On Sunday morning, more than 200 people packed the pews of the First Church Somerville. Most wouldn’t have looked out of place in any other church: They wore button-down shirts tucked into jeans, or tailored jackets over floral blouses.
But here and there were spots of unconventional color.
In the front row sat someone in a gauzy pink plaid hat and a dress the color of bubble gum. In the back row, a foot-tall rhinestone tiara towered over a slender figure in a sparkly pageant-style dress. Half the choir sported feather boas.
There were false eyelashes, candy-apple-red lipstick, and sequins. Oh, the sequins.
This was not a special service for Las Vegas showgirls, and Liza Minelli had not come to pray — though she would have fit right in. The reason for all the glitter and eyebrow pencil and padded bras was the church’s second annual drag gospel worship service, followed by brunch and a full drag show.
The event was dreamed up by James Adams, a member of the United Church of Christ for eight years who performs, made up as a woman, under the name Serenity Jones.
Adams, 47, had seen a popular Sunday brunch at a Florida restaurant that combined a gospel theme with drag queens, but its take on Christianity was tongue-in-cheek. He wanted to bring the concept to the First Church and imbue it with true religious feeling.
‘As the demographics of the area change, the church also had to change or die. Somerville needed a place . . . safe for LGBT folks.’
The church’s leadership supported Adams’s idea.
“When James came to me and said let’s have a drag gospel brunch, I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but let’s figure it out,’ ” said the Rev. Molly Baskette, lead pastor for the church.
Baskette, 42, said the events are part of an outreach effort to let members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community know the First Church is welcoming and supportive of all sexual orientations and gender identities, a policy it adopted in 1999.
The effort is part of an evolution Baskette has supported through her nine years at the church, where about 30 percent to 40 percent of the congregation identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, she said.
“As the demographics of the area change, the church also had to change or die,” Baskette said. “Somerville needed a place that was demonstrably safe for LGBT folks.”
Baskette made the welcome manifest in Sunday’s sermon, praising the community for its members’ contributions to society and saying that God calls upon people not to become something they are not, but to be the best version of themselves.
The drag queens appeared to interpret that message as a call to be as fabulous as possible as they sashayed for the crowd during the drag show following the service, and passed the basket to collect donations.
After covering expenses from the special event, all remaining money collected during the performances will go to support the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, a Worcester-based organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people fleeing countries where they face persecution and seeking refuge in the United States.
Champo Mapulanga, a young woman from Zambia, spoke briefly about the difficulties she faced both at home and as an immigrant, culminating in a suicide attempt three years ago. The support of volunteers from the asylum task force has kept her going, Mapulanga said, and in seven weeks she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Clark University in Worcester.
Mapulanga’s words brought a rare note of sadness into the high-spirited event, where drag queens lip-synched to gospel songs and religious-themed pop music and danced their way down the aisles.
Among them was the Rev. Jeff Mansfield, associate pastor of the First Church, who performed as Fabiola Feast, wearing a blond wig and a pink, red, purple, and gold dress in a 1970s-style geometric pattern. Rather than shave his beard, Mansfield dyed it bright red for the occasion.
“I feel great,” Mansfield, 34, said of his costume. “I feel beautiful.”
Mansfield joined the church last December, so this was his first drag brunch, his first time wearing drag, and his first public lip-synching performance.
For the occasion, he invited the New York City drag queen Ruby Rims, whom he knew from when they attended church together in Greenwich Village.
“It’s really funny to me that there’s so many drag queen/church intersecting stories in this room today,” Mansfield said.
Baskette said that, as far as she knows, the First Church is the only congregation in the country offering drag performances as devotional exercises.
First-time visitor Asher Coffield, a graduate student at Emerson College, came to the church with friends who live nearby and who have been attending semiregularly for several weeks. She was impressed by the lively music and the congregation’s exuberant celebration of their faith.
“I was raised Catholic, and we don’t really know how to clap,” said Coffield, 24.
Coffield also said she admired the day’s message of embracing difference in others and within oneself.
“I think it’s a perfect thing for a church,” she said. “Be more yourself, and be lively and happy and excited.”