The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, the Episcopal priest whose book “Are You Running With Me, Jesus?” took prayer out of church onto the city streets in a slangy vernacular not found in Sunday missals and who later was one of the first Christian ministers to declare he was gay, died Feb. 27 in Los Angeles. He was 91.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
Rev. Boyd delivered riffs on life’s grittier problems — the white racists afraid of integration, or teenage girls who get pregnant — with a candor that was rarely heard from a priest leading a community at prayer.
He wrote more than two dozen books, many of them about people who did not fit the blue-sky ideal. But none of his prayers for them were as raw and urgent as those in the 1965 collection that sold a half-million copies.
“ ‘Are You Running With Me, Jesus?’ is a classic of spiritual writing for its generation,” said the Rev. Robert Raines, a former director of the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pa.
“It tells about the underbelly of society, which Malcolm knew something about,” Raines told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “His was a Christian faith lived out in bars and on the streets. His prayers came out of the realization that God is not only in church. God is in the painful situations of your life.”
“This girl got pregnant, Lord, and she isn’t married,” one prayer in the book begins. “There was this guy, you see, and she had a little too much to drink. It sounds so stupid, but the loneliness was real. Where were her parents in all this? It’s hard to know.”
Rev. Boyd’s flair for drama kept him in the spotlight from his earliest years as a clergyman. In the segregated South of 1961, he was among the first white ministers to work the voter registration drives. Later in the decade, when religious institutions were criticized as self-serving or irrelevant, he delivered his “prayer poems” from nightclub stages and at the Newport Jazz Festival with guitarist Charlie Byrd.
But he took his boldest step in 1976, when he announced that he was gay. At the time, most Christian churches condemned what they referred to as the homosexual lifestyle, which he was living.
Rev. Boyd followed his public statement with the book “Take Off the Masks,” saying he wrote it because he was tired of living a lie.
For years afterward, he had trouble finding work at a church. “It was wilderness time,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Indianapolis Star. “There was criticism, there was unemployability. I learned you have to be flexible in life.”
It was a lesson he struggled with repeatedly. “The single great war of my life has been against fragmentation and for wholeness, against labels and for identity,” he wrote in his 1969 memoir “As I Live and Breathe.”
After announcing his homosexuality, Rev. Boyd led consciousness-raising groups for homosexuals and wrote books about gay spirituality. In 1984, he helped organize one of the first Christian Masses for people with AIDS.
Malcolm Boyd was born June 8, 1923, in Buffalo, the only child of Melville Boyd, a wealthy financier, and the former Beatrice Lowrie. The stock market crash of 1929, followed by his parents’ divorce, changed his prospects. He and his mother moved to Colorado Springs, where she worked as a teacher and he buried himself in books.
He graduated in 1944 from the University of Arizona with a journalism degree. Bronchial problems kept him from military service during World War II, and he soon found work in Hollywood doing publicity work for Republic Pictures.
In 1949, he formed a radio and TV production company with his friend Mary Pickford, the former silent-screen star, and her actor-husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Rev. Boyd was elected the first president of the Television Producers’ Association of Hollywood.
He shocked associates in 1951 when he left the industry to study for the ministry. “It’s too complex to explain briefly,” he later told the New York Post, “but in a somewhat simplified form, this is what happened: I was involved in mass media from a standpoint of taking and exploiting, and I became totally dissatisfied with it. My life had little meaning beyond each day.”
He entered the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1955. The next year, he received a master of sacred theology degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Controversy surrounded him from the start. At his first parish in Indianapolis (St. Timothy's), the all-white membership was distressed when he invited a black pastor to speak. As a chaplain at Colorado State University, he hosted poetry readings and group discussions in a coffeehouse. A newspaper dubbed him the “espresso priest” and wrote of his “coffeehouse conversions.”
Criticized by the local bishop, Rev. Boyd resigned. He was next hired as a university chaplain at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he got involved in the desegregation movement and traveled often to the Deep South on voter registration drives.
In 1965, he was named writer in residence at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in the District. He traveled, lectured and read his poetry on college campuses. He and guitarist Byrd gave concerts, including one at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. Rev. Boyd read his work while Byrd improvised on the guitar.
That year, Rev. Boyd also appeared at the Hungry I nightclub in San Francisco. Some nights he warmed up the audience for comedian and social activist Dick Gregory. Every night, Rev. Boyd wore his clerical collar and told the audience that he was there as a priest, not an entertainer.
Survivors include his husband, Mark Thompson,
In his later years, Rev. Boyd helped to establish a gay history archive at the University of Southern California and continued to write. In a 2014 Huffington Post column, he asked, in his down-to-earth style, for a chat with Pope Francis about religious discrimination against gay people.
“Is this asking too much?” he wrote. “Pope Francis, are you on board?
“I’d like to spend a reflective evening with you, send out for a pizza from a great place near the Vatican, open a bottle of Chianti, put our feet up, relax, and share thoughts and aspirations.”
Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.