“Whatever choices you make, always remember, choices have consequences,” Rev. Errol Gilliard, Pastor of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, preached in a sermon, referencing the removal of Rev. Delman Coates from the executive council of the Hampton Minister’s Conference, one of the largest gatherings of black clergy in America.
Gilliard likens Coates’ choice to support the queer community to an unwed mother who made a “choice” to become pregnant. Gilliard shames unwed mothers in an attempt to demonize Coates for loving those whom the church has outspokenly chosen to hate. In so doing, Gilliard taps into age-old Black Church traditions of using pregnancy as a metaphor and condemning unwed mothers.
The use of such a troubling metaphor to publicly chastise Pastor Coates for his advocacy fits within a larger narrative that attempts to emasculate men who stand up for women and queer folk. While Gilliard paints Coates as a false prophet leading God’s people astray, a closer examination of that text reveals more about Gilliard and the branch of the Black Church he represents than it does Coates and the LGBT community.
What Gilliard calls false prophecy is actually the affirmation of the real, lived experiences of those who have existed on the periphery of the Black religious community. This type of preaching is theologically irresponsible, intellectually lazy, and causes confusion and suffering in the lives of our queer sisters and brothers—forgotten children of God who sit in our congregations, sing in our choirs and yes, preach in our pulpits.
Womanist theologian Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas writes in Sexuality and the Black Church, “For Blacks to discuss sexuality publicly is like eating watermelon in front of White people.” The history of Black sexuality and its relationship to the (Black) Church is as complex and conflicting as the Hampton Conference itself. But thanks to emerging voices such as Pastor Coates and other progressive clergy, activists, and scholars, the theological tides are shifting. The #BlackLivesMatter movement — started and led by Black queer women — is challenging the Black Church to be more progressive, inclusive, and ultimately transformative. Too many churches preach and practice heteropatriarchal theologies that neglect Christ’s call for love and justice. The Black Church is in desperate need of a ‘theology of intersectionality’ that affirms sexual diversity and attends to the multiplicity of identities within black life.
It has been argued “that everything that the Black church has called a demon, was and is not a demon, but simply nothing more than something the Black church did not have language for, familiarity with, or the courage to come to understand.” Gilliard, like those who orchestrated Coates’ ouster from leadership within the Hampton Minister’s Conference, does not have a clear understanding of what it means to love God’s children who are queer-identified. Rather than respecting the black prophetic tradition or, at the very least, honoring theological diversity, Gilliard demonizes Coates by calling him a “false prophet.” However, any substantial study of Biblical prophecy reveals that prophets resisted the status quo; prophets were most despised by religious and political leadership; prophets stood outside of the prevailing religious way of dong things in order to call out injustices– from Elijah and Huldah to Jeremiah and Isaiah. Coates is a modern day Isaiah, crying out from the theological wilderness that is the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, challenging the Black Church to be as concerned with prophecy as it is piety and prosperity.
Gilliard is right, “choices have consequences.” Queer antagonism, as represented in Coates’s ouster, has consequences for the LGBT community, as police brutality does on the Black community. And like police violence, its' consequences are destructive, even deadly. How much blood must be sacrificed on the altar of Black Christian tradition to satisfy the idols of homophobia and heteropatriarchy? Queerphobia is the sin that so easily besets the possibility of building a truly beloved community.
The decision to dismiss Rev. Coates from the Executive Council of the Hampton Minister’s Conference was an act of violence enacted against queer sisters and brothers. At a time where 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, where trans women of color are murdered with regularity, with a newly emerging movement lead by Black women and queer folk, Black churches and black clergy throughout the nation must make a choice: sit silently or act justly. “Always remember,” Gilliard reminds us, “choices have consequences.”
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a writer, community organizer, and a Christian freedom fighter who works at the intersection of criminal justice and anti-rape activism.
Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer, and writer based in Newark, NJ.