Pastor Craig Duke talks about departure from church following HBO drag show appearance

·4 min read

EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- A GoFundMe campaign started on behalf of a Newburgh, Indiana pastor embroiled in controversy following an appearance in a televised drag show topped $50,000 this week.

Aside from using the money for basics as he looks for new work, the Rev. Craig Duke has an idea for what at least some of that cash can be used for: Building a bridge between the faith and LGBTQ+ communities.

Duke, a United Methodist Church pastor, appeared in the Nov. 8 episode of "We're Here," an HBO series that documents everyday people taking part in drag shows as an out reach to the LGBTQ+ community. He did it, he said, in support of his daughter, who identifies as pansexual.

Read more on Pastor Duke: Newburgh pastor 'relieved of duties' after appearance on HBO drag show 'We're Here'

The show, filmed in July in the Tri-State, was a hit. Duke enjoyed the experience, and said his daughter was overjoyed as she watched him perform.

The reaction among those at his Newburgh United Methodist Church was less enthusiastic. On Nov. 26, a regional representative of the United Methodist Church notified the congregation that Duke would be "relieved of his duties" amid fallout from his participation on "We're Here."

A letter to church members from Mitch Gieselman, superintendent for the South and Southwest Districts of the Indiana United Methodist Church, cited "numerous calls and emails that are highly critical of Craig’s actions," as well as "numerous messages of support for him."

Gieselman said Duke has not been "fired" — nor had he "resigned" — because those actions are "not consistent with (the United Methodist Church) appointment system."

Eureka O'Hara, left, and the Rev. Craig Duke practice for Craig's performance in the Nov. 8 showing of HBO's "We're Here."
Eureka O'Hara, left, and the Rev. Craig Duke practice for Craig's performance in the Nov. 8 showing of HBO's "We're Here."

In an interview with the Courier & Press on Tuesday, Duke emphasized that he had not been fired, despite what he termed "misinformation" about his departure on social media and on some news outlets.

Duke and his wife, Linda, will continue to reside at the church's parsonage until Feb. 28 and Duke will continue to draw "a significantly reduced salary" -- Duke said his pay was cut by 40 percent -- but he will not be involved in the church in any capacity. The Rev. Mark Dicken was appointed interim pastor.

"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," Gieselman told church members in his letter.

"Craig has reached a place where he feels unable to continue to serve in parish ministry at present," Gieselman wrote.

On Tuesday, Duke said the whole ordeal has left him tired.

"I'm just exhausted," he told the Courier & Press.

More on filming in Evansville: HBO's 'We're Here' drag queen show, filmed in Evansville, features pastor, other locals

Duke said his biggest worries have been for his wife, who stepped down from her role as youth pastor at the church, and for his 23-year-old daughter Tiffany, who is struggling with how people see her as a person who identifies as pansexual.

Duke said his mantra continues to be that "God loves all people as we are," something he's tried to live by in his faith.

Eureka O'Hara, one of the professional drag queens who serves as a mentor on the HBO program, reached out via Twitter.

Eureka O'Hara hugs the Rev. Craig Duke prior to his drag show performance on HBO's "We're Here." Duke agreed to take part in the show to support his daughter, who identifies as pansexual.
Eureka O'Hara hugs the Rev. Craig Duke prior to his drag show performance on HBO's "We're Here." Duke agreed to take part in the show to support his daughter, who identifies as pansexual.

"Craig is an amazing person and deserves the same love that he shares with everyone around him," O'Hara tweeted.

When the news broke, locals started a GoFundMe to assist the Dukes with rent, food and other necessities. As of Tuesday night, more than $50,000 had been raised.

"It's been humbling," Duke said. He pointed to messages he's received praising him for having the courage to appear on the HBO show. "An opportunity came along and I took a step forward to that opportunity."

Duke hopes that the situation -- and his involvement with "We're Here" -- will be a catalyst for conversation connecting the community of faith and and the LGBTQ+ population. He said there is often a "disconnect" between the two groups.

One possibility he mentioned: Using some of the GoFundMe money to open an inclusive, faith-based camp or other program.

For now, he's planning to take a step back to work on himself and his family. But that doesn't mean there are regrets.

A reporter asked Duke on Tuesday: If he could go back, would he do it all again?

"Yes," he said.

Rayonna Burton-Jernigan covers diversity and culture-related topics and can be contacted at rbj@courierpress.com or (812) 454-1765.

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: 'We're Here": Craig Duke speaks on leaving church and HBO show series