Monday, May 14, 2007

Activists Target Homophobia in Black Churches

This story I wrote for EDGE Publications late last week examines the very serious problem homophobia in the Black church continues to pose. This institution is all too aware of the impact discrimination continues to have on underrepresented groups in this country and around the world. The ministers and activists I interviewed for this story used hypocrisy, social conscious and justice as themes in their sound bites. Many feel the church is guilty of hypocrisy in its continued treatment of their LGBT congregants. Others argue the institution has lost its 'social gospel' or even standing among many LGBT people of color. The debate over homophobia from the pulpit will rage on as affirming ministers and activists seek to end these attitudes.

More than 50 years after the civil-rights movement began, homophobia within historically Black churches remains a concern for many GLBT people of color. The National Black Justice Coalition and other organizations continue to challenge these attitudes through a variety of outreach and educational programs and initiatives.

NBJC announced its second Faithful Call to Justice earlier this year as part of its ongoing efforts to eradicate homophobia from the pulpit. The advocacy organization describes this latest call to action as a "nationwide effort to bring attention to the value and worth of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender congregants as well as HIV/AIDS awareness and stigma."

Faithful Call to Justice will take place early in June at more than 100 churches across the country. NBJC Director of Religious Affairs Dr. Sylvia Rhue said in a recent interview with EDGE this initiative is a direct challenge to the homophobia she said continues to plague the Black church.

"We felt it was high time to acknowledge the spiritual worth of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters," Rhue said. "In many faith communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are not presented as people to emulate but rather are put down and demonized."

This call to action comes after Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor of the San Francisco-based City of Refuge, and other faith leaders and activists from across the country gathered in Philadelphia to attend the annual Black Church Summit to address homophobia in the Black church. The Rev. Al Sharpton and others have also campaigned against these attitudes in recent years.

Faithful Call to Justice urges congregations to sign a "Statement of Affirmation," to deliver sermons that discuss homophobia, develop GLBT-inclusive programs and to acknowledge openly GLBT congregants in bulletins and other publications.

"This is our way of saying the church--synagogues, mosques and temples--need to examine attitudes towards gay men and lesbians and take actions that best serve justice and spiritual healing," she said.

The Rev. Janyce Jackson of Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church in Newark, N.J., praised NBJC’s latest call to action. The Black church plays a prominent role in the lives of many people of color. She said homophobia denies many LGBT people of color access to this cultural and religious institution.

"If I can’t go to my pastor as a mother and talk about how my son or daughter is suffering because of the issues surrounding their being gay or lesbian, that’s a whole piece that’s missing for me," Jackson said. "I’m glad they are doing this work."

Cambridge, Mass., based columnist the Rev. Irene Monroe issued an equally scathing indictment against the Black church. She said the homophobia many pastors and congregations continue to support raises the question as to whether the institution remains a viable one.

"More of us are outside of the Black church," she said. "Since the civil rights movement, the Black church has really lost its social gospel calling."

The Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Miami fired the Rev. Tommie Watkins, Jr., after he refused to marry a lesbian as a way to hide his sexual orientation. The Alabama-born minister chronicled this experience in his book "Living Out Loud" but he, like Monroe, said the Black church continues to focus on homosexuality at the expense of HIV, teenage pregnancy and other issues.

"Homosexuality is somehow seen as the ultimate sin," Watkins told EDGE in a recent interview while he added churchgoers continue to support these attitudes. "The only way the church gets away with it is because we allow the church to do it."

The Unity Fellowship Church remains the largest domination within the Black church to minister primarily to GLBT people. The Rev. Carl Bean founded the fellowship in Los Angeles in 1982. The denomination remains based in Southern California and continues to operate a variety of HIV/AIDS, health and educational ministries across the country.

The Rev. Derrick Wilson of the Healing Stream United Church of Christ in Philadelphia said gay men and lesbians comprise a large portion of traditional Black congregations. He cautioned against the categorization of the Black church as more homophobic than other faith institutions--or society. But Wilson said the Black church is guilty of hypocrisy through its public denials of homosexuality.

"Gays and lesbians make up our choirs, our preachers," he said. "We accept this. We understood ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ long before Bill Clinton came up with it."

Elder Joseph Tolton of the Rehoboth Temple Christ Conscious Church in New York said Faithful Call to Justice provides an opportunity to reflect upon the impact homophobia continue to have on gay men and lesbians inside and outside the Black church. He traced these attitudes back to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But Tolton concluded they are simply an attempt to deflect attention away from the conversation about sexuality that has yet to take place within the Black church.

"The issue at its heart is that we have yet to have an open and honest conversation about human sexuality," he said. "All the noise about homosexuality is a distraction from the silence."

Indeed; Rhue and others said Faithful Call to Justice is really about the need for the Black church to return to its roots. She urged pastors, ministers and others who continue to preach against homosexuality to re-examine Jesus Christ and the example she said he set.

"Christ’s message was about hospitality and welcome," Rhue said. "There shouldn’t be homophobic messages connected to Jesus Christ."

Watkins readily agreed. "If there is any organization that should stand up for all human rights it should be the Black church," he said. "God is love and God is unconditional love. They are commanded... to love everybody. They don’t have a choice in that."

Monroe further described Faithful Call to Justice as an opportunity to follow the example Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others set during the civil rights movement. She bluntly said the Black church continues its failure to head their legacy.

"King said the fight for equality is greater than just for racial justice," Monroe said. "We need to put front and center those ministers and allies who are for LGBT justice. We need to let the LGBT community and the larger community know these are our new heroes who follow in MLK’s vision of justice."

No comments: