Black faith leaders: It’s time to talk marriage equality in our African-American church communities

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When the United States Supreme Court announced the historic step forward to protect the constitutional rights of many same-sex couples who choose to enter the sacred bonds of marriage, I rejoiced.

I believe that my faith says that every human being is created in the image of God and has sacred worth, and that everyone should be able to marry the person they love. But amid my rejoicing, I also recognize that among some of my fellow black clergy, the struggle for marriage equality is a complex issue. It continues to generate conversations of intense theological reflection that can ultimately lead to a deeper spiritual unity.

As part of my role as the executive vice president of Auburn Theological Seminary, I worked to develop a widely used toolkit, My Mind Was Changed: A New Way to Talk with Conflicted Christians about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Church and Society. I’ve also regularly facilitated conversation with black faith leaders across the country to dig into our community’s feelings about LGBT acceptance with the goal of advancing LGBT equality.

This work has shown me how absolutely crucial these safe spaces are. Faith leaders — major influencers in our community — must feel free to grapple with their own beliefs and with how to talk with conflicted Christians about LGBT equality, including marriage equality.

The power of sharing stories in safe places

I’ve seen over and over again the power of personal stories and sharing when it comes to bringing about powerful conversations with conflicted Christians.

I remember sitting with black clergy in Detroit and Seattle listening to very committed African-American pastors, leaders who live their ministries every day, discussing their thoughts on marriage and general LGBT equality. While most of these leaders did not believe that being gay is compatible with their faith, I was encouraged and impressed by their commitment to truly explore what it means to be faithful to their reading of scripture and struggle with ways to conduct ministries rooted in love — be it “tough love,” “love the sinner and not the sin,” or a love that welcomes LGBT people into their church community with open arms.

Many of these clergy members expressed opinions I frankly disagreed with. But the importance of the meaningful conversation and the action it might eventually drive was crystal clear. These kinds of spaces ensure that black clergy can enter into meaningful discussions that we have ignored for too long.

I don’t know if any pastors left with a changed theological stance that day, but I do know that the meeting catalyzed a more authentic conversation among the African-American faith leadership — an important first step to providing an opportunity for conflicted Christians to move along a journey toward LGBT equality.

These conversations are absolutely crucial to the future of the faith movement for LGBT equality, and Auburn is completely committed to ensuring that clergy have the tools and spaces needed to conduct them. Who in the black church will join the cause, now that the path to greater equality, through the rulings against DOMA and Prop 8, is opening?

Black faith leaders talking gay rights: It’s time!

Wednesday’s Supreme Court decisions provide clergy an important opportunity. Pastors and faith leaders, including me, who support LGBT equality and marriage equality are craving meaningful conversations with those who do not support it.  We need to have honest discussions with each other as black faith leaders, and with our congregations, about marriage equality and Auburn is here to help. We’ll continue to facilitate conversations with a range of faith leaders and provide a forum for constructive conversations about LGBT equality in our community of clergy, and more broadly.

A rapidly growing majority of Americans — across all demographics and religious affiliations — are coming out to support marriage equality. I’m proud to say that we’re seeing this same shift among clergy and the broader black community as well. In my capacity at Auburn, I urge the black religious community to take up the tools offered to clergy members to reflect, speak freely, and when needed, struggle along the ongoing road to LGBT acceptance.

The movement towards marriage equality is just one more step leading to the blossoming of gay rights in this country, a reality that black faith leaders need to embrace if they are to boldly lead their flocks into this brave new future.

Rev. John H. Vaughn is the executive vice president of the Auburn Theological Seminary.