It is disheartening to see that even in the 21st century many black church leaders still hesitate to approach topics of sexuality, in general, and homosexuality, specifically. I find it distressing that we, as a community, have suffered such injustices relating to our race, yet we find it easy to be so condemning of others for being who they are. As a pastoral leader, I am interested in how to address the topic of homosexuality without condemning two people in a committed relationship. I don’t want to limit my capacity to care for all people; I want to care for the parishioner who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, transsexual, questioning, or a straight ally. We have members of our faith communities living in the closet; they are afraid to come out for fear of condemnation or severe rebuke, including being put out of the church.
My purpose in writing this article is my hope to open further the closet door in the black church tradition concerning homosexuality and engage in dialogue with my colleagues on how to create space to address the topic. But, I write this article not as an observer but as an insider-participant. My partner, Denise, and I have been in a committed relationship for 5 years. Three of those years saw me deeply engaged in conversation with God and others about the affect of my relationship on my God-ordained Call as a pastoral leader. I reflected on many questions: Will God use me? Can I be authentically me and still serve God’s people? Can I still be an effective leader? God and I are clear. God can. God has. I can. I will. I am.
Over the years, conversations concerning sexuality have gained a lot of momentum. Perhaps, for some, it is even more difficult a conversation than talks of war, abortion or politics. The negative views about homosexuality from many of my ministry colleagues are not lost on me. For some, they were taught that homosexuality is unnatural. And, while it may have never been raised explicitly in a sermon (though for many I am confident it was) the subtle injections into “off the cuff” relationship comments, bible studies or even, on occasion, the tired old “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve” imagery, the message was clear. We claim to love but the dominant heterosexist lens refuses to allow some to even engage in conversations with one another. We quickly take to the polls, checking a box that, for some, disqualifies people from receiving health coverage, equity in marriage benefits or affirmation of their family unit. I am not sure that’s love.
What lies behind this teaching? There are some African-American theologians who address the issue. Kelly Brown Douglas posits in her book Sexuality and the Black Church that the black church and black theologians have been reluctant to discuss matters of sexuality because white racist culture negatively impacted black people’s attitudes toward sexuality, especially toward their own sexuality. During the days of slavery, black people were told their bodies were ugly and subhuman and were objects to be used rather than a divine image to be cherished. Their bodies were used sexually by white slave owners. Sexual contact became not a welcome union of two people in love, but an act of degrading black bodies, of powerlessness, and of rape. Even with this historical reality underneath it all, the traditions of the black church have tremendous power to claim its own understanding of sexuality rather than be held captive to the prejudices of the past. The black church has a deep influence on black traditions. However, in some black church traditions, it is normative to see some pastors in the pulpit, preaching, yelling about the dangers of sexual sin and immorality. In these contexts, persons of the LGBTQ community are often categorized as sinners with lack of moral fidelity, leading to shame, pain, and guilt.
The black church’s traditional view on homosexuality has led to some of the internal strife that plagues the black community. The most damaging agent in the conversation of sexuality in the Black Church is the black church itself. Kelly Brown Douglas writes, “Black Church people often invoke biblical authority to substantiate the view that homosexuality is wrong.” We use scriptures like Leviticus 18:22, Genesis 19:1-9, and Romans 1:26-27 to condemn persons who identify at same-gender loving. Despite the fact that these scriptures are sometimes misinterpreted or taken out of context, we quote them with such venom; we recite these passages, never giving a thought to how shaming they are. We say things like, “we love the sinner, but we hate the sin,” but statements like this only further ostracize. We, black church leaders, have a responsibility to respond to the assaults on people, especially our black brothers and sisters who self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or straight ally. But too often we participate in the assaults by not engaging in purposeful dialogue and, in many cases, even refusing to create a safe space to teach, process, or reflect about sexuality. We choose instead to pretend that it doesn’t exist or we become comfortable with a “don’t ask-don’t tell” mode of operation. That was me—it did not—and does not, work.
With regard to these practices, the church must be willing to critique itself. The church’s response to the LGBTQ community cannot be haphazard; it should not be spoken of in a manner only to condemn. As a pastoral leader I should be intentional about exploring sexuality. It is a part of human development. And, I should be willing to do so with love, not hate; with compassion, not condemnation. Even as a religious leader, I find it difficult to manage my own faith system in a culture that is dominated by the opinions of others. But, in many ways, I am finding strength in a personal relationship with God. As a young girl, I was raised in a church culture that taught me that God so loved the world. Now, as an adult I choose to believe it and live it out. I cannot sit idly and pray that the issues will take care of themselves; I must take purposeful action against systems, programs, and language that perpetuate the problem of condemnation. Moving from condemnation to compassion is not trite work; it is work that is worth the effort. But, how do we do it?
There are many modes of pastoral care that allows a pastor to speak to the broader context of God and to reach a mass of people. Preaching is just one tool of many. It is an opportunity to offer a public perspective that can challenge the listener to engage in behavior changes and make attitude adjustments. It is also a time when the preacher can connect with the listeners by communicating a contextual gospel message that is liberative in its effect. By liberative, I don’t mean preaching a “turn or burn” message. The academy has responsibly done its part to prepare pastors for the exegetical and hermeneutic work of biblical interpretation. There are classes and seminars that aptly teach the theories, principles, and methodology to sound homiletics. However, the work will be wasted if there is not careful attention given to the practice of preaching. The well-done, contextualized sermon should prompt a response to the good news—not a condemning voice— offered through the preached word. As a homiletician, I work diligently to “practice what I preach,” and as a pastoral leader I commit to serving with compassion, love, grace, and wisdom. My ministry colleagues—and perhaps others—will say I am biased, speaking and writing now only because of my personal relationship with my partner. I say perhaps there’s an element of truth in that. But, when I received and accepted my Call as a minister of the gospel, I committed to God to be faithful, authentic and obedient. I am intentional about listening to God and being attentive to shifts in culture and religion. This article is evidence that the way is not always clear; it is difficult and risky facilitating conversations about sexuality, church, faith and God. Structuring or, in some cases, restructuring a belief system is painful; however, faithfulness to God and self is liberating. For me, this article is a step in that direction.