A growing number of black ministers are joining the debate over same-sex marriage. As legislators in New Jersey and Maryland consider whether or not to allow gays and lesbians to legally marry, a few African-American preachers and pastors are expressing views on the issue that break with the status quo of the black church on the topic.
Take for instance, Delman Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Maryland. As of late, Coates has received much criticism for taking a pro-same-sex marriage stance, as reported by the Washington Post. However, it appears that the criticism is coming from voices outside of his church.
For some, it may be ironic that Coates’ parishioners have not flinched, but Rev. M. William Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ and father of theGrio’s Deputy Editor Adam Howard, said the issue is a relational one.
“If you have a pastor who has established himself as a credible leader of the congregation, the parishioners tend to know the pastor’s heart and the pastor’s character. You might say that while he may or may not have spoken directly to this issue to them before, he may have spoken about related questions,” Rev. Howard said.
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Howard believes there is a comparison that must take place between the people who don’t know the pastor personally and those who do.
“We can condemn a lot of things we are not familiar with. They know him,” Howard added. “I can see where a pastor might say something that riles the congregation or he might do something that riles the congregation, but that generally that comes out of the blue[.]”
If a congregation is listening to a pastor week in and week out, Howard thinks they tend to know what he thinks about hot button issues.
Coates is not the first pastor or preacher to come out in support of same-sex marriage.
However, he does appear to part of a small minority. Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, has been very vocal in his support of the issue. So much so, that Sharpton has been working to rally black preachers and ministers in the cause — most recently in Maryland.
In a Human Rights Campaign video Sharpton states, “As a Baptist minister, I don’t have the right to impose my beliefs on anyone else. So if committed gay and lesbian couples want to marry, that’s their business. None of us should stand in their way. All of us must fight for what’s fair…”
Howard shares a similar sentiment. For him, the church and the secular government have two very different functions.
“I believe solely in the responsibility of the government to protect certain rights afforded every other individual in this society,” he said. “I also believe a religious community should not oppose vehemently certain kinds of civil rights extended to individuals, even if they are rights or actions that the church may not endorse.”
While he does not consider himself an advocate for same-sex marriage, he wants to make it clear he is not against same-sex marriage.
“I think I am still a student of the issue. And I am decidedly biased toward individual preference,” he said. “The thing I find most off putting and disingenuous is the claim that somehow same-sex marriage is going to jeopardize or devalue my marriage.”
Most of his views about anything of import in the social arena are shaped by his socialization.
For Howard, the issue is not one of marriage, but homophobia.
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“Let’s stop the side talk. All of this is really about a homophobic person tackling the issues from the marriage angle. And they want, I think, to draw in certain people on the question of how this is going to threaten heterosexual marriage. I think that is disingenuous.”
This spring, Rev. Howard is working with one of his members, who is gay, to launch a conversation about sexuality in the church. It is an important discussion to have, he thinks, because churches — and most specifically all of the Abrahamic traditions — are stuck on this question of healthy sexuality.
“I am trying to unpack the homophobic tendencies that are within my congregation, or within any congregation. When it comes to sexuality, we seem to get caught,” he said. “I do not believe my role as a pastor is to shock people or to drag them along. I speak openly about “isms” — homophobia, classism, racism, sexism — overtly. My duty is to be sympathetic to their socialization and help them embrace the gospel in a way that is inclusive.”
To date, seven states have legalized same-sex marriage: New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut and Washington. The District of Columbia has also passed measures legalizing same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal, was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court in California.
The state assembly in New Jersey has also passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. However, Gov. Chris Christie is expected to veto it. Howard said it is not evident that there are enough votes to override the governor’s veto.
As the debate carries on, why are some black ministers coming out as pro-same-sex marriage?
Their shift is the result of real human experience. Some of these preachers and pastors live at the center of struggling people’s lives. They are shaped by those realities. Coates, for example, has a close relative who is a member of the LGBT community.
“You cannot hold to the non-experiential theological dogma that has nothing to do with real life. It is contrary to the spirit of Christ,” Howard said. “People make judgments about people they do not actually know. This is one of the challenges that we have to face. We have to step back and begin to reflect and unlearn certain biases.”
Reports by the Associated Press contributed to this article.
Follow Mashaun D. Simon on Twitter at @memadosi