Called to Follow
Throughout his career, Pastor John McCullough has been a force for social justice on the East Side
In 1976, Capt. John McCullough was serving in the Army Corps of Engineers. He was stationed at a small Army base in Germany, just weeks away from returning home to the U.S. One night, a visitor stopped by his quarters.
“A young sergeant came by and asked to talk to me,” McCullough recalls. We had met at the small chapel community on the base. He told me he was gay, and that he had been in a steady relationship with a German national. He was pretty sure that other people in his unit had found out about his relationship. At that time, just being gay was cause for dishonorable discharge from the Army. He was very afraid and just needed to confide in someone. Since he was not in my chain of command, I was under no obligation to report what he had told me. I could have, but I knew he was a very competent NCO, and he had trusted in me as a friend. I chose not to betray that trust.”
Forty years later, Pastor John McCullough is telling that story of a frightened young man who placed his trust in him. While the incident wasn’t a turning point for McCullough, it was one of several experiences that led him from a career as an Army officer to 37 years as the pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church in East Nashville.
Throughout his ministerial career, Pastor John — or simply “John,” as he prefers to be called — built a reputation as a dedicated advocate for social justice. He has forged partnerships with many nonprofits supporting homeless advocacy, antipoverty causes, community organization, and education. He was also a pioneer in church outreach to the Nashville LGBT community, helping establish Woodland as an “inclusive community of faith.” When he officially retired from his ministry on June 1, 2016, it was the close of an amazing career, but not the end of his story.
A native of Chattanooga, McCullough set his sights on a career in the military during high school. Securing a scholarship to the United States Military Academy at West Point, his future seemed certain.
“In hindsight, I had several experiences that were calls to the ministry, but I ignored them,” McCullough says. “When I was about to graduate from West Point, I began to have second thoughts about a military career. I had been active in the Baptist student group at West Point, and our civilian advisor was a Southern Baptist home missionary. He told me that I would have to take my commission or serve as an enlisted man in the Army to pay back my education. So naturally I took the commission and just set aside thoughts of any other career.”
Graduating in 1965, McCullough accepted a commission in the Army Corps of Engineers. He spent the next 11 years in the Army, with tours of duty in Vietnam in 1967 and 1970. “After my first tour in Vietnam, I came back and began having doubts about what I was doing,” he says. “Especially after what I observed in Vietnam and how the ordinary people were pushed back and forth between the two warring sides.”
Despite his doubts, six more years passed before a turning point arrived, shortly after he returned to the U.S. from his tour of duty in Germany. “I was expecting to be promoted from captain to major and got passed over, which just doesn’t happen to West Point graduates,” McCullough says. “I was forced to realize that I wasn’t pursuing my military career with my full zeal, and I started thinking about what it was that I ought to be doing. I decided to leave the Army and study theology.
“I came to Vanderbilt in the summer of 1976 and graduated in the summer of 1979,” he continues. “About a month before I graduated, I heard about this church in East Nashville that was looking for a pastor. I made contact with them and was asked to preach on Easter Sunday. Then they asked me to come back on Pentecost Sunday, and I’ve been preaching there ever since.”
The church that welcomed McCullough was Woodland Presbyterian Church in the heart of East Nashville. Founded in 1858 as the First Presbyterian Church of Edgefield at Fifth and Woodland, the church relocated to its present site at North 11th Street and Gartland Avenue in 1916. With its neoclassical architecture and prominent red clay dome capping the building’s sanctuary, it was an iconic landmark in East Nashville, but the well-being of the congregation was another matter.
“In 1979, we had 110 members and the average age was 62, and counting my two children, there were only nine children in the church,” McCullough says. “The congregation had been dwindling since 1950 when they had 600 members. Throughout the 1970s, people had moved out of East Nashville by the droves. For the next couple of years, we had a net growth of one or two a year, and then we hit a wall when the newness of my pastorship wore off.”
Although the prospects for the church’s future may have looked dim, forces were already at work that would eventually bring changes to the neighborhood. “Not long after I came to Woodland, the first urban pioneers moved into the neighborhood, buying old houses, rehabbing them and living in them,” McCullough says. “It was a glimmer that the neighborhood did have a future. More folks began to move in and you could see the neighborhood gradually coming back to life. God was doing stuff, and I just got on board with it.”
Part of that “getting on board” was finding real world opportunities to make a difference in the surrounding neighborhood, and the lives of people who were already living in it. “A phrase I use quite often in sermons is, ‘We’re not called to worship Jesus; we’re called to follow Jesus,’ ” McCullough says. “I point to the character of Jesus as being four things — feeding the hungry, healing the sick, liberating folks who are oppressed by social forces or their own inner psychic forces, and welcoming everyone. That’s what we tried do as a church.”
With ample unused space in the church’s building, Woodland has opened its doors to many nonprofit agencies over the years, including Martha O’Bryan Center, Monroe Harding Children’s Home, Community IMPACT!, and Linden Corner School. Currently, the church provides offices for the Parents Day Out Program, the Urban Green Lab environmental education group, and the CWJC Southern Baptist job corps program.
Woodland has also been a prominent supporter of several homeless outreach programs, including Room in the Inn, which provides overnight shelter during winter months. The church also holds Wednesday night suppers that are open to church members and visitors alike and Saturday night suppers for the homeless and hungry that are cosponsored with Church of the Redeemer, Trinity Church, Midtown Fellowship, and First Baptist Nashville.
In addition to his work with social justice causes, an encounter with an old friend eventually led to one of the primary focuses of McCullough’s ministry. “In 1980, I got this call from the young sergeant I had known in Germany,” McCullough says. “He had been tossed out of the Army and was living in Oregon. He came to Nashville and visited with my wife and I. I didn’t hear from him after that and, a few years later, I got curious about him and found that his name was on the memorial AIDS quilt.” Shortly after that discovery, a gay couple began attending services at Woodland, and McCullough welcomed them.
“One of the couple eventually was ordained as an elder. We did that, knowing that he was gay, and knowing that it was not allowed by the Presbyterian Church at the time. It was an act of civil disobedience. We were pretty sure they wouldn’t do anything to us, but theoretically, they could have dissolved the session (the governing body of elders in a Presbyterian congregation) and removed me as pastor.”
Seeking to make a stronger stand for inclusion, Woodland Presbyterian Church voted in 2007 to join the coalition of congregations known as More Light Presbyterians. The work of More Light congregations eventually led to the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopting a policy of full inclusion in 2010. Although the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality in June 2015 brought a change that McCullough had long hoped for, on a personal level, it was anticlimactic.
“I’ve only performed one (same sex) marriage,” he says. “I was kind of disappointed because a number of our couples didn’t want to wait, so they went to other states before the court decision made it legal in Tennessee. We do have another couple in the church that is planning on getting married, and I will be involved in their wedding.”
Although McCullough is now enjoying retirement, his personal ministry is far from over. One place he won’t be found, however, at least in the near future, is in the congregation of Woodland Presbyterian Church.
“The usual policy for Presbyterians is a retired minister should stay away from their former church for a year to give the new minister a chance to get established,” he says. “That’s a wise policy. It will be fun to go to other churches, and I’ll also get on the pulpit supply list to do some occasional preaching when someone goes on vacation.”
The changes McCullough has witnessed and played a part in over the 37 years of his ministry have been nothing short of amazing. While there are still issues of injustice and inequality, he’s kept his perspective on the long view.
“The first four or five years of my ministry,” he recalls, “I would drive from the church building to my home in Inglewood, and I would pass all the pawn shops on Gallatin Road. I would say to myself, I don’t want to be in East Nashville. I wanted to be in Green Hills or somewhere like that. Thirty-seven years later, I am so thankful that I stayed here. I got to observe a tremendous transformation.
“Although the neighborhood is nicer now, there are still a lot of people here who are not very affluent. They’re getting pushed out of the community, and we need to make sure there is still affordable housing for everyone. Part of my becoming a Presbyterian was having my perspective on how things shift from a belief in sudden, dramatic events to a belief in a gradual process. It was at that point I began to look at the Gospel of Jesus as not a way to save your soul so you could go to heaven, but as a way to change the world for the better. And that’s what I still believe.”