Camera crews were in step with police when they busted a tea party in the Russian city of Samara, arresting an American pastor who authorities said had plans to commit the grave sin of performing gay weddings.
“They took the cup out of my hand and took me away,” Jim Mulcahy told The Daily Beast from an undisclosed location in Eastern Europe.
The news teams called him a pseudo-priest. The police demanded to know, through an English-language translator, in an on-camera closeup: “What’s the purpose of your being here right now?”
Mulcahy, a Metropolitan Community Church pastor who’s been living in Ukraine for four years, was swiftly ordered to leave Russia for allegedly violating the terms of his tourist visa. News reports about the event included snide comments about him being an American, an openly gay man, a resident of Ukraine, and an MCC pastor.
“I’ve been going to Russia at least once a year since 2012,” Mulcahy said, speaking out about the events for the first time. “I always visit LGBT groups while I’m there, for conversation.”
Sometimes the groups are specifically Christian, sometimes not. But that didn’t matter to police, who said he ran afoul of his tourist visa by lecturing and preaching. The organization he was meeting with, local LGBT group Avers, was not a Christian organization. A new anti-terrorism law makes it even harder for visiting religious officials, who must be affiliated with a registered religious organization and can only perform missionary work at religious sites. It’s even raising concerns for Mormon missionaries.
“Fortunately, Russia can’t throw me out of Eastern Europe or post-Soviet space,” Mulcahy said. “They can only throw me out of Russia.”
But the Russian cops did bring a 4 p.m. tea party on July 9 to an abrupt end when they stormed the Avers gathering. About a dozen people were in the room, “literally drinking tea and eating cookies,” Mulcahy said.
“Probably around 20 minutes after we started, four police and news cameras came barging in, and I was taken into custody,” he said. “They didn’t give me any reason, they just took me. I had no interpreter of my own, I had no lawyer with me.”
They grilled the pastor for four hours, using only a police-provided translator. Mulcahy couldn’t even fully understand what was going on, he said, and his lawyer—who was at the police station—wasn’t allowed to call him.
Later, the attorney told Mulcahy that police got an anonymous tip that he was going to perform a same-sex wedding in Samara, just like he had for dozens of same-sex couples around the world. The men who reported him, based on advertisements for the tea party in Russian social network Vkontakte, gleefully said as much to news crews.
“I had no such plans,” Mulcahy said.
He was whisked straight from the station to court, where a judge denied his motions to wait until his lawyer could represent him and get some witnesses, and to delay the trial based on his age and health.
“Basically I had a trial where I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.
Russian TV reported that evening that Mulcahy would be fined and thrown out of the country. That night, a judge ruled that same way.
Mulcahy was given five days to get out, and banned for three years. He was given a fine of 2,000 rubles—a whopping $30.
“Russia is the second country I’ve been kicked out of,” he said.
As a young Jesuit scholastic, Mulcahy was driven out of Iraq and moved to Egypt instead. Eventually he decided he didn’t want to live a secret life as a gay man, and became a hospital chaplain instead. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, he decided to find a religious community once more.
“I couldn’t face cancer by myself,” he said.
So he found a Metropolitan Community Church congregation in Rochester, New York, one of the few fully LGBT-affirming churches at that time. When their pastor left, they asked him to step in temporarily. He ended up staying for years.
And it’s the very church whose weekly communion brought him solace in his time of need that’s a point of mockery for Russian state TV.
The Moscow leg of Mulcahy’s trip was quickly axed after his arrest. A friend booked him a 4 a.m. flight bound straight for Helsinki, allowing him to bypass the media mob waiting for him at the Moscow airport.
But when he showed up at the Samara airport, Mulcahy saw the officer checking his passport had a slip of paper on his desk, with Mulcahy’s name on it. He got an escort through the regular security screening. At passport control, even more officers surrounded him.
“They tried to do an interrogation,” Mulcahy said. “They took away my court papers and didn’t return them. They kept asking for names of people in Samara and phone numbers, but I refused to give them.”
Minutes before boarding his escape flight, Mulcahy was accosted again. By some stroke of luck, he had a receipt for his court fine, which they demanded he turn over.
Others at the tea party may not be so lucky. Among the guests were two young Russians wearing priest collars, he said, who were caught on tape. And it’s people like them who inspired Mulcahy’s lawyer to file an appeal they both know there’s no chance of winning.
“She said, you know, this is Russia. Our people, our LGBT people, suffer all the time,” Mulcahy said. “And we must make these appeals to show that the courts are not following the Russian constitution. It’s like water dripping on a stone, eventually it wears away.”
Correction: This article initially stated that Mulcahy was a Jesuit priest when he was driven out of Iraq. He was in fact a scholastic.