Rock in January 1986. Richard decided that he wanted to go back and be near his children in Little Rock. When Richard told me that he wanted to move to Little Rock in November, he said, “I don’t know what that will do to our relationship” and I said, “Well, I bet there’s a church somewhere in Little Rock looking for an organist.” And it happened just like that. I think so much of life has fallen into place like that with Divine Providence.
How did your families react?
This time it was Richard’s parents who were skeptical at first. I was his first partner since he and his wife had divorced, and while I was not part of that action, his parents had some question marks, but they came around really quickly and welcomed us to their house for holidays. It just worked out fine. We’ve been together now since 1985.
Tell me more about life with Richard.
Before moving to Little Rock, we decided we wanted to have what we then called a “Commitment Ceremony.” In that season in my life I was an organist at Central Presbyterian Church. One day I was talking with the associate pastor Joanna Adams and told her what we were thinking about doing. I told her we wanted her to be a part of it but weren’t sure where to do it. And she said, “Well, why don’t you do it here at Central as this place means more to you than any other place in this city.” And so on January 18, 1986, we had about 120 people at Central Presbyterian Church for this ceremony which was just amazing.
And then you later were legally married?
When things were finally leaning towards the possibility of being legally married, we were trying to decide how we would best do that. We were back at home in Georgia. I was working as an organist at Central Presbyterian Church again. Over two parts, I was with them for 40 years. And Georgia, at the time, was one of the states that would not allow it.
In 2013, our Associate Pastor Caroline Kelly, was spending time with her husband Jim in Cumberland, Maryland. Richard and I mentioned that we were thinking about getting married and she invited us to come up to Maryland where they were allowed to do same sex weddings. She said that she would love to do the ceremony. So we made the plans and went up August 18th, 2013. We invited about 40 friends who traveled all the way from Boston or Austin, TX. Altogether, we had 4 ordained ministers who took part in the ceremony which was just wonderful. We had a great time. One of the ministers who was taking part had been with a partner for several years and decided that as they were driving up, “Why don’t we get married as well?” So they detoured to Washington D.C. and got married themselves at the Kennedy Center by a woman minister and then continued the trip to come to our ceremony. Which was really neat! It was just an incredible event - as so many things in my life have been.
How did churches respond to you and Richard?
The churches I’ve served from California, to Atlanta, to Little Rock, were all very welcoming to both of us. Richard and I were the Music and Worship Team at a church in Little Rock for 4 years, which was a wonderful affirming kind of experience.
I worked at The Arkansas State Library for 2 years. The department head there was this old lady who was a staunch Baptist and had never even hinted about the gay life at all. One day she made these wonderful brownies and there were several left after we had closed up the lobby and were ready to go home. So, I went over to her and said, “Dolly, do you mind if I take a couple of brownies home to Richard?” and she said, “No, but wouldn’t he rather have a cub scout?” and then she giggled and the rest of us starting laughing as well. I had no idea that she had any clue about my life style.
It’s just made such an exciting life with surprises around the corners. I’ve been so blessed that 99% of the surprises in my life have been good things and I know that hasn’t been the case for most of my friends and I just hope that God will continue to twist things around and help us all realize who we are, who we love, who we are loved by, and just make us into one great community.
Have you ever run into any discrimination?
I’ve only had one negative experience in my whole life, I think. I’ve been collecting English Bibles for years. I started collecting when I was in graduate school 1974. It has now grown to over 5,000 volumes, representing virtually every translation in English of the Bible, the New Testament and the Gospels and the Psalms. It’s probably the most comprehensive collection in the country.
In 2002, I agreed to host the annual meeting of an organization I belonged to called the International Society of Bible Collectors (ISBC). That was my second year working at Columbia Seminary, so I hosted it here at Columbia. Walter Bruggaman was one of my keynote speakers, and the library staff over at Candler (Emory) did an exhibit for us. Richard took three days off from his job at the Center for Disease Control to drive a bus around helping people get to and from the events and exhibit.
The first day of the meeting, the president of the group retired and I was unanimously chosen to be president. That night I invited people out to our house for dinner and to see the library. Several people saw some photographs on the walls of Richard and me, certainly, nothing graphic, but they put two and two together and realized that we were more than friends and roommates.
The next morning before breakfast, the board of directors met, called me in and said that they could not have me serving as president because I was gay and that was not something the organization could allow. They didn’t want me to say anything to anybody for the next two days while they were attending the conference. They said they would handle it later. Which they did by sending out a message saying that due to some personal issues I had resigned and they had appointed someone else to take my place. For those next two days people kept saying, “We’re so excited to have you as our new president.” Richard could hardly drive the bus around, but we were faithful to what they had asked and we didn’t mention it to anybody that weekend.
The board of directors said that over the years they had really appreciated the articles I had written for the journal, and they hoped I would continue writing articles, but under an assumed name so nobody would link them to me. That was the only time in my life anything ever came across negatively, 99.9% of the people in my life of over almost 70 years have been so supportive. I think that makes it hard today when I hear about negative things impacting our community. I just know how difficult that whole process was for me.
What progress have you seen for the LBGTQ+ community?
I think now that marriage is an option, it makes a huge difference. I remember over the years there are people that I’ve known who have been partnered for decades and decades that never had the opportunity to commit in that way to one another to share the benefits of marriage. Just this morning, Richard and I were meeting with our CPA to get our taxes in order. For the last four years we’ve been able to file jointly, although they won’t allow us to claim the dog a dependent.
I think there is such a new world opening up for people and it’s painful when I hear organizations, especially church related groups, singling out LBGT people and ignoring what the Bible says about so many members of creation and how they can pick our community and say, “The Bible says this,” and “The Bible says this,” and just skim over so many other things. It’s a difficult thing for me. I think it might still take a couple of generations before we get there, but I think we are on the way. Right now, I still think it’s a beautiful thing that young people can come out and have the option of marriage and adoption.
I also think there’s some responsibility on the LBGT community to present things with the best possible light. There can be so many frustrating things and its natural to respond aggressively and defensively - which is absolutely natural. But I think with so many positive images now being put out by the community, eventually people are going to come around and think, “I can’t keep condemning these people. They are children of God just like I am.” I think we are moving in that direction.
Talk to me about music.
I’ve written about 250 hymns. One of them is a book of poetic hymn settings for all of the Psalms, about 175 different settings to familiar tunes so they can be sung. Aside from that, I’ve written about maybe another 75 hymns mainly for special occasions like: I’ve written some for the Covenant Network and I’ve done some for friends’ weddings. It’s just been a wonderful side line.
You’ve been recognized for your contribution of hymns as well, correct?
Yes. The Presbyterian Association of Musicians at their conference at Montreat in June are presenting me an honorary lifetime membership for my contributions to church music, especially within the Presbyterian Church. I’ve also been active with the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada and they are including me in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology Hymnist which will be fun. They have some graduate students that are scholars with the Hymn Society and they’ll interview me and that will go along with adding me to the directory. It’s been a wonderful inspiring part of life. I think musicians have a wonderful spirit if they let it out.
Your life experiences are so positive and inspiring!
It’s just been an amazing life experience all the way around. Everything has been so positive and affirming. It’s the kind of experience we all dream about, the kind I hope will spread and we all get to experience. Life has simply fallen into place for me.
For instance, I was adopted when I was 6 months old, and I knew nothing about my parents. Originally, I thought that after my parents were gone that I would look into my birth parents, but everything was so wonderful with the life my parents gave me, especially with the acceptance they gave me when they realized who I was, that I’ve never had the desire to look into my birth parents.
What coming out advice would you offer readers?
Be who you are -- God created you to be the person you are. But be aware that not everybody believes that we are all God's children, not to be condemned or judged according to those we love. God's creation is wider than the restrictions we place on it.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m honored that you asked me to participate in an interview and that we could sit down.
I think this is a really positive thing that will help people who are struggling with the hard questions of “who am I?” and “where do I go from here?” I hope there is hope in my story. Anything I can do to help people realized and accept who they are and help their friends keep them in their family of fellowship I think is so important.