A rather unusual event recently took place in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fort Washington, Md. Several ministers of black churches met with members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community — and formally apologized for what the organizers described as the church's judgmental attitude toward individuals who experience same-sex attraction and their loved ones.
Although a sincere apology is often the first step to restoring a fractured relationship, our culture has made public apologies into a performance art, characterized by carefully scripted PR creations and only token acknowledgments of actually having done wrong.
It was with this skepticism that I attended the forum at Carolina Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 19, billed as an opportunity for people to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. Anthony E. Moore, pastor of Carolina, moderated the dialogue and stated up front that the forum was not intended to be one in which the church took a theological position on homosexuality. My pastor, Keith Battle, attended on behalf of Zion Church, and other sponsoring churches included Pilgrim Baptist Church in D.C. and New Vision Church in Bowie, Md.
When I arrived, someone was recounting what it has been like to be born a man while feeling, and ultimately living, like a woman. The speaker explained that she turned to prostitution and drugs after experiencing rejection from members of her family and church. She said that eventually she came back to church, committed her life to Christ and started to translate her pain into purpose.
There were similar stories throughout the two-hour forum, all with one common theme: The church, the one place that should represent the epitome of love, was often the most uncaring and unsafe place for these individuals when they were at their most vulnerable. Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, the openly gay pastor of Inner Light Ministries, a nondenominational church in Washington, bluntly declared that "the most dangerous place for a gay and lesbian person is the black church."
Moore listened intently as people shared their experiences, often taking notes while they spoke. Toward the end of the event, he reinforced the sincerity of the church's apology by pledging to continue the dialogue and to make concerted efforts to make his ministry more inclusive of members of the LGBT community.
This forum took place at an interesting moment, given evidence that suggests changes in American views on both Christianity and sexuality. A 2009 survey found that while a majority of Americans identified themselves as Christians, that percentage had declined 11 percent since 1990. Christianity faces competition not only from Judaism and Islam, the two other branches that emerged from the Abrahamic religious root, but also from Hinduism and Buddhism — as well as atheism.
One in five Americans surveyed said that they have no religious identity, and one in four said that they did not expect to have a religious funeral. The data confirm what most people have come to understand anecdotally: The country is becoming more diverse religiously, and Americans are becoming more comfortable with this pluralism. Many people who grew up in a particular faith have either eschewed formal religion altogether or embraced an à la carte syncretism, where melding multiple faiths and/or philosophies is covered under the nondescript banner of "spirituality."
Many traditional Protestant African-American churches have taken the fire-and-brimstone approach to preaching about sexuality and the LGBT community. Interestingly enough, this tactic rarely gets deployed for many of the other "thou shalt not"s that are enshrined in the Bible. In truth, many Christians have cloaked their personal revulsion to homosexuality in a thin veneer of religiosity.
While it may reinforce some people's sense of self-righteousness, shrouding hatred in Scripture makes for bad doctrine and even worse evangelism. Jesus built his ministry by spreading the gospel to people who were scorned by society. In addition to healing lepers and restoring sight to the blind, Jesus was criticized by the contemporary religious rulers for associating too closely with individuals they deemed unworthy.
Although the image of a preacher declaring eternal damnation resonates with many members of the LBGT community, not all churches have taken this position. A recent New York Times article cited U.S. Census Bureau data indicating that child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other part of the country, and found eight churches in Jacksonville, Fla., that openly welcome gay worshippers. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent the recent forum and the demographic trends in historically conservative regions foreshadow a broader shift in black churches' attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
The benefits of such a dialogue are not confined to Christians or members of the LGBT community. For years, the black church has been criticized for its lack of action in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS in the African-American community. This was undoubtedly in part because of doctrinal dissonance between messages about safe sex and HIV prevention, and biblical positions on the prohibition of sexual intimacy outside of a marital context. Regardless of the reasons, the outcome has been a deafening silence from one of the black community's most effective institutions for social change.
Washington, D.C., has the nation's highest rate of HIV and AIDS, and men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by the disease. The black church cannot continue to be silent on such a critical health issue. Thankfully, other institutions have stepped in to fill the void. In 2009 the D.C. Department of Health provided on-the-spot STD testing during the orientation for the city's nationally recognized summer youth-employment program. In addition, many nonprofit organizations are dedicated to providing health education and services to residents of the District and surrounding jurisdictions. Even with the valiant efforts of these organizations, our communities would be even better off if the power of all institutions in civil society were harnessed for collective good.
Faith leaders should not shy away from confronting issues that affect both the spiritual and material condition of their communities. The church should be a place where all people, especially those who are hurting and vulnerable, can come to experience God's love and grace. This should be true regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation or sexual orientation. In the same sense, critics must understand that pastors have an obligation to maintain fidelity to both the letter and spirit of the Scriptures, even in the face of changing social mores and religious pluralism.
The tension between black churches' theological stances on homosexuality and their central principle of "whosoever will, let him come" is something that churches must address honestly and lovingly in moving forward.