The Black Church, a conduit for spirituality and social change, has cultivated countless leaders throughout history. With an increasing number of Black clergy speaking out in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, this legacy continues.
“As preachers, we have to echo a message of inclusivity of all people in the family of God,” says Rev. Kenneth Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Research shows that that message is an influential one. According to a 2008 poll, among Americans who say they have become more favorable toward gay and lesbian people in the past five years, 21% said that their religious leaders were a contributing factor.
“If the pastor speaks a prophetic word about LGBT inclusion, even if they’re first met with resistance, it can begin to change the hearts and minds of our community,” says Rev. Jacqui Lewis (pictured), senior pastor at New York City's Middle Collegiate Church.
This resistance, however, can be very real for some church leaders. After speaking openly about his support of the LGBT community, attendance at Rev. Samuel's church fell from about 6,000 to 3,000 congregants. But losing parishioners is a chance some pastors are willing to take. Today Victory Church’s membership is back on the rise with people who do not necessarily identify as LGBT but who want to hear that inclusive ministry.
One of the challenges LGBT-inclusive preachers face is overcoming people’s strident interpretation of certain scriptures in the Bible. Although Biblical literalism has historically been used to justify the exploitation of African Americans and the oppression of women, many still hold firmly to a literal reading of the text. But a literal reading of the text without context can be misleading.
“Without a context for what is said, you do the Bible a disservice,” says Rev. Byron Williams, pastor of Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, Calif. He points out that often people do not take an anti-gay position based solely on what they believe to be accurate biblical teachings. Typically they are predisposed to anti-gay sentiment then find scripture to justify those beliefs. But without understanding the historical ramifications behind these passages, one cannot authentically convey what they mean.
On the other hand, other biblical teachings, such as ‘not wearing mixed fabrics’ have lost their significance entirely as a result of what Rev. Lewis calls “revelation and time.” She encourages clergy to read the Bible with their “heart, soul and mind,” examine what the scriptures meant when they were written and focus on underlying themes like love.
For many Black pastors, this message of love extends to marriage equality. In fact, it was this message that inspired Rev. Dennis Wiley and his wife to make Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. fully inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. “If we are going to treat LGBT people as equals, they need to be able to consecrate their loving and committed relationship,” he says. Since marriage equality passed in the District, the church has performed nuptials for about ten same-sex couples.
Almost immediately after New York became the sixth state to pass marriage equality, Middle Collegiate Church conducted marriages for three gay and lesbian couples, simultaneously. "God affirms love," says Rev. Lewis. “When a person falls in love and wants to make a commitment before God and their family to be in this sacred relationship, that’s a blessing."
The importance of family is often central to the church’s advocacy for marriage for gay and lesbian couples. “Love, mutual respect and care are hallmarks of family,” adds Rev. Samuel. “So all that the church can do to support, bless and sanction family, we should.”
It’s no surprise that pastors so committed to spreading a message of tolerance take such a sympathetic approach to even naysayers.
“Love is the only thing that’s transformative,” says Rev. Williams. “So our fight has to be one with inconvenient love at its foundation.” Inconvenient love, a concept he frequently discusses at Resurrection Community Church, emphasizes affirming people’s humanity even if you might not like what they have to say.
Of course, love isn't all it's going to take for faith leaders to continue to push the movement forward. In addition to encouraging preachers to reexamine the Bible, religious advocates must emphasize central values and discourage the singling out of a few passages to justify discrimination. Above all, according to Rev. Wiley, they must meet opponents where they are without judgment.
But before any of that can happen, even more pro-LGBT pastors must be courageous, take a lead on faith and speak up.
“We need to get our voices out there,” adds Rev. Lewis. “There are a lot people ready to listen.”