In the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis, Rev. Dr. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas did more funerals than he cares to remember.
These days, he told NBC Out, he’s performing more marriages than he can count.
Starting his career at just 18, Cazares-Thomas, now 51, is the senior pastor at Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, presiding over what he says is the world’s largest LGBTQ congregation.
Hailing from Bournemouth, England, Cazares-Thomas was raised in the Mormon Church. He said when he was about 9 years old, his mother asked a bishop permission to marry a man outside the faith. When the bishop declined, Cazares-Thomas said he learned an invaluable lesson.
“It helped me understand that dogmas are wrong and that church can be wrong,” Cazares-Thomas said. “When I finally came out at about 14 or 15, I’d obviously heard [being gay is] an abomination and all these things, but the same argument was levied against my mom about the church rules, which had nothing to do with Jesus.”
He said in his eyes, Christianity is evolving to accept God’s diversity, and that the faith is going through a reclamation period after being hijacked by political motives.
“We have this thing called Christianity in America that has nothing to do with Christ,” Cazares-Thomas said. “And it uses scripture to validate bigotry.”
To Cazares-Thomas, who is about to celebrate his two-year anniversary in Dallas after spending 13 years serving in Los Angeles as the Senior Pastor of the Founders Metropolitan Community Church, Christianity is a lifestyle, not just a religion.
He said being an out gay man has helped many of those in his congregation come to terms with their identity and faith.
“I watch people, especially in the LGBT community, who have low self-esteem reclaiming their identity, their spirituality and then their self-esteem,” he said.
In spreading his work, Cazares-Thomas has also contributed to several books, including "Daring to Speak Love’s Name," "From Queer to Eternity," and "The Queer Bible Commentary." He is also in the process of writing a chapter for an upcoming book titled, "Jesus Acted Up: Then and Now."
Cazares-Thomas’ lifetime of work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 1998, he was honored at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his work in the Bournemouth community. He has also met with President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He is also married and has adopted a daughter with his husband.
“I have an incredibly blessed life,” he said.
Fun Fact: "I’m a karaoke queen. I'll sing anything by Frank Sinatra or Barry Manilow."
Pride Means: "It means a sense of purpose, a sense of commitment, a sense of achievement and paying it forward. A sense of feeling secure enough about myself. That I have nothing to fear from someone else's judgment or success."