My cousin Herman struggled to take his next breath. The man known for his strong tenor voice lay helpless in a hospital bed, barely able to speak. The scars on his body bore evidence of the drain of living with AIDS. It was time for him to die. Everyone in the room knew there was nothing that could be done to resurrect his battered body.
Most of the family stayed away. For them, Herman made a choice long ago when he informed the family he was gay. They turned their backs on him, leaving him to contend with the devastation of lost vitality on his own. When they walked away, so did all that comes with being reared in a family of highly religious people. Lost was access to his place of worship and the people who claim to be people of faith. They wouldn't make those much needed visits to the hospital bedside to pray over his bruised body and spirit. Herman was alone. His death was, for me, a reminder of the great disconnect caused as a consequence of theological confusion.
Herman cried that day. For all those years since being asked not to return to the church, he had wished for one last chance to worship with those he once called family. One last time to sing in front of the people. One last time to hear a prayer. He never got his chance. He died alone drenched in tears. He was among the rejected, yet his faith in God never died.
Herman's death opened my eyes to the massive contradictions found among those who call the black church their home. Historically, it has been a place of refuge for those rejected by the larger society. It has been a home when there was no other home. Those who gather there for worship cling to the contention that hope can be found. That somehow, some way, God would answer their prayers. No sin is too big for God to forgive. There is nothing too hard for God. That is, unless you are gay or lesbian.
When Herman died, alone, in that New York hospital bed, a part of me died with him. It was the part that made assumptions about those who are gay and lesbians. Like those in the church who kicked Herman out, I too had been guilty of burning the bridge that would have allowed them to share in the life of the church. I assumed they were sinners, and that repentance was needed before they could hear from God and participate in the work of the church. I assumed they had to be like me, a heterosexual, before moving forward as members of the body of believers.
Herman died alone. Even more tragic is how he died void of the benefit of spiritual connection. He moved from this life without a pastor, members of a church, and the blessings of those who share faith to nurture him as he transitioned from life to death. He was not heard. He was rejected because of his sexual orientation. No one heard him cry.
It's not easy listening to them cry. Those who stand in support of gays and lesbians are rebuked as heretics. Pastors are slow to stand in solidarity with this rejected population. How is it that the black church, an institution that claims a rich legacy of fighting for the outcast, would limit the rights of gays and lesbians?
The social consciousness of the black church has always been based on Biblical motifs. African Americans gained courage to fight for civil rights by reading scriptures that called for Pharaoh to let God's people go. It wasn't difficult for leaders of the black church to formulate an activist response to events that had the unmistakable sign that God was saying and doing something about black people in white America.
Black theology and black history have been inseparable. An interpretation of history has come out of an encounter with the God of history. But black Christians haven't found space within the ongoing struggle of their faith to embrace the community of gays and lesbians in their midst. Black gay and lesbian history isn't understood as sacred history. There has been no dialogue on how God speaks in and through the tussle of those who seek God while living a gay lifestyle.
This is a conversation that can't be heard. The Bible is used as a weapon to condone homophobia. There is no word whether Jesus supported the gays and lesbians of his time. The voice of Jesus is silent on the issue, preferring to deal more with establishing an understanding on the ethics of love. Black Christians search the pages of the Bible for truth, reading it as a manual for their lives. If the Bible doesn't say it, it can't be done.
Pastors who refuse to read the Bible are shamed for being overly influenced by the academy. Theological education is viewed as the enemy of the black Church. Those who attend are chided for depending more on psychology and history than the words of the Bible. Centers of theological thought train ministers to read the Bible within a historical setting and to transpose those thoughts into a contemporary framework. The black church isn't prepared for a more progressive approach to Biblical reflection. Ministers who take what they've learned and bring it to the black church are soon scandalized for having views too liberal for God's people--views perceived as being counter to the mind of God.
I know. I was one of them. The tears of my cousin Herman, combined with conversations with gays and lesbians in the church, forced me to rethink my stance. How could I not hear the voices of those crying to be heard? How could I not consider the consequences of hiding on a person's spirituality? How could I call those who participated in the worship of God and who sought a place to come my friends while denying their humanity? Something had to be done. I could play it safe and simply not address the issue, or I could stand and fight for their right to be heard.
It all began with a column I wrote in The Herald-Sun. It came after my resignation from the United Way Board of Trustees. The Triangle United Way decided not to end funding for the Boy Scouts of America after it was decided they would continue to discriminate against gay volunteers. I refused to participate as a member of a board that failed to see the implications of establishing a precedent where discrimination is accepted.
My column called for churches to begin dialogue. People need to talk about homosexuality, and there is no better place to start than the church. The deacons at the church where I served as pastor, Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church, challenged me to recant my words. They refused to consider opening the church up for dialogue. The handwriting was on the wall. Less than a year later, I was dismissed as the pastor of the church.
The journey continues. There is no better way to become a family than to listen to other members of the family. I took time to listen to a few who have endured living in a family that refuses to allow them to come home. Listen to what they had to say.
We are surrounded by weeping believers. Kenneth Fowler is one of them. Fowler, 39, is a hairstylist who has known he was gay since he was 6. He has noticed a change in the way the church deals with homosexuality.
"There was a movement where gays were being accepted in the church," he says. "There were more gay pastors. More people were coming out as being gay. In the past few years there have been more political grounds and religion to push back the movement."
Fowler says he knew of local black pastors who embraced homosexual unions. Things were changing. "The move backwards hurts because from me growing up and being taught homosexuality is wrong, the lifestyle is wrong, yet at the same time being taught God makes no mistakes. How can my life be a mistake?" he says. "If God knew this is what I would be, how is it wrong?"
Fowler grew up in the church. At an early age he watched as people sang and danced in the spirit. "I could tell when they weren't real," he said. "God gave me a gift. I can tell when people are fake."
He lost interest in the church for a variety of reasons. He stopped attending because of the glares he received from people. That, combined with the hypocrisy he perceived, made it more difficult for him to want to connect with a church. "The black church is a greedy institution," he says. "It is more interested in money than spiritual well-being for the people. There was a time when the church was worried about the community."
Fowler talked about a special calling. Tears began to flow as he shared the burden of the call. "It is a lonely place. You have so much inside. So much you want to give. You have to be careful how you reach out to people....
"There was a time when I tried to hide who I am," Fowler says. "I came to the realization long ago that I am who God made me to be. I don't give a damn about what society says about it."
He said he doesn't care about what people think, but he has been hurt by what the church thinks.
"I can't deal with finger pointing, name calling, accusations when people judge me and tell me I'm going to hell. That's when they get my feathers ruffled up," he says.
"When I think about what it's like to be a part of it, it makes me want to cry. After all of that time it took for me to accept myself, after being concerned about everyone accepting me and my not accepting who I am--that hurts the most. After running from the love that was there all the time and looking in the wrong places. There was a time I walked away from God. I thought he walked away from me. I thought I had let him down. I was angry. I was losing friends to AIDS. I asked, Why was this happening? I was told it was a curse. Common sense told me it wasn't a curse. I know God is perfect. I'm here. I'm not a mistake. I'm here and I'm here by God's design."
Cody Hamilton, 35, says his biggest challenge has been the recognition of his faith as it opposes his being openly gay. "Personally, I don't see the opposition in the same way others do, but I have to accept those views. I realize I have a message," he says. "There are certain things in my heart that would, from a religious standpoint, help other people even if I don't step out in a church. A lot of people come to me for advice. People are looking for answers through faith. Most people understand I try to live a completely honest life. Part of that is being completely honest about being gay at all times."
Hamilton says he acknowledged he was gay at 18. His parents were very active in the church. After coming out, his father had a difficult time embracing him.
"It was my brother who helped my father understand," he says. "He told him not to judge."
Finding a place to exercise his spirituality has become a recent need. After deciding to walk away from the church because it failed to welcome him, he and his partner are in search of a place where they can worship together. He wants a place where he doesn't have to hide who he is but is embraced in his gayness as a person loved by God.
Hamilton came to the realization that something wouldn't leave him. "I do know it's OK being gay," he says. "The thing I'm afraid of is living the life everyone else wanted me to live, and that lie kept me from salvation.É A lot of those people have never really had an open, involved conversation with a person who is gay. They have drawn conclusions from a line in the sand. You don't know anything about anyone until you know that person.É
"I think the black church I've experienced exists in a hypocritical duality," he says. "I have a theory about life. Everything falls into three categories--things we socially expect, things we socially overlook and things we socially condemn. The church I grew up in, the deacons were rumored to be having affairs. That was socially overlooked. The deacon and his family were on one side of the aisle, while his mistress was on the other. When you have a person who is gay, it's not easy to overlook. People forget all sin is equal. If you're going to condemn one, condemn all."
Hamilton and his partner have been in search of a place to worship. "I know a lot of people who are straight who struggle to find a place that fits their religious needs. Not all places fit," Hamilton says. "I'm looking for a place where love is the primary focus and not condemnation. It's my life. I can't force people to understand who I am unless they are willing to know who I am.
"I see these people in person and on TV, and they expose so much hatred and anger and condemnation in the name of Jesus, who came in the name of love," he says. "If I had a message, it would be to look at Jesus and ask what would he really do, what would he really say, and do that same thing, and think of his sacrifice before you condemn any living creature."
Martha and Alice (their names have been changed for this article) have struggled to find a place to worship. Alice grew up Muslim but hasn't been to a mosque because of her sexual orientation. They have attempted to mainstream into a Christian church but need a place that will give them the flexibility of acknowledging the benefits of Islam.
"We can't go to a mosque, and we're not sure we can fit into a Christian church," Martha says. "For that reason, when we visit we don't go openly, we go discreetly. We would love to go openly, to be open as to who we are. If you go more than once, they first assume we're sisters; soon they come up and ask. We don't want to have to lie."
The two are in a committed relationship. They own a home together and have participated in a gay union. They are raising a son together. As with most people, their spirituality has become an important issue. "We have been cursed and damned and told that we would not prosper by our family members," Martha says. "We have gone through all of that. In raising a son, it is important that we pass on a faith and belief in God. We would welcome going to a black church.... We have three strikes against us. We are black, female and gay. It's important that we be a part of a church that understands what we're going through."
The two have endured watching people stare at them while they are at church. On a few occasions, they have participated in worship at a church where people knew of their sexual orientation. Rather than contend with the rejection, they haven't come back. "We know the people will have problems," Martha says. "What really matters is how the minister feels."
They have struggled with going to the minister to talk about their orientation. "How do you do that?" Alice asks. "How do you go to a minister and tell him about your lifestyle?"
Martha and Alice are in search of a place that fits where they are spiritually. "We need a place that is welcoming of all religions," Alice says. "There are parts of Islam we agree with. There are parts we don't agree with. How can we support a religion where part of the practice is having more than one wife?
"We have known lots of gay and lesbian people who are not happy with what traditional church is looking for," Martha says. "We want to take a bit of this together with a part of that. It's good to get together with people and talk about that, but you can't get completely full. You need someone who is a leader. You need someone who is credentialed. We're not looking for a made-up religion. We need someone who can pull it together, someone well-rooted in God who can guide you and build spiritual strength.
"So many of us lesbians are living our lives," Martha says. "We don't want to put ourselves out there. We don't want to be spiritually beat up on. We don't stay at one place. We move from one place to another to keep our anonymity."
These spiritual refugees stand outside the black church in search of a door to enter. When they do, they do so with hesitation. They stand on holy ground, yet their critics hold high an age-old book. The word says you are reprobate. Change before you come in here.
They have so much to say, but no one will listen. "I love to sing that song 'God bless the child that has his own,'" Fowler says. "It gives me a lot of strength. I know God is here for me."
There are few models for ministry to gay and lesbians in the black church. Those who take the risk of offering an open and affirming place for the homosexual community set themselves up to be slaughtered by their membership. It's a risk most aren't willing to take. The majority of congregants are convinced that homosexuality is rejected by God. To press in another direction leaves those who move for inclusion alone, rejected and humiliated.
If the goal of ministry is a mega-church, that vision will be smashed once the minister supports the rights of gays and lesbians. When the bottom line is large memberships and big budgets, there is little hope for forming a safe place for gays and lesbians to worship.
In 2002, we started Compassion Ministries of Durham. I no longer serve as the pastor of a big church with a big budget. I no longer claim a big salary and other benefits that come with leading a church that abides within a traditional approach to ministry. Our pews aren't filled each week. We struggle to maintain week after week. We lack some of the structure that comes with being a traditional black church. Those who come miss part of what came with being on the other side. They miss the traditional building and large choir. They miss the programming for their children and the staffing needed to fulfill the goals of the ministry.
If the goal is a large church with a big budget, we have failed. If the goal is to be full of compassion and to love all the same, regardless of sexual orientation, we have succeeded. We are free to love. Freedom comes with a price. Most aren't willing to take that chance. As for me, I would rather be free.