Shirley Caesar; Kim Burrell
Jason Davis/Getty Images; Brad Barket/Getty Images

The community is still reeling after a silent churchgoer put Kim Burrell’s violently homophobic sermon on blast for the world to see. Burrell’s tirade—which featured vulgar remarks about gay and lesbian sex and a warning that they would “die in 2017”—led Ellen DeGeneres to cancel the scheduled talk show performance of the gospel singer’s song from the Hidden Figures soundtrack. The film’s stars and creative geniuses, including Janelle Monáe, Pharrell and Octavia Spencer, all rejected the sermon’s message.

Amid the controversy, however, there’s one group of people who haven’t been getting the shine they deserve. Black LGBT ministers have long been leading the way and continuing to blaze trails for congregations that affirm and welcome LGBT people, as well as teachings that approach gender and sexuality head-on. And they’ve all been outspoken in responding to Burrell’s notion, as she shared in a nonapology Facebook video, that her remarks had less to do with “L-G-B-T” and more to do with “S-I-N.”

The Root spoke with seven black LGBT ministers, pastors and Christian theologians from around the country who make it unequivocally clear that antagonism against LGBT people has no place in the church. It’s an issue that is resurrected every few years after a prominent black Christian expresses abject homophobia—which is perhaps why some ministers weren’t at all shocked by Burrell’s sermon and Shirley Caesar’s defense of it.

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“Because of her stardom and her place in gospel music, a lot of gay people look up to her. [Her sermon] was saddening, but not surprising,” said Jamie Frazier, senior pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago. “The crassness of her language as someone who's a pastor shows she wasn’t handling this thing sensitively, and I think it was meant to curry laughter and increase her credibility … not about genuine care for people’s souls.”

The Rev. Broderick Greer, a curate at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tenn., agreed.

“It’s easier to bully people from a pedestal than it is to look someone in the eyes and tell someone they’re perverted. I wonder how the tone would’ve changed if Pastor Burrell would’ve invited a panel of LGBT Christians, specifically black LGBT Christians, to ask them about their experiences of Christianity,” Greer said. “One of the great challenges of public ministry is remembering that it’s important to be in conversation with people and not preach at people.”

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But as it relates to Burrell’s position, these experts also note that her beliefs, expressed with the tone and force of a demagogue, reflect a subjective approach to Scripture—one in which they rummage through the pages to confirm their own biases or preconceived notions about other people.

It’s what Bishop Yvette Flunder, a leading same-gender-loving theologian and senior pastor of Oakland, Calif.’s City of Refuge United Church of Christ, calls “proof texting.”

“I’m the progeny of slaves, but the Bible also says ‘Slaves obey your masters.’ Masters read from that text to African slaves and they felt justified to be slaveholders. But black people read past that and came up with songs like, ‘Before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free,’” Flunder noted. “The Scripture didn’t free us from slavery, but it was the knowledge of a God who loves us so much to not want us in that wanton institution. A lot of oppressed people are oppressing other people from the pulpit. Free people free people. So we need to work on getting free so that we can be agents of freedom.”

What’s even more puzzling, according to the Rev. DeWayne Davis, pastor of All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in St. Paul, Minn., is that women like Burrell and Caesar cite Scripture to condemn LGBT people while somehow overlooking what the text says about women leading in churches. Davis noted a passage from the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians in particular, in which he tells women to be silent and submissive in matters of the church.

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“This [passage] can be grounded in a history and context removed from our own, yet it’s been the basis to deny women from ordination—and Caesar and Burrell are on the receiving end of that kind of discrimination in Apostolic and Pentecostal circles,” Davis said. “[Caesar and Burrell] may not know they’re using the tools of a patriarchal theology, but they’re using that same structure to [oppress] queer people … we have now arrived at a more modern interpretation.”

Unfortunately, because of male domination and relics of racism in church communities, the ministers noted, not everyone feels fully free in their congregations. Many black LGBT people, then, are caught in between a rock and a hard place. On the whole, they’re attending black churches that may celebrate their racial identity but condemn their LGBT identity. And in some predominantly white and LGBT-affirming congregations, their gender and sexuality may be welcome, but their blackness may be misunderstood or pushed away.

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The Rev. Marcus Halley lived the experience firsthand. After his first year of seminary, the home church he grew up in removed him from leadership because he expressed a pro-LGBT point of view in a ministry meeting—well before he ever came out or realized that he was gay. But the path quickly led him to a congregation where the pastor cared for his whole personhood and encouraged him to live in his truth. He’s now the pastor for young people and families at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s important that we, as spiritual leaders, affirm people in a society where so many people are searching for meaning. It’s upon us to help people along that process,” Halley said. “In my experience with the sexuality piece, when pastors withhold that affirmation from you, you’re left to find meaning elsewhere … so people live in denial and compartmentalize it for years.”

As part of doctoral research at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Baptist Minister Theresa Smallwood focuses on a “leprosy effect” in the treatment of black LGBT people in Christian spaces. Smallwood approaches the topic from a Christological perspective—that is, one that examines salvation from sin as inherent and gracefully conveyed because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In other words, the “S-I-N” Burrell alleges, regardless of whether it actually is (Smallwood disagrees), has already been bound up in God’s forgiveness.

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“When you don’t see the blood of Jesus covering every soul, it becomes a misnomer in theology. I’ll say it’s fallacious and poor,” Smallwood said. “In Jeremiah, there’s a warning for people to watch what they say in God’s name: It says when you scatter my flock, there will be hell to pay.”

She and others, including Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Minister Candace Simpson, a third-year student at the Union Theological Seminary, believe that the rhetoric from the likes of Caesar and Burrell indeed pushes people away from the church. LGBT people, as part of the broader community, deserve love, support and a seat at the welcome table.

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“And quite simply, it’s a matter of asking the question: Is what I’m preaching and believing the actual Gospel? And will [I use] the Gospel to bring death or bring life? And to whom?” Simpson said. “One thing I remember hearing people say way before me is that not everything in the Bible is moral, and it’s up to us and how we discern.”