The Black Church’s Conundrum: What Would Jesus Do?
President Obama’s recent announcement that he believes gay couples should have the right to marry has touched the hearts of millions of Americans, gay and straight. It’s likely we all have gay friends and family members who have suffered due to discrimination, exclusion, and shaming. Personally, I have seen tremendous hatred toward gay people in my family and in the churches I attended as a youth and young adult.
Several years ago I was a volunteer going door-to-door to defeat Proposition 8 in California. At the time I lived in and canvassed the Leimert Park/ Windsor Hills community. Both neighborhoods are heavily populated by African Americans. Moving from one home to the next for a few hours each Saturday afternoon, I discovered that most black people who are practicing Christians were not willing to support gay marriage. In my community, my house was the only home with a yard sign against Proposition 8. There were even people who took it upon themselves to remove signs that I had placed in public areas supporting gay marriage. The irony of this story is that I once believed as most Christians who supported Proposition 8 continue to believe. My very isolating experience working to defeat Proposition 8 brings me to profound curiosity regarding the November presidential race.
When President Obama announced his support for gay marriage as a practicing Christian, he also shared his personal evolution within this issue. As I listened to the president, my eyes watered and my heart opened just a little more. I truly believe that when one moves forward, we all move forward. One person’s evolution is all of our evolution.
Now all eyes have turned to the black church to see how a community that has long held that homosexuality is an abomination against God will respond. The possibilities are endless. This will not be an issue that pits religious ministers against gay rights activists, as this New York Times article discusses, Unions that Divide: Churches Split Over Gay Marriage.
Evolution happens, and I know because I experienced it personally. I was once a Christian who embraced the belief that gay people and their lifestyles were a sin against God. I was taught to believe this in my grandfather’s church and my home. I had friends and family members who shared my beliefs. However, it wasn’t until I started questioning my relationship with my gay uncle, whom I love deeply, that I saw that my beliefs were deep contradictions to my own heart.
In my church we simply did not recognize gay people. Yes, they were in leadership roles, acting as choir directors and working in various ministries, but their homosexual lifestyles were simply overlooked. The director of the choir was obviously effeminate, but his behavior was never acknowledged because it was a sin. Absolute silence and denial was the unspoken agreement in church regarding gay people.
The same was true in my family. My uncle was one of five boys. He was terrorized, teased, bullied and severely beaten by his brothers for being “a sissy.” I learned he was gay when I was about 10 years old, although the word was never spoken. My mother told me that he lived with his aunt because his brothers, including my father, had beaten him with a brick so badly that my grandmother had sent him to live with her sister. My uncle being gay was never addressed or acknowledged in any way. Even today we have never had an open conversation about it. Even when his longtime partner died of AIDS many years ago, everything was shrouded in silence, shame and “sin.”
This mutual denial and subjugation of gay people was one of the reasons that I eventually left the faith of my childhood. I needed to feel free to openly love all people and races, regardless of sexual orientation and religious affiliation. I sincerely challenged myself to embrace the command of Christ to love God, your neighbor, yourself, and your enemies, with all your heart and soul. In my view, that excluded no one. This is something I commit myself to daily, and it is often a struggle. I’d say loving myself has been the most difficult part of this command.
President Obama coming out in support of gay marriage proves that a huge shift is occurring in the hearts and minds of Americans, including African-Americans. As I see it, the president is but an out-picturing of where our culture is heading. He is following our lead. I know several black Christians, including my dearest friend, who have shifted their views on equal rights for gay Americans. Evolution is also happening with black actors. Ray Ford plays Luther, a gay personal assistant on ABC's Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23. He is also the first openly black gay male actor in Hollywood. In a recent interview, Ford told me: "I had no other choice but to be out. It's who I am, a gay man." He went on to say, "I also feel black gay actors need representation and supportive voices in the media," and he can be that voice. Ford recalls struggling to be himself in the African-American community in the face of religious bigotry. After finally accepting himself, he says he's just not willing to hide who he is, not even to work as an actor.
The shift is not always dramatic, big and loud. Yet black people have a large gay community, many of whom are less and less willing to hide and deny who they are. Their confidence is challenging the black community to embrace and acknowledge what has largely been swept under the rug. I’m seeing a rise of black progressives whose faith calls them to love unconditionally, and political identity leans toward equality for all. A difficult aspect of this evolution includes empathizing with groups who are currently excluded from equal rights and protection under the Constitution. Part of my own evolution occurred simply because, as an African-American, I couldn’t comprehend that my rights could hinge on the compassion or hatred of a majority white electorate. As I canvassed against Proposition 8, I considered what might have occurred if the freedom I held today would have been put to a “majority vote.” For me, it came down to an issue of the most loving thing to do. As an African-American descended from slaves, I feel I’ve inherited the mantle of freedom. If I believe it is my birthright to have equal rights, then the same is true for all Americans. As a citizen it is my responsibility to curtail the experience of suffering, if only by assuring I remove all hate and any desire to subjugate others from my being.
The media and the world are watching to see how President Obama’s evolution impacts black Christians. It seems there’s an expectation of a great fall-out of sorts because of the black church's historic opposition to gay rights. But there are those of us who will continue to evolve toward a greater experience of inclusion, love, and freedom for all.