Two gay pastors, who for years have been keeping their homosexuality secret, will reveal their “down low” lifestyles to their families and congregations in an emotional three-part series premiere of OWN’s Iyanla: Fix My Life, which kicks off on Saturday.
But as for Iyanla Vanzant, she hopes to spark a larger conversation about the taboo topic of homosexuality in the black church.
“My experience has been whenever this conversation comes up of homosexuality in the black church, it’s shut down. Or the people who bring it up are attacked or shut down,” she told TheGrio.com during a recent interview. “We’re going to start the conversation.”
And Vanzant does just that by traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, to meet Pastor Mitchell and Pastor Derek (OWN would not release their full names, citing the need to protect the privacy of the guests).
Pastor Mitchell was married with five children and spent years preaching against homosexuality, but he was having affairs with men.
“This isn’t anything I ever wanted to involve anybody else in,” Mitchell helplessly weeped to Vanzant. “Nobody needs to deal with this. This is all my stuff.”
Vanzant fired back.
“The truth will set you free,” she said to Mitchell as he wiped away tears. “You think this is your business? This is God’s business!”
Pastor Derek never thought his family, who openly showed hostility toward gay people, or his congregation would be accepting of his secret lifestyle.
“When I hear myself say, ‘I am a gay man,’ I feel hurt. It makes me feel substandard. It makes me feel petrified. I feel lonely,” Derek told Iyanla. “The loneliness I feel is no one will love me.”
Both pastors shared their struggles with Vanzant and discussed the pitfalls of leading double lives, as well their battles with depression and thoughts of suicide in Fix My Life, which will air over a three-week period.
The reason for the three parts, Vanzant said, was to show the steps required for both the person coming out and the people they’re coming out to.
“The pastors’ stories touched me because they have an opportunity to touch so many people’s lives, and people to go to church, particularly the black church, seeking a level of solace and guidance and direction,” said Vanzant, who is an ordained New Thought minister. “And if these men aren’t clean within themselves, with God, there’s no way that they can be guiding and supporting and directing people.”
After Pastor Derek’s sermon where he discussed his sexuality, Vanzant said they received about 20 letters from congregants also revealing they were gay or struggling with dealing with their sexuality.
“When you stand courageously, you give people permission to do the same,” Vanzant said. “I don’t know where we get the scripture and the understanding that gay people can’t love the Lord or be accepted by the Lord.”
Benjamin Evans knows firsthand the struggle these pastors faced.
Evans, who is not part of the show, is also a minister and last year revealed to his friends, family and co-workers that he’s gay. But it wasn’t easy.
As a freshman at Florida A&M University, he ran to the altar with hopes of being delivered from homosexuality. But he quickly realized that didn’t work when he caught himself eyeing another man shortly after, he said.
“For years, I lived blindly believing that one day God would take this feeling away,” the 30-year-old Miami minister told TheGrio. “I thought one day that if I prayed long enough, God would heal me from this ailment. But after years of praying, after years of fighting it, and I realized this wasn’t going away, I had to have a conversation with God.”
Evans said he came close to marrying a woman like Pastor Mitchell did, but couldn’t go through with it.
“I didn’t want to be that guy. I’ve seen too much of it,” he said, adding that stress and depression led him to break the news to his family in Philadelphia last Thanksgiving.
“I was worried about what people were going to say and if they would still love me,” he said, recalling that some of his family celebrated his coming out.
Still, the subject of homosexuality remains touchy in the black church.
“It’s a big taboo topic in the black church, and that causes a lot of people to live closeted lifestyles. It’s just not a healthy environment,” said Evans, a managing director of BME Community, a national network of black community leaders. “I’m glad [Iyanla] is having this conversation. My hope is that it will promote greater tolerance and a love for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.”
In addition to starting the conversation, Vanzant hopes to provide resources for those who need help dealing with similar struggles.
“What I hope to do is to be in touch with a lot of ministers that I know and ask them would they be willing to support, talk to, coach, and counsel people so as the show airs that people can be in touch with somebody,” she said. “I have a host of coaches already lined up.”
Vanzant hesitated to say this three-part series would be groundbreaking but is looking forward to getting the conversation started.
“It’s a conversation that needed to be had; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having it,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to break any ground, but I think it’s going to open some eyes, and I’m grateful for that.”
Other Fix My Life episodes will include women who get dangerous butt injections, a grandmother who is raising her grandson for her daughter and the tough times of Olympic figure skater Debi Thomas, who is now jobless and broke.
Tune in to Iyanla: Fix My Life on Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.
Michael J. Feeney is an award-winning journalist and public speaker. Follow him on Twitter @mfeeney