Black LGBT community builds their own houses of worship

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Kevin E. Taylor found a passion for church almost as early as he discovered an attraction to boys. Baptized at 10-years-old at a small Baptist Church in the Southwest section of Washington D.C., he fondly remembers the congregation’s blind, piano-playing pastor, who preached about God’s love with the fervor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said it never crossed his young mind that his sexual orientation and his Christian faith would one day come into conflict.

But when Taylor turned 17, his beloved pastor died, and a new reverend—with a new message—took the pulpit. “It was the first time I heard God and hate in the same sentence,” Taylor said about the new pastor’s fiery rants. “I could not wrap my young mind around why the same God who created and loved everybody now hated so many people.”

Taylor stuck it out until the situation finally came to a head. “One Sunday, he turned the rifle on me — on gay people,” he said. “I remember when he started up, I looked at my mother. She turned to me and knowingly said, ‘Bye, baby.’ And I walked out of the church.”

Taylor would eventually return — but this time as a pastor at his own congregation, where he teaches a radically different message about sexuality. He represents a growing number of black LGBT Christians who, turned off by the anti-gay messages of conservative pastors like Bishop Eddie Long, have walked out of mainstream black churches and into the pews of progressive black congregations that accept them as they are.

Today, Taylor is the founding pastor of the progressive, predominantly black Unity Fellowship Church of New Brunswick. Beginning as a seven-person bible study in a friend’s Teaneck, NJ living room, the congregation now has its own sanctuary in New Brunswick and lists 150 people on its rolls. The primarily LGBT parishioners come to take part in a culture that not only accepts their homosexuality, but celebrates it as part of God’s design.

Taylor’s institution is far from an anomaly. Just up the turnpike in Newark, openly lesbian Rev. Janyce L. Jackson presides over Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church. Across the Hudson, a similar gay-friendly sanctuary stands in Brooklyn.

All of them belong to the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a nondenominational collection of 17 black churches spanning from Buffalo to San Diego. Joining them is The Fellowship, founded by Bishop Yvette Flunder and comprised of more than 50 primarily African-American churches. These progressive institutions — referred to as “affirming” — have blossomed throughout the country, spreading a gospel of social justice and “radical inclusion.”

According to Josef Sorett, Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Religion at Columbia University, many openly gay parishioners seek affirming churches as a refuge from the hostility they face at mainstream places of worship. “These are nontraditional churches that have established themselves out of oppression and exclusion,” he said.

For Brandon Cordy, 28, the oppression was so suffocating five years ago that he attempted suicide and subsequently spent three days in a psychiatric hospital. “I couldn’t juxtapose what I was taught with what I felt and what I knew to be true,” he said. “It was literally driving me crazy.”

While the stereotype of a pastor railing against homosexuality to the congregation’s delight holds true at many churches nationwide, according to Sorett, the heterosexist culture in these sanctuaries is often a more subtle and systematic. “Even if a church isn’t vocally preaching against homosexuality, there are other ways that it reinforces the idea that heterosexual relationships are the only acceptable model,” he said.

Warren (he gives only his first name for fear of repercussions), 29, learned the hard way that gossip is one of these subtle methods. By age 17, he had come out of the closet in the secular world, but remained private about his sexual orientation at his Baptist church in San Diego. But that didn’t stop him from getting harassed by two middle-aged women in his Bible study.

“I was going through a period where I hoped I could pray the gay away,” he said. “I remember they were questioning me about my faith, about who I was. They said they knew something was going on with me.”

Warren said that the final straw came when his grandmother, a conservative Christian, questioned him about his sexuality based on church gossip. He said that the mean-spirited whispering across the pews “ruined my relationship with her and with God. It took me a long time to find my way back to trusting people of faith.”

While anti-gay messages push some like Cordy and Warren to lose faith temporarily, or perhaps forever, others seek out the comfort of a theology that speaks to them. Many of the affirming churches they attend embrace verse John 3:16, which states that Jesus died so that “whosoever” believes in him will find heaven. They highlight “whosoever” as a mandate for LGBT inclusion in Christian life. They say that the Jesus they know is the divine creator of all human beings, loves all of God’s children, and never directly spoke a word about homosexuality in the Bible.

Affirming churches, many of which campaign for marriage equality and other LGBT issues, see their marriage of scripture with social justice as in keeping with the black tradition of black church activism. After all, the black church was an instrumental force in the Civil Rights Movement.
Pastor Kenneth L. Samuel decided six years ago to turn his Victory for the World Church — traditional and primarily black—into an affirming institution. He cites his affection for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the driving force. “His model of ministry is a paradigm,” he said. “Just as it became incumbent upon King to follow in the footsteps of Christ, it’s incumbent upon me to preach the gospel as it applies to inequality across the board.” He says that one doesn’t have to be gay to champion gay rights any more than one has to be black to oppose racial discrimination.

Unity Fellowship to liberation theology — associated with Dr. King and, more recently, Jeremiah Wright — a belief that black freedom from discrimination and poverty is supported by the Bible. Rev. Taylor extends the mandate to LGBT individuals. “The same liberated theology that encompasses the ‘whosoevers’—the LGBT folk — is the same theology that allowed for women to be in the pulpit and for black folk to come out of the balcony and be able to sit in the main part of the church,” Rev. Taylor said. “The audacity to fight the good fight I got from my black church.”
Warren, however, remains reluctant to join an affirming church because of his attachment to traditional black customs.

“Because of way I was raised, it’s in my DNA to go to a full Baptist, full gospel church, or else it doesn’t feel like home,” he said.

However, Corey Hobson, 26 and openly gay, calls The Vision Church 2,800 member predominantly black and LGBT congregation in the suburbs of Atlanta—home precisely because of its familiarity.

Despite his initial shock at the parishioners’ full spectrum of gender expression—including “butch lesbian women and extremely feminine gay guys, and contingent of transgender and transsexuals”—he said that, “I saw some of the same hallmarks and characters from my black church experience growing up, like the older black ladies with the church hats, and a lot of little kids running around here and there.”

Hobson also recognized the style of worship as authentically black, infused with “a little bit of Baptist and a little bit of COGIC.” Like at traditional churches, many of the parishioners at Vision exclaim “Hallelujah,” speak in tongues and faint. He describes shouting, a popular Pentecostal ritual in which overcome parishioners dance: “It’s like they’re on hot coals,” he said. “Some people literally run around. Some people start crying.”

Raised a Baptist, he used to eye Vision’s Pentecostal theatrics with suspicion. But after feeling his knees buckle when a particularly intense interceptor laid hands on him at the altar call, he no longer harbors any doubts.

Rev. Jeffery Haskins’ Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Philadelphia also makes people into believers. Several people have been saved by accepting Jesus Christ into the their life since Haskins founded the branch in 2006, and it only took a grain of belief — what Haskins refers to as a mustard seed — to grow the organization from a circle of 10 to a congregation of 45.

On a chilly Autumn Sunday, as an organ hummed in the background, Rev. passed out actual mustard seeds to each seated member of the sanctuary, offering them encouragement and a prophecy all in one. “A mustard seed for you, for delivering every single one our young people from that stroll on 13th St.,” he said to Mother Charlotte — biologically a woman, but very much a lady in her big, black, bow-adorned church hat that overtook her face and matched her fancy black dress.

Haskins approached a middle-aged woman with a cane. “A mustard seed for you, so that you will no longer need this cane,” he said, looking into her eyes, which now well up with tears. “So that God can do something new for you in your life.”

Moments later at the altar call, the woman labored her way to the pulpit with her cane and let the tears fall as ministers huddled around her in prayer. Two deacons came to pray next to an elderly woman too feeble to leave her seat.

Amidst the commotion, a little boy no older than 7, who less than an hour ago enthusiastically held the collection plate at the front of the room, now lied fast asleep in his mother’s arms. His other mother, wearing a collared shirt and black slacks, prayerfully kept her hands toward the sky, where they had been for almost the entire two-hour service.

From the trembling cadence of the pastor’s voice, to the young man who belts “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the flavor was decidedly black. “Unity is still in the African American tradition,” said Rev. Haskins. “We just don’t want it to be punitive, or browbeating or abusive. It’s church as they’ve known it, but they feel like they belong. That’s the greatest feeling—feeling like you belong.”

Rev. Haskins knows very well what it feels like to be an outsider at one’s own church. In 1992, while a member of a popular Baptist church in Harlem, he battled over whether the church would provide his lover, who had died of AIDS, a pallbearer, or a funeral at all. “Nobody wanted to touch the casket,” said Haskins of the homophobic ministers.

The incident was a blow not only to his dignity—he was also HIV positive—but also to his faith. “I came to Unity devastated,” Rev. Haskins said. “But I was regenerated by Rev. D. Jones. Something in his sermon touched my soul.” He joined the New York church right away.

Having lived with the illness for 20 years, he now makes sure that his own congregation serves the needs of those with or at-risk of acquiring HIV. The church has an HIV support group that meets every Wednesday. It also recently participated in the AIDS Walk and works with several organizations that do outreach.

HIV outreach is also important to Kevin Taylor, who says that the disease hits home for his congregation. For the body of Christ, HIV is a lived experience,” he said. Some people are literally sick and shut in. We understand that might mean going to somebody’s house and cleaning for a day because they need help keeping the place spotless. We understand that might mean not just delivering meals, but cooking.

The services provided by Taylor’s ministry are needed more than ever. According to a recent CDC report, 28 percent of black gay and bisexual men in 21 major cities are infected with HIV. Traditional black churches, with their reluctance to discuss sexuality, have been criticized for failing to address the crisis, leaving affirming churches and other organizations to pick up the slack.

Sorett says that while traditional black churches have improved in their efforts, affirming ones have the advantage of a theological language that engages at-risk populations rather than making them feel ashamed.

Samuel agrees, and adds that spiritual bullying from the pulpit leads to reckless behavior. “The root of the problem is that people do not feel safe in their places of worship to be who they really are,” he said. “Why would they bother to wear condoms to protect their health if they’re going to hell anyway?”