Reverend Joe Cobb recently stepped down as the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge after nearly eight years with the congregation. This month he’ll legally marry his partner James. He’s co-written a memoir, Our Family Outing: A Memoir of Coming Out and Coming Through, with his former spouse, Reverend Leigh Anne Taylor. And he says another memoir is in the works. In the middle of transition and special events, he took time to fill us in on the his next steps.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Joe, you’re well known through your community and church leadership, and I’m sure you’re getting lots of questions on what’s next. So…what’s next?
Joe Cobb: In addition to family life, I’ll be focusing next on writing. I’m going to dedicate time to crafting a memoir centered on my service as a queer Christian clergy in the 21st century. I’m also dedicating energy to justice-related work in the Roanoke Valley and will begin a Doctor of Ministry this Fall at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.
BCR: I know you’ve inspired a number of people as they pursue a similar calling. What are some of the key messages you think will emerge in the work?
JC: While great strides have emerged in fully welcoming LGBTQ people into the fabric of society, religion still creates barriers to this full welcome. Writing from nearly twenty years as a United Methodist clergy (in the closet) and now ten years as a Metropolitan Community Church clergy (out, out, out of the closet), I’m challenged by the realities and ironies and convergences of queer, Christian and clergy. These I am wrestling with through the writing of the memoir.
BCR: How about your inspiration? How does our place – Roanoke – inspire you?
JC: That’s a great question. When I moved here sixteen years ago, I had two thoughts in mind: I wanted to be close to Blacksburg, where my nine-year old daughter and seven-year old son were in school at the time, and I needed a place to live where I could be openly gay. Those two realities were my North Star at the time. They led me to dawns atop Mill Mountain for silent meditations—just below a very different star. Then I’d often return to my cozy nest of an apartment, uncertain of what I was going to do with my days. I’d take the memory of my visit to the star and craft a sonnet, or psalm, or lament – wherever my meditations led.
Sixteen years later, I live with my soon-to-be-legally married husband (my partner of nearly fourteen years) and our nine and seven-year-old children in a beautiful 104-year old home in the heart of Old Southwest. My now 24-year old daughter lives in Roanoke with her husband of three years. They live in an old icehouse turned apartment building along the Roanoke River. And my 23-year old son lives in an apartment in our house. These guides inspire my writing every day.
BCR: You can go far with a supportive family. How about the broader community?
JC: My earliest inspirers were a motley crew of neighbors on Day Avenue who welcomed me into their weekly dinners – Chris and Sarah Muse, Jane Kenworthy, Jim and Ann Haynes, John Shelor, Paul Economy, Kevin Earl. Their created community inspired me to create community and make a home here. They also inspired my decision to buy my first-ever home on Day Avenue.
Other inspiration has come from work moments through the years in Roanoke: temp jobs through Randstad processing mortgage applications and releasing paid-off mortgages; development, marketing and public relations work with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; directing the Roanoke Valley Interfaith Hospitality Network (now Family Promise of Greater Roanoke); and discerning a Call to return to pastoral ministry through the Metropolitan Community Churches, which led to my ordination in 2006, and two stints as Pastor (the first in Winston-Salem from 2007-2008 and the second at MCC of the Blue Ridge in Roanoke from 2009-present). The stories inspired by my family, friends, vocations and landscapes of Roanoke continue to keep my writing fresh and deep.
BCR. What fuels your creativity?
JC: Hospitality. I love creating experiences that bring people together, inspiring moments when strangers can become friends. I suppose this is the essence of hospitality—connecting people and creating ritual; it serves as an underground spring in my life.
For my fortieth birthday, I decided to have an official “coming out” party. A friend of mine who lives in Atlanta, suggested that since I now live in the South I should have a debutante ball. I did. Chris and Sarah Muse hosted it in their home on Day Avenue. I dressed in drag, with the extraordinary design help of a former Miss Gay Roanoke, and channeled my inner Judy Garland and Nancy Sinatra to perform “Over the Rainbow” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” This Winter Ball lasted for another ten years.
Rituals include meals with diverse guests, inspiring conversation and collaboration (one of my favorites was with Alysia Abbott, author of Fairyland, along with Beth Macy, Tom Landon and Cathy Hankla). Celebrations of love through holy unions are now fully recognized marriage for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation—a critically important ritual. And through my work with Metropolitan Community Churches, I’ve emerged as a front-line soul and social justice activist, seeking to stand with and for the marginalized. These experiences have inspired and opened my writing.
BCR: And experiences that can help model the way for others. How about fictional models? Is there a favorite fictional character who serves as a model for how we might live today?
JC: Baby Suggs, the local preacher woman in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The first time I read about her standing on her preaching rock in the clearing and calling everyone forward to reclaim their flesh and love from those who had systematically dismantled and dismembered them left me shaking with tears and delight.
To have lived under severe oppression and preach with unabashed liberation was a moment of turning for me. Baby Suggs inspired me to call forth my own fears and limitations, bring them into the clearing, and, “love my heart. For this is the greatest prize.”
BCR: Beautiful. A note to end on. ★