For years now, black churches have carried a reputation of being misogynistic and homophobic institutions. However, one young theologian believes the image of “The Black Church” so commonly upheld in society is, and has been, a long-held misnomer.
Aquarius Gilmer, a seminary trained social entrepreneur in the Atlanta area, believes we have a lot of misunderstanding regarding the history of the black church and homophobia/homosexuality.
“Homophobia was introduced as a wedge issue to divide the black community during the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “The idea was if white, conservative politicians could get blacks to focus more on personal piety and social justice, then they could distract us. And it has worked ever since.”
Gilmer argues there have always been gay folk in the black community. And many of them have been celebrated within the community. A perfect example of this reality is the Harlem Renaissance and the influence of greats like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and others.
“James Baldwin did more for straight white women than black gay men. Audre Lorde, [the poet], was understood to be a race ally first,” he said. “Hoover and others found black preachers — some ignorant and some well educated — and used them to change the nature of the movement. Personal piety and homophobia became the focus of their divisive rhetoric.”
If they could make a successful attack on personal piety, one’s holiness, then they could create questions regarding how close individuals really were to God.
From Gilmer’s perspective, “Black folk are not more homophobic than white folk.” He said work needs to be done to correct history. If the correct historical account is not told, then “we will think that black folk have always been homophobic.”
Kevin E. Taylor, Pastor, Unity Fellowship Church of New Brunswick, said President Barack Obama‘s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage has brought the conversation back into the church — particularly black churches.
“Now people have to engage the topic because the president, Jay Z, Chuck D, Beanie Man, Will Smith has spoken on it,” he said. “[They] have made this conversation barbershop conversation now. And if this conversation is going on outside of the church, it is going to have to take place on the inside of the church as well before people start walking out.”
There is work to be done, both Taylor and Gilmer believe.
“We got to do some cleaning up,” Taylor said. “Uneducated people are being uninformed and as a result [are] feeling unworthy.”
Someone can blast something on Facebook and change people’s understanding and perspective in an instant, Taylor said. “People are getting more information from social media on a daily basis than they have gotten in a lifetime from attending church.”
Referring back to a previous analogy, Taylor said “You can walk into a barbershop where everyone is getting a fade and tell them ‘the Bible says you should not cut the side of your hair.’ All of a sudden people are going, ‘Wait, I did not know that.'”
Gilmer said there is a misappropriation of power and the text.
“Pastor’s word is considered infallible and leading people to hate their own children,” he said adding that when slaves, who could not read, listened to their masters read to them the story of Moses, they understood their situation as wrong according to the text.
“That was sheer brilliance. These folk had no formal education at all, yet they understood. The same book was used to keep people oppressed for years,” he said, “And is still being used today to engage in an illegal comeback.”
Taylor believes a revolution is occurring, and will be the result of the church matriarchs.
“A mother or two who is going to have a conversation with a pastor,” he said. “It is no coincidence this conversation jumped off on Mother’s Day. A mother will approach her Pastor and say, ‘That’s enough of this. I raised a good son and he does good work.'”
He said that is how many of these conversations have come up in the church. The matriarchs of the church have rallied together.
For Gilmer, the change will occur once all churches — not just black churches — and society adopt a love ethic.
“That is how we are going to attack it. I have always been taught love is at the core – to love your neighbor and God,” he said. “Quite frankly our community is on the edges and preservation is a problem. We have bigger fish to fry and are easily distracted.”
He said people are not going to leave black churches in mass droves. Those that have been there will be there and those generations that have not been to church — and do not have the same affection towards the church as many of us — are not going to start going all of a sudden now.
“They are not going to leave. Not from what the president said. But then again, let’s be clear that those who came out against President Obama said nothing about Bishop Eddie Long. They told us to pray for Long but told the president that he owes them an apology,” he said. “Until we adopt a love ethic we will never overcome our own issues. We all must love beyond our own bigotry and our own issues.”
Follow Mashaun D. Simon on Twitter at @memadosi