Eleven-weeks old Caylee LaTanya Burgess-Allen coos as her father holds her. “Little missy doesn’t care that I have an interview to do. You gotta work with me a minute,” Oliver says, laughing. It’s clear that he loves every minute of his new station in life: fatherhood. The Burgess-Allens have no specific examples or true design on which to base their family construct. Nor do they have immediate mentors on which to mirror their professional choices. But when you do it anyway, it is revolutionary. Bishop Oliver Clyde Allen III and Rashad Burgess are ardent innovators.
Oliver, from Los Angeles, met Rashad at a conference in 1999. While he was initially struck by Rashad’s beauty, they didn’t become a couple until 2002. Rashad came out to his family between the ages of 18 and 21; he was six years into his liberation when he met his mate. Through his relationship with Rashad, Oliver came out to his own family. Oliver’s family wasn’t immediately accepting.
“My family is close,” Oliver says. “My mother initially didn’t know how to embrace it. After getting to know Rashad, and seeing that he was a responsible man who not only loved me but was willing to take care of me and build a life with me, she developed respect for him.”
In 2002, the two married on the shores of Hilton Head, South Carolina. “Completely private,” Oliver reminisces. “We went out to the beach around five a.m. wearing all white. We had a wooden chest with a Bible in it. We had music playing. We lit two torches on the beach and read our vows to each other. We also took communion together.”
For their seventh anniversary, they decided to get legally married in one of the few places in the United States that allows that freedom to same-sex couples: Washington, D.C. Rashad figured they would just sign some papers and it would be done. “It wasn’t that simple. It turns out, you have to have a real wedding in D.C., with a pastor licensed in D.C., so we ended having up having a ceremony with some of our closest friends. It was unexpected; it was great.”
Oliver says Rashad balances him out in many ways. “Number one, he’s smarter than me!” says the man who studied philosophy at Morgan State and religion at Morehouse College, currently taking courses at Harvard. “Rashad is very organized and systematic in his approach to life. I could not imagine my life without him, especially as it relates to the business of marriage. When it comes to building a family, having resources and goals, he’s the one who makes sure we have the life we desire.”
The Burgess-Allens live in Atlanta. Rashad attended the University of Chicago (where he’s from). A bachelor’s degree in public policy and a master’s in social science, Rashad is branch chief at the Center for Disease Control—and he’s the First Gentleman of the Vision Church where his husband is pastor.
Rashad makes it clear: “My primary role is taking care of our home. I want to make sure that we have a happy home and the bishop is taken care of. Seeing that there’s food, the finances are in order, etc. But also making sure I create an atmosphere that he wants to come home to. Sometimes in marriage, people don’t always think about that.” In terms of the church, among many responsibilities, Rashad handles media relations. “We get approached many times for various media events and interviews. I am thoughtful about those choices, so that the integrity of the church, the ministry and Oliver are protected.”
“I’ve always had an affinity for religion from a philosophical perspective. Not necessarily Christianity as much as understanding how people organize their thoughts around rituals and ideas about God.” Oliver continues, “I’ve always been groomed to pastor, but of course my sexuality was always a personal question of mine—even when I reconciled my theology and I was very clear that God loved me and I wasn’t going to Hell.”
A personal tragedy forced Oliver to form realistic ideas around his own existence. “I lost my sister LaTanya, my only sibling, in a car accident. Like most tragedies, it forces you to face your own theology—what you think about God and life,” he says. In the midst of his introspection he questioned everything else, including his sexuality. Studying philosophy at Morgan, Oliver had two professors who helped him dissect the scriptures.
“It’s not a matter of tradition but how we interpret the Bible. I knew that God loved me… but being an openly gay man, what does that look like in terms of ministry? I had never seen an openly gay man with a thriving ministry.” Oliver’s passion grew: “so many people who didn’t believe in the rhetoric of the Black church needed a place to worship and feel safe,” he says.
While he didn’t have an example, Rashad was very supportive. Oliver recalls, “He said, ‘You just need to start. How it will turn out, we don’t know. Just do it.’ ”
Operating on faith, Oliver shared his vision with 12 people whom he and his partner trusted and believed could help. That small congregation swiftly grew to over 3,500. Like any church, “they don’t always show up at the same time,” Oliver notes, “but we have at least 600 who come to worship every Sunday.”
“The psychology of women has helped me be a better pastor,” he continues. “I pastor an extremely diverse church. Not just ethnically, but in terms of sexuality. I have straight women, lesbians, senior women, transgender women, Hispanic women, White women and Black women, of course. Every expression.” Ever the scholar, his third-semester Harvard course load included women’s sexuality, the psychology of women and the history of women. “It was not only fascinating, but I understood patriarchy better,” he says.
As a pastor and, notably, bishop, Oliver says, “I am responsible for a lot of people and their spirituality.” Aware of the weight and honor of his sacred contracts, he didn’t take what he didn’t know for granted. Neither arrogance nor ignorance shall taint Bishop Oliver’s pulpit or his congregation’s integrity.
“Pastors make the assumption that they understand all of the dynamics of people, and they don’t,” he says. “I felt like I’d be a better pastor if I studied the complexities of gender. I learned that even though I experience oppression, if you will, because of my sexual orientation, I’m still an oppressor due to the history of my gender and gender politics. I understood how women embrace oppression to exist in certain structures.” Such as the church, filled with women and run by men.
Oliver created The Mother’s Board “because it is in our tradition to have mothers present,” he says. He knew he needed “mothers” whether they had children or not, to play a significant role in the Vision Church. “There are LGBT members who have no relationship with their parents, who have no family; severely rejected by not only society but their maternal structure. The Mother’s Board, predominately straight women, has become a psychologically enriching entity.”
On the question of how his pastoral peers, who may not live as genuinely, perceive the progressive church, he reflects, “That’s where all the flack comes from. I get very little criticism from truly heterosexual pastors or leaders. I make that as an assumptive statement,” Oliver notes. “But most of them are extremely supportive of the work we do, committed to a loving Gospel, and provide a safe place for whoever comes in the room to worship. We are a challenge for people who don’t live their truth.”
Compassionately, he continues. “You know, honestly… I’m not defending them, but think about it. You’ve been a minister for 30 years, you’re married but you’ve lived in the closet… Then here comes this pastor who is openly gay, married to his partner, in the public eye, being who they are and built a ministry? It can create resentment. Most of the criticisms are from people struggling personally, or openly gay people who have been oppressed by Christianity. Here we are embracing it.” He says, “To be truly Christian is to be truly inclusive. If you are Christian and you are exclusive, then you’ve missed the point.”
Rashad and Oliver always planned on including a child to their equation. When an opportunity for adoption arose through a social worker at their church, they took the necessary steps. Confirmed by two ultrasounds, they were expecting a son. “The entire conversation was about a boy,” Rashad recalls. “The baby shower, we received boy’s gifts and we only had boy names picked out.” Surely, having a boy was a no-brainer. They had been boys once.
Additionally, it didn’t help that the fathers-to-be heard an irresponsible rumor: a boy is better than a girl. Oliver says, “During this whole process, people would give their opinion whether it’s warranted or not: ‘I’m glad you’re having a boy, because a girl is complicated,’ and so on.” Unsettling, mysterious words for first-time fathers. Good thing they’re having a boy.
Oliver and Rashad were at the hospital when their child was born. “The doctor came out and said, ‘You have a beautiful healthy baby! Just one little detail: it’s a girl.’ We were shocked!”
However, when they laid eyes on their daughter, shock immediately transformed to rapture. “We felt like she was divinely sent. She even had some of our features, so much so [that] in the hospital, the biological mother’s mother pointed it out,” Rashad says. “It was a very spiritual moment. We knew she was intentionally brought here for us. She’s so precious, so beautiful.”
Oliver says, “I don’t think there’s any greater thing that a human being can do than pour into another human being and raise a child. There is no other thing that is greater than that. It fulfills your life. I believe that is what humans are designed to do.”
“I grew up in a home with a single mom for the first eight years of my life,” says Rashad. “Then she got married for the first time.” He observed what his stepfather did right. Through that lens, “I knew that I wanted a strong, solid marriage.” Rashad believes that his union completes that vision. “I have never seen a man that can nurture and love the way Oliver does. It’s truly infectious. And consistent.” Rashad goes on, “In our most challenging moments, in all these years, I never got that sense of, ‘This man doesn’t love me.’ ”
Oliver feels that a successful family operates by cultivating unconditional love, consistency and a strong sense of spirituality. “Unconditional love is complicated. I don’t think it’s an easy thing. Sometimes love means having difficult conversations, but relationships that build nurturing and restoration are the strongest.” He adds, “Consistency—having a ritual or tradition, or something special that your family does—weaves a fabric that keeps people together and creates a strong family bond.”
Caylee is in Rashad’s arms yapping it up. “I’m sorry, the little one is in talkative mood. She has never been this talkative!” Since it’s obvious Caylee is aware this is a family discussion, what would they want a teenage Caylee to say about her two dads? Rashad responds. “I would want her to say, ‘My fathers are extremely loving, socially conscious people who love the Lord and each other.’ ”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Joicelyn Dingle travels to find the Coolest Black Family in America exclusively for EBONY.com. She splits her time between Savannah and Brooklyn. She is currently completing a documentary on the making of Honey magazine and the 1990s urban publishing era. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @editorialgenius.