“So, why don’t you leave and join a more inclusive church?” This question was once posed to me when I came out to friends and classmates during my days at Duke Divinity School. The real question, as I understand, is, “why are you staying within the Black Church (read: an irredeemably homophobic, heterosexist institution)?” It’s a strange, yet real question. It’s strange because my classmates and friends, some who are affiliated with self-avowed “inclusive” religious bodies or congregations, fail to interrogate the subtle strategies of exclusion which these denominations or congregations practice against others within their midst. These congregations generally fit within a majority Eurocentric paradigm which claims to embrace diversity, but still maintains its dominant liturgical or theological paradigms, whether traditional or eclectic. Nevertheless, it’s a real question of concern for the flourishing of sexual minorities. Since, I am an out black gay man, regardless of the fact I am unabashedly evangelical in my faith and practice and hold provisionally to traditionalist beliefs on marriage and sexual behavior, my disclosure of my sexuality creates angst and stress as I pursue advanced theological education and ordained ministry within the Afro-Baptist tradition.
The Black Church, the theologically diverse socio-religious institution into which I was born, still remains a complicated space for sexual minorities.[i] More forcefully, as some have cogently argued, it’s an oppressive space.[ii] The Black Church simply fails to acknowledge, listen, and celebrate the lived experiences of LGBT people within its midst, and, moreover, many black Christian leaders cling to theological constructions which dehumanize and demonize them. These critics contend that this condemnation goes beyond denouncing behavior, but bodies—queer bodies, queer selves. Black queer, trans, intersexed, and same-gendering loving people have always served black churches in various capacities, the most stereotypical has been the music ministry (at least for black gay/bisexual men). Nevertheless, many black LGBTIQ people hear too often the vitriolic denunciation of their lives, their unions, and their families. Indeed, from the conservative standpoint to talk about queer bodies and selves sounds deeply foreign to many black heterosexual conservative Christians, since they assume that to identify with “queer” is to identify with “sin.” Many are not hip to the postmodern, deconstructionist framework of queer theory which interrogates the hegemony of heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality and its intersection with heterosexism, homophobia, sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression.[iii] It’s widely known that many black church leaders are still ambivalent in encouraging young people to enter the seminary, thinking that many institutions of theological education have capitulated to the zeitgeist of postmodernity and subsequently undermined their Christian faith. Queer theory, if black church leaders have ever heard of it, would be to their ears Sodom revived, remixed, and repackaged as critical theory for serious theological reflection. Still these black church leaders and their theologies fail speak to the actual existences of black sexual minorities. The long and well-worn site of biblical interpretation and pastoral authority force many black queers to leave the denominations of their youth and join “inclusive” Christian congregations and/or denominations. Others leave Christianity in total; others unfortunately, commit suicide because of the despair or fall into deep depression. Still, many black queer Christians remain in the Black Church. Some continue to serve as members within their traditionalists congregations. Others, join inclusive black Christian communities, albeit a rarity within the Black Church. Some are “out” on a need to know basis. Others, are in the closet. Some are discovering their non-normative sexualities for the first time, yet lack a space to express their thoughts and feelings honestly without a punitive response from their brothers and sisters. Their theologies are diverse and complicated. Many struggle to reconcile their traditional beliefs with their desires and identities. Regardless of the challenges they face, they remain. I remain.
So, in this series I will attempt to answer the question why I remain in the Black Church. I will try my best to present coherent arguments. I promise you they will not always convince, but I try to make sense of my ecclesiastical and theological commitments. I will deal with various interconnected topics within this series such as theology, culture, politics, and experience. However, this series is a journey, not a destination. All theologies are provisional, subject to change as we continue to hear and respond to the Gospel afresh. Even after nearly four years of theological education, I don’t always know for sure what I believe about everything. I am sure that I’ve been giving the tools to think critically and faithfully about my faith commitments and its ethical implications from an African American perspective. As I embark on answering, wrestling with this question, I hope you prayerfully and lovingly participate in helping me think through my assertions and questions. I think with the help of the saints, this will be a fruitful journey.
[i] C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (NC: Duke University Press, 1990).
[ii] Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective (NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 87-89; Anthony B. Pinn, The Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era (NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 94-115; Horace L. Griffin, Their Own Received Them Not: African American Gays and Lesbians in Black Churches (OH: Pilgrim Press, 2006; reprint: OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010); Gary David Comstock, A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men in African American Congregations (KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
[iii] Nikki Sullivan, A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (NY: NYU Press, 2003).