My long memory makes it easy to recall that this student and I were discussing terminology about transgender people after our regular, Thursday class period on Sept. 28, 2017 when he noted aloud how much he enjoyed pursuing LGBT stories. “When I write them,” he said of such stories, “I’m learning about LGBT people and about myself – because I’m gay.”
By Geoffrey Scott
For as long as he can remember, Mark Etheredge has been surrounded by music.
One of four sons born to a Christian minister, Etheredge spent his earliest days listening to worship music at his father’s Sunnyvale church. His musician mother, a leader of the church choir, taught him and his brothers how to read music and how to play the many instruments the church used for Sunday worship. He was a quick learner, creative and took to music more naturally than his siblings did.
By the time high school came around, Etheredge, 15, was the choir’s lead vocalist and filled in regularly as the church’s drummer, bassist and pianist.
“My mom is who got me started with this whole thing,” said Etheredge, now a 55-year-old, San Francisco church musician whose solo career includes three smooth jazz albums. “I learned a lot from her.”
It was also around age 15 that Etheredge and some friends formed a Christian rock band. He played the keyboard, and the group performed at his parents’ as well as at other local churches.
This was when Etheredge began to realize he was gay.
“I remember feeling so isolated from everyone. It was a weird place to be in.”
When he developed feelings for a friend and fellow bandmate, Etheredge “took a chance and made a pass at him.” But the friend reacted with hostility, and outed him to the rest of the band.
“Of course, Romans 1:27 was recited at me by everyone who found out,” Etheredge said of the Bible verse that many interpret as a condemnation of homosexuality.
Within a year, every person in the church congregation learned of his sexual orientation. The church elders asked him to step down from the choir and to leave the band.
Feeling more isolated than ever, Etheredge left his church altogether. He spent a few years contemplating his faith and identity but never stopped playing music. He started studying it, too, focusing on jazz performance at De Anza College and San Jose State University.
“Music is what kept me going. A lot of great things happened to me through my parents’ church. But theologically, it was not good for me.”
As he slowly became more comfortable with his sexuality during his early 20s, Etheredge decided to attend his first gay pride event—the San Jose Pride Festival.
It was at that festival, ironically, where his faith was rekindled.
Etheredge walked past an information booth for what was then the Metropolitan Community Church of San Jose, a unique community of Christians who specialized in ministering to the LBGT community. Draped over MCC’s table was a banner with its slogan: Diverse Beliefs. Common Values. A Home for Queer Spirituality.
Etheredge felt a sliver of hope that had eluded him for a long time. Was it possible that he wouldn’t have to give up his lifelong, religious beliefs just because he was gay?
At his first Sunday service, he fell in love with the church’s progressive interpretation of the Bible and MCC San Jose’s diverse congregation. He felt accepted and a new sense of confidence.
Soon, he signed up for membership, began sharing his passion for music and was invited to play piano in the church band.
Etheredge had finally returned home.
After completing his studies at San Jose State University, Etheredge turned his focus to building his artistic career, while staying involved with the music at MCC.
He built a name for himself as a professional jazz keyboardist, playing alongside notable musicians such as Danny Hull of the rock band Journey, Charlene Moore of The Weather Girls and Tom Politzer of Tower of Power, to name a few.
Etheredge moved to San Francisco when he was 30 and immediately joined the local Metropolitan Community Church, where he was urged to lead their band.
Meanwhile, over the next 20-plus years, Etheredge continued to play keyboard for larger acts to pay the rent but carved out a solo career as a smooth jazz pianist.
After releasing two small albums, he formed a connection with Paul Brown, a two-time, Grammy Award-winning jazz producer. Brown collaborated with him to produce a third album, “Connected,” comprised of 10 songs inspired by Etheredge’s issue with identity, along with his life journey realization that we are all connected.
Released in 2016, the album was a hit with jazz enthusiasts. Its first radio single, “Connected,” landed on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz 2016 Year End Chart. In January 2017, the second radio single, “Roger That,” debuted at the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Most Added Smooth Jazz Songs Chart.
By August, Etheredge was brought on full-time as the music director at MCC San Francisco.
Every Sunday, he gets to lead his church in a vibrant worship ceremony, sharing his professional quality musicianship and giving MCC another one-of-a-kind aspect to their service for which to be proud.
“It’s amazing how you find your calling,” Etheredge said. “This is really my dream job.”