Christian, Gay and Black
By Angela N. Parker
OW Staff Writer
Herndon Davis sat riveted to his seat as his pastor and mentor’s Sunday morning sermon quickly turned into a denouncement of homosexuality.
For Davis, a gay, black man who had grown up in the black church, this was a sermon he had heard many times before, but what made this incident so disturbing was how the pastor’s words seemed to whip the congregation into an almost uncontrollable frenzy.
“It was his powerful intensity, highlighted by the blood-curdling screams of women and the football-sounding cheers of men...topped off by thunderous applause and a partial standing ovation [that got me].” Davis knew right then that there was no place for him at his church.
Jair Trice was having a similar experience.
Trice has always had a deep love for his church. The problem was he was beginning to feel that the church didn’t return the sentiment. Trice, 34, spent most of his life struggling with his sexuality. A church deacon and the choir director, Trice was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable there as he inched closer to accepting the truth about his sexual orientation.
“I could talk about having premarital sex with women with my pastor and I wasn’t condemned, but I knew that if I talked about just having feelings for a man I would be condemned.”
Trice eventually left his church, but he couldn’t shake the hurt feelings of his experience.
“People can be crack addicts, alcoholics and abusers, and they are welcomed into the fold,” he said, “but if you are a homosexual, oh, no, you’re not welcome, you’re going to hell.”
Stories like these are typical for thousands of gay, black Christians across America who seem to have it just a little bit harder then their white counterparts.
According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, black Christians tend to be more conservative when it comes to homosexuality. The 2000 study showed that black Christians’ support for gay rights has decreased, while support has increased among every other racial and religious group surveyed. In 2000, support for gay rights was 40 percent, down from 65 percent in 1996 and 59 percent in 1992. There is also some speculation that the increase in the number of African Americans who voted for Bush in 2004, 3 percent nationally, was due to the president’s stance against gay marriage.
Why the strong disapproval?
“There is a misconception that one cannot be strong, proud and uplift the black race as a gay man or lesbian,” Davis said. “ Homosexuality is seen as a weak embarrassment to the strong and proud black man or woman.”
Davis, who has recently published a book on this issue, also believes that many clergymen in the black church preach anti-gay messages because they are miseducated on the true meaning of Scriptures.
“When Scripture is studied in its original Hebrew and Greek texts against 1st- and 2nd-century culture, we recognize that there is no condemnation of homosexuality and that Jesus recognized it twice without condemnation,” he claimed.
Professor Kim Pearson, an English professor at the College of New Jersey, also thinks that many theologians fear that embracing homosexuality will lead to an overthrow of many sacred Christian beliefs.
“This moment is like the Galileo moment,” she said. “The church was a huge supporter of Galileo up until the point he revealed that the Earth revolved around the sun. “That revelation changed how people viewed themselves in relationship to the universe,” said Pearson.
“This issue isn’t simply about saying, ‘OK, maybe Sodom and Gomorrah is about hospitality and not gay people.’ Once you start reinterpreting one Scripture, you have to reinterpret all Scriptures, and that throws into question God’s relationship with people and the whole order of the universe.”
These are heady issues, but for many black pastors, being weary of homosexuality is simply a matter of moral responsibility.
“The black church has always stood as the Nathan of the country. Just as Nathan warned King David of his sinful ways, the black church has and still is a voice that will speak out,” said Rev. Peris Lester, pastor of Lewis Metropolitan C.M.E. Church.
Despite his view that homosexuality is wrong, Rev. Lester states that gay members of his church are not treated any differently then straight members. In fact, he believes that there needs to be more communication so that healing can take place in both communities, but he adds, “I don't know if the church’s response is to make the gay lifestyle right.”
Rev. Lews S. White, pastor at Greater New Jerusalem Church, feels that to much is being made out of the issue.
Jasmyne Cannick, a board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, co-producer of the new cable series “Noah's Arc”—America's first black gay series—and the director of public relations for the Black AIDS Institute, believes that many blacks suffer from a sense of denial when it comes to gays in their own community and churches.
“Growing up, black, gay folks didn’t go to the black, gay church, they went to the black church,” said Cannick. “Black gays and lesbians have always been a vital part of the community. The March on Washington wouldn’t have been organized the way that it was if it wasn’t for a black gay man. Half the music that we listen to is from artists that are gay. It’s almost like it’s OK for us to design your clothes, do your makeup and make good music, but it’s not OK for us to have the same rights.”
And for Cannick, gay rights is a civil rights issue.
“These (black) Christian evangelicals need to realize that you can’t use the Bible to oppress people,” she said. “How...are you going to use the same Bible that the white folks used to oppress you? I mean, all of a sudden, ya’ll reading from the same page?”
It is an irony that Davis also points out.
“White conservatives have used the hot button issue of civil rights to conjure up images of gay men hijacking the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King as a fiery inducer to take an anti-gay rights stand.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, noted author and African-American activist, feels that this proprietary attitude about civil rights by some blacks is misguided.
”It’s a slippery slope,” he warns, when groups try to say they are the only ones who have suffered or try to play “who has suffered the most.”
For many, the issue of whether or not the gay rights movement is similar to the black civil rights movement comes down to what they believe it is to be gay.
“Civil rights issues are for people who cannot hide in the closet,” said Rev. Lester.
“It’s not about hiding your race vs. your sexual preference, it’s still a matter of, ‘Are you discriminating against someone?’” he said. “What difference does it make that a person has been discriminated against based on their preference or belief as opposed to somebody who has been discriminated against...because of their race?”
Rev. Darryl L. Foster, pastor of Witness Ministries in Atlanta, believes that people are looking at the issue in the wrong way. He believes that it is not a civil rights issue, but an issue of faith and what one believes God wants him to do with his life.
Foster created controversy recently with an open letter to African-American gay Christians asking those who had left the church to come home. Foster is the founder and president of the group "Powerful Change,” whose goal is to reach out to anyone who no longer wants to be gay. It is a personal crusade for him. As a gay youth, Rev. Foster had a hard time reconciling his feelings with the teachings of his grandfather and father, who were both pastors. At the age of 19, he left home and the church, “tired of all the fire and brimstone.” He said that he lived as a gay man for many years until he had a revelation that ”it was not what (God) wanted me to do.”
Fourteen years later, he is a husband and father and has 14 ministries across the country. He says the response has been tremendous.
“A lot of people say that what I do is dangerous and destructive, but talk to the people that I’ve helped,” he said.
Rev. Foster states that his stance does not mean he supports discrimination.
“I don’t hate gay people. I used to be gay. I know the pain and the rejection,” he said. “My objective is not to hurt, but to heal.”
Foster feels his ministry is so successful because, in his opinion, many pastors don’t know how to reach out to their gay members.
“Pastors don’t understand that there are major issues going on with many members of their church. These people are sheep in their congregation and they need to help them.”
But for Foster, that help has limits, and he is quick to add that people should not come to church looking for salvation from political persecution.
“That’s the government’s job,” he said.
But for many black, gay Christians, attending church isn’t about pushing any political agendas, it’s merely about being free to worship without hiding who they are. In recent years, churches have sprung up that specifically cater to this population, and it has brought many back to God.
Trice was overjoyed to find Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Los Angeles, a nondenominational church that welcomes people of all races, nationalities and sexual orientations. He feels that this openness finally gave him “the spiritual food he was starving for.” Cannick also attends the church and agrees it has made a difference in how she is able to worship.
“I’m grateful that every Sunday when I get up and go to church I am not hearing people condemned to hell,” she said. “If I want to go to church with my girlfriend, we get up and we go to church together. It’s that freedom of knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. That is a freedom that not a lot of us have,” she said.
Although these churches offer a wonderful sense of community and family, black gay rights activists are not content to just stay in a cocoon. They are as devoted as ever to creating a greater acceptance of gays in the black community.
“You cannot like gay people until the cows come home, but they are still going to be gay,” said Cannick. “You can ban people from getting married, but that’s not going to stop them from being gay. How are (gays) being married affecting your way of life? Has your going to the grocery store or the way you paid your bills changed? People don’t really look at the big picture,” she said.
In a small way, the big picture is already changing.
“It’s already moderated some thinking and some behaviors on the part of large segments of African Americans,” said Hutchinson. “Two years ago, this was not any kind of an issue at all,” he said. “It’s floated onto the surface and become a bitter issue of contention and an emotional issue, but it’s better to talk about something, even if you’re throwing barbs, than to keep it under the table, because it’s still there.”
These wider issues are important, but for people like Davis and Trice, they simply want to be accepted where they live.
“This is where I live. I’m not going anywhere,” said Trice. “I want to got to Lemeirt Park and take advantage of all the great shops and events here. I’m as much a part of this community as anyone.”
Davis expressed similar views.
“The gay rights movement will continue to move forward because battle lines have been drawn and people are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. When you get tired of being beat up, you begin to fight back, ” he said.