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Black churches face challenge of welcoming gays — and losing socially conservative parishioners

“The church has to come to a point when it has to embrace all the people Jesus embraced, and that means the people in the margins. t really bothered my congregation when I said that as people of color who have been ostracized, marginalized, how can we turn around now and oppress other people?”
— Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor, Victory Church in Stone Mountain in Georgia, which saw its flock drop from 6,000 to 3,000 after he began to preach acceptance of gay and lesbian parishioners.

The NYT has an interesting piece on the problem of homophobia in the black church. The topic rarely receives coverage in the MSM, or even the progressive blogosphere. It’s one of those third rail topics that white folks feel uncomfortable addressing (as if it’s an issue internal to the black community, and thus cannot be commented on), but it’s a political reality that anti-gay votes are being cast by socially conservative blacks when amendments come to the fore. To ignore the issue is politically naive.

The debate about homosexuality that has roiled predominantly white mainline churches for years has gradually seeped into African-American congregations, threatening their unity, finances and, in some cases, their existence.

In St. Paul, the Rev. Oliver White, senior minister of Grace Community Church, lost nearly all his 70 congregants after he voted in 2005 to support the blessing of same-sex unions in his denomination, the United Church of Christ.

…Some black ministers, like their white counterparts, said they had been moved to reconsider biblical passages about same-sex relations by personal events, like finding out that a friend or relative is gay. Some members of the clergy contend that because of the antipathy to gay men and lesbians, black churches have done little to address the high rate of H.I.V. infection among African-Americans.

In Atlanta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, Rev. Dennis Meredith preached against homosexuality, but five years ago turned his ministry to a gay-affirming one after his son came out of the closet. Again, knowing someone who is openly gay changes hearts and minds, and Meredith is no exception.

A compelling orator with the voice and showmanship of a stadium-rock star, Mr. Meredith quickly began to draw more new members. He preached against homosexuality. Then, five years ago, his middle son, Micah, told him that he is gay. Mr. Meredith and his wife began to read liberal theologians like Mr. Gomes and to look at Scripture again. What matters most in the Bible, Mr. Meredith said, was Jesus’ injunction to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that includes gay men and lesbians.

As he preached greater acceptance of gay people, Mr. Meredith saw the face of his congregation change.

About three years ago, many older members, those who had hung on through the church’s waning, and who drove in from the suburbs because they had attended Tabernacle as young people, gradually began to leave. They took with them their generous, loyal tithing. The 90-year-old church had money to cover salaries and utilities but had a hard time paying for properties it had bought nearby. In September, Mr. Meredith held a commitment ceremony in the church for two lesbian couples. More people left after that.

This, my friends, is sad. Tabernacle had to drop from two services to one; a deacon actually told Meredith that it had become “a sissy church” as LGBT worshippers started to flock there because they felt they had found a spiritual home. 

The angle of declining membership because of anti-gay fervor wasn’t a topic I was able to cover at National Black Justice Coalition‘s Second Annual Black Church Summit, which I attended in March. As these churches struggle over the issue, some will fail to thrive as they accept LGBT parishioners, others will find common ground and grow, others, particularly ones who are about the almighty dollar, will keep the gay-baiting coming. I imagine for churches in the South, it’s a particularly difficult challenge to take a stand for inclusion.

And you know, that’s their choice, for those people to exhibit and practice Christianity as they see it; perhaps they will never see their openly gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as full participants in the church. The struggle I see is for black gays and lesbians to decide whether they continue to sit in the pews and be assaulted for who they are by their minister, or seek community in a gay-affirming church. No one is forcing them to stay; but the culture and community ties — and fear of ostracism — is great. The push and pull is strong. Ultimately, a continued life in the closet will not promote change; it encourages the continued prejudice. The evolution in thinking by Rev. Meredith would not have occurred had his son remained closeted.

Two of the people quoted in the Times piece, ally  Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson and Bush-supporting, anti-gay Bishop Harry Jackson, chairman of the High-Impact Leadership Coalition attended the summit.

There’s more, including video, after the jump.Dyson gave a rousing speech of support, “The Theology of  Homoeroticism.” Jackson was definitely in “hostile” territory and was forced to defend some of the common, ludicrous anti-gay assertions during the debate “Homosexuality, the Church and Black Folk” (audio here). For example, it only took him a few minutes to bring up pedophilia in the context of sexual immorality and homosexual expression.

One thing Rev. Harry Jackson and those on the side of inclusion can agree upon is the hypocrisy of the homophobic black church. The truth is that they all have gay and lesbian parishioners — they are just in the closet, or known to be gay and operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, even as anti-gay vitriol spills from the pulpit. One of the junior pastors at Tabernacle, Rev. Chris Brown, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama and he was told by his pastor at a black Pentecostal church there that gay folks had three rights: 1) to redeem themselves, 2) to repent or 3) to die of AIDS.

For every gay-affirming pastor in the pulpit such as  Rev. Deborah Johnson, Rev. Zach Jones and Rev. Dyan McRay (all attended the summit, along with Dyson). I think it’s safe to say that this problem is a crisis that has to be taken seriously by everyone. All four talked about the challenges in the below clip from my coverage of the summit press conference:


On the right is a clip of Rev. Dyson discussing the attempt by the white evangelical movement to take advantage of the homophobia in the black church he discusses why churches should be wary of bedding down with a movement that otherwise wants nothing to do with black issues on any other occasion.

Yet when you read the NYT article, it’s clear that the anti-gay white evangelicals and socially conservative black churchgoers are unlikely bedfellows, and too many have little compassion or realistic view of the humanity of lesbian and gay people of faith. They, along with Bishop Jackson believe that celibacy is the only existence available to gays. And that’s even as adultery (and breaking of other Commandments, when homosexuality isn’t in The Big 10) runs rife in the community.

One former parishioner of Tabernacle, DeMarcus Hill, put it this way: “But God corrects you because he loves you,” he said, explaining that for gay Christians, such a correction would probably mean lifelong celibacy or eventually being with someone of the opposite sex. Yes, that’s right, living a lie in a heterosexual union is preferable to being the person you are.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding