Theology Thursdays: The History Of Gays And The Black Church Comes Out Of The Closet by Herndon L. Davis
As we reflect on Black History Month, it is essential to also look back at the origins of the black church and its struggle into freedom as it parallels to the current struggle of gay rights today.
We attend church and become more active and visible than most. We tithe, pray, praise, and worship God in spirit and truth, but still we are separated, told we don’t matter, and not given as much say in church matters that count the most because of who we are, gay men and lesbians.
Roll the clock back over 200 years, and you have the exact same thoughts, sentiments, and emotions of black church congregants, who attended church, tithed, prayed, worshipped God in spirit and truth, but were still separated, told they didn’t matter, and were not given a say in church matters that counted the most because of who they were, black men and women.
In each situation both groups attempted to fit in, to go along with the status quo, but both eventually got tired of being sick and tired and splintered off into separate denominations and churches that catered specifically to their spiritual needs as reflected by their life-experiences and culture.
As a result, we have churches that are inclusive of gays and lesbians that specifically minister to their needs, experiences, and culture alongside churches that specifically minister to the needs, culture, and experiences of the black community at large.
In short, we have gay and lesbian churches and we have black churches, both splintered movements of a resistant mainstream. Both groups were oppressed, both groups were frustrated, both groups worshipped and praised God, and both groups were separated and treated with indignity.
In the case of the black church, the genesis of the first splintered movement began in 1786 at St. George’s Episcopal Methodist Church in Philadelphia. When Absalom Jones and Richard Allen kneeled down to pray to a God they knew not to be a “respecter of persons,” they were rudely interrupted and told they had to go up into the balcony, separated from their white congregants.
The event spurred Jones to eventually leave in 1793 to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination. Similar incidents of isolation and discontent caused James Varick, Peter Williams, and Charles Rush to charter the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1796 in New York.
The South was no different. The then-Colored Methodist Episcopalians, now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopalians, was formed as a result of a schism between Northern and Southern states over theology regarding slavery. Black congregants formed their own denomination in order to minister to their needs, culture and experiences.
In the 1880s 150 black Baptist pastors met in Montgomery, Ala., to form the Baptist Mission Convention. By 1895 it had merged with two other conventions to form the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America. Up until then, attempts to form all-black Baptist church associations and conventions were not allowed.
Now fast-forward to today from a black gay and lesbian perspective. Identical splinter spiritual movements have also occurred—breaking away from the mainstream, established black church. In 1985 Unity Fellow Church was founded in California. Today this spiritual movement has grown and now includes 15 congregations in cities across America, ministering directly to the needs, life experiences, and culture of the black gay and lesbian community.
In addition, another movement, Fellowship 2000, which was founded five years ago, is taking a slightly different but still powerful approach to ministering to our needs. The movement is actually a multidenominational fellowship of mostly African-American churches ranging from ultraconservative to liberal with the goal of embracing and implementing “radical inclusivity” within their congregations.
Ironically, both of these black spiritual movements occurred outside of the realm of the mostly white gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church movement. This highlights the fact that there is obviously a need if not a demand for a “just like me” understanding and tolerance that must exist before spiritual growth can occur in the lives of many of us.
Both UFC and Fellowship 2000 now are flourishing and vibrant organisms that meet this demand and fill this void in the lives of black gays and lesbians across the country.
Again, identical to our ancestors, we got tired of being sick and tired and being meted out the same harsh segregation, intense resistance, and blatant disregard of our emotions, life experiences, and culture. Ironically, the mainstream black church of today became the oppressors in our lives. The roles were reversed. Our black pastors and bishops became our captives and we are, as gays and lesbians were for many years, their willing and helpless victims.
Too many of us took the abuse and shrugged it off when the gay-bashing sermons came our way. We quietly thought to ourselves, I deserve it, and then moved on. Sadly, many of us still have that particular slave mentality. Although we may not take physical abuse, the emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse we do take is far worse, more painful, and significantly more devastating as it drives and eventually destroys our lives.
As a result, many black gay men marry women because their pastor or bishop told them to. Many black lesbians marry men because their pastor or bishop said they would go to hell if they didn’t. Many marriages have been based on lies, STD’s have crept into bedrooms, and innocent children have been caught in the middle, all because pastors and bishops threatened, screamed, challenged, and abused their spiritual authority over their flock.
Unless we stand up and speak out to the black church and demand a relook, reconsideration, and a refreshed analysis of scripture, spirituality, and our lives as godly men and women who also happen to be gay and lesbian, we will forever be doomed to the abusive and bloodied hands of condemnation of the black church.
There is a bright and glowing rainbow—no pun intended—on the flip side of the entire situation. Our independent spiritual movements (UFC and Fellowship 2000) will continue to flourish as we continue to seek God in spirit and in truth, allowing the Holy Spirit to move within our beings to display the love, compassion, and tolerance that Jesus Christ displayed when he walked on earth.
Hence the old saying is true: “If you don’t know your past, you’re doomed to repeat it. "
Herndon L. Davis, based in Atlanta, is the author of the book Black, Gay & Christian: An Inspirational Guidebook to Daily Living and can be reached at http://blackgaychristian.com.
Note: This article first appeared in The Advocate
Advocate.com © 2004 by LPI Media Inc.
Thursday, February 12, 2004