It’s no stretch to say that Julian Rush lived a bold, unconventional life—especially for a Methodist pastor from the Deep South.
In addition to being one of the first openly gay pastors in Colorado, Rush was the one-time director of the Colorado AIDS Project and a lifelong civil rights advocate. Don Messer, a retired fellow Methodist pastor and longtime friend of Rush’s, described him as “a pioneer of inclusion in our time.”
Some in the Boulder community remember Rush from his time as a youth pastor at First United Methodist Church. But others remember him as a family man, a close friend and a musician and composer of unusual creativity and talent.
Rush died on November 28 in Phoenix at the age of 87.
And although Rush endured pain and hardship as he came to terms with his sexuality and experienced rejection from others in the church, those close to him see it all as part of his journey to becoming the man he was.
“We would be his people”
Born in 1936 in Meridian, Miss., Rush was raised in the Methodist Church and began playing the piano at an early age. He became a Boy Scout, eventually earning his eagle badge, and was president of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
Even as a young man, Rush was interested in civil rights. His son, Jason Rush, said that although Julian Rush grew up in the segregated South, something “never felt right” about segregation.
“He just had this sixth sense that ‘there’s something wrong with this,’ even though he was surrounded by a community that pretty much said everything was fine,” Jason Rush said.
While Julian Rush was earning a master’s degree in sacred theology at Southern Methodist University, he became interested in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and wanted to be a part of the civil rights struggle. So he went to Alabama in 1965 and joined the third Selma march to protest the disenfranchisement of black Americans.
Rush married in 1965 and he and his wife have two sons. He began working as a Methodist pastor in Fort Worth, Texas, before moving to Colorado with his family in the 1970s. They lived in Colorado Springs for a short time before moving to Boulder. Rush spent several years at First United and became a beloved figure in the congregation.
But in the early 1980s, Rush realized something was wrong. He and his wife separated and he began going to therapy. Eventually, he realized he was gay and shared this newfound self-knowledge in confidence with the head preacher at First United. The preacher exposed Rush in 1981, to the surprise of many, and after several hearings, church leadership decided it was best to fire him.
The decision to remove Rush caused a split in the church. According to Gene Hodges, a longtime First United parishioner and a close friend of Rush’s, many in the congregation were angry that he appeared to be released without due process.
“We were all very committed to Julian and whether he was gay or not was irrelevant to us,” Hodges said. “And when he was released without anyone knowing until after the fact, we decided we would be his people.”
Hodges and a group of other worshipers formed a “house church” and asked Rush to lead services there. Eventually, the group outgrew the basement and moved to a larger space, but Hodges and other parishioners continued to attend Rush’s services until he moved away.
“He really lived a good life”
By the mid-1990s, Rush had moved on to work with the Colorado AIDS Project. Hodges had returned to First United after leaving for a period of time, and she had committed to helping him become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a group of United Methodist churches that openly welcome LGBTQ+ people and their families. But asking the assembly to move in that direction was a tough deal at first, because there was so much fear about rekindling the rift that Rush’s departure had sparked.
In 1995, Hodges, who at the time was working as theater director at Boulder High School, wrote a play and asked Rush to write music and lyrics to go along with it. The story centered around a closeted gay minister and a woman and her husband with a gay son. The musical, called “Caught in the Middle,” was first performed at First United, but it began to tour and other churches and other United Methodists from different places came to see it.
Hodges said the play was “healing in the long run,” and she believes it’s part of the reason First United finally became a reconciling congregation in 1997.
“Change is possible. And that’s what happened,” Hodges said. “Julian’s story is something that I look at as a blessing that came out of what was very much a personal tragedy for him.”
In addition to Rush’s musical legacy, however, his friends and family remember him as a kind, compassionate, creative person.
When Messer thinks of his old friend, he remembers Rush’s “impeccable integrity,” “quiet courage,” sense of humor and musical talent.
Hodges said that while there are dark chapters in Rush’s life, it’s all part of the process he went through to find where he belongs.
“There’s tragedy (in his story), but there’s also redemption,” she said. “There was a place for him. …He had to go through an awful lot of hell to get there, but he found a place where he could be the best possible representative of gay positive things happening.”
“His music was his ministry,” she added.
Jason Rush said, “He was a nice dude and a real Southern gentleman, though, to boot. Much more sophisticated than me and my brother will ever be. … He really lived a good life.”
He is survived by his partner, two sons, grandchildren and a host of loyal friends.