Amazing grace and resolve: gay African-American Christians too often find themselves at odds with the churches they’ve called home. But they are not losing faith – Religion

Laura Putre

Last year, on a postcard-perfect fall day, Charles Underwood and Wayne Toles exchanged commitment vows. They wore matching African ceremonial robes for the occasion, which was presided over by the Rev. Carl Wallace, a United Church of Christ pastor in Cleveland who performs gay unions.

The couple had met three years before in Bible study at their home church, Mount Zion Fellowship of the Brethren. “I liked his spirituality,” Underwood, a slender 38-year-old with a bubbly laugh, says of Toles, who is 35. “I liked the fact that we thought the same way, believed the same way–or if we didn’t, we weren’t miles away from each other.”

The elders at Mount Zion–an African-American church with a large gay population–frowned on the union. The couple had taken pains not to advertise the ceremony, but the church got wind of it about a month before it took place. As a result, a Mount Zion elder summoned Toles from his pew during choir practice one evening, escorted him to the office, and closed the door.

“He asked me, `Is it true you are having a marriage ceremony?'” When Toles answered yes, he was immediately kicked out of the choir. “I left [Mount Zion] that evening and never went back,” he says. “I was hurt very much.”

Underwood, the grandson of a Pentecostal minister, also left the church. But even though the incident led to a boycott of Mount Zion’s World AIDS Day ceremony last December, no other congregants followed Toles and Underwood’s lead.

That’s probably because they felt they’d only fare worse at another black church, says Christopher Coleman, educator for Cleveland’s Brother2Brother HIV prevention and education program.

“If you’re black and gay and talk about it, as far as [finding] an open and affirming black church–nada,” says Coleman. “There are two things you’re not supposed to talk about in church: AIDS and homosexuality. And these are two things that really need to be addressed in African-American culture.”

It was African-American ministers who led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but when it comes to equal rights for gay men and lesbians, they are moving at a glacial pace. In socially liberal and conservative congregations alike, gay African-Americans are often singled out for special humiliation in sermons, expelled, or relegated to the back pews of their churches.

The discrimination is of particular concern to more open-minded African-Americans because unlike other Americans, who often keep their religion and secular needs separate, blacks often regard the church as the center of their social life.

The late religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln, an expert on the sociology of the African-American church, wrote that the church has historically been the lifeblood of African-American culture, liberation, and civilization. It has served not only as a place of worship but as “lyceum, conservatory, forum, social service center, political academy, and financial institution.”

Statistically speaking, according to a study by the Christian-oriented firm Barna Research in Ventura, Calif., 83% of African-Americans say religion is important in their lives, compared to 66% of white Americans.

But when it comes to gay issues and health concerns such as HIV and AIDS, “the attitude of a lot of the black [churches] is, `We’re just teaching what’s in the Bible,'” says Tracy Jones, associate executive director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland. “That’s not really encouraging you to be who you are.”

A 36-year-old straight African-American woman, Jones left her home church a few years ago because she was disillusioned by the minister’s tirades against gay people. “It was a funky perspective,” she says of his regular antigay sermons, delivered in front of a choir that she estimates was 50% gay. “Not only that homosexuality was wrong, but for some reason, it was more wrong than any of the other sins. More unforgivable than any other acts of immorality, like adultery.”

From what Jones has seen working in public health, shaming black men about their sexual orientation only encourages them to be “on the down-low” and have unsafe sex with other men. Since AIDS is affecting African-Americans at a rate about three times that of whites, black ministers have a responsibility to become more progressive in their thinking about gay people, she says.

Rashad Burgess, director of the Chicago Department of Health’s Men of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition, agrees that black ministers have a uniquely pervasive power to change behavior. “Even if you don’t go to church, if you’re part of the African-American community, you’re influenced by the black church,” he says. He recalls how religious scholar Lincoln, in his book The Black Church in the African American Experience, observed that every successful social movement in America has involved the black church in some fashion.

“You’ve got a lot of folks [in the black community] who are dibbling and dabbling,” says Burgess, noting that many black men who have sex with men don’t consider themselves gay. The only way to reach them, especially when it comes to health concerns unique to men who have sex with men, is in the black church, he says.

Burgess, 26, grew up in suburban Chicago and says he was astounded by the homophobic teachings he heard when he started singing with black community choirs around Chicago.

At one church, which broadcasts its services over the radio, he estimates that the congregation was about 80% gay. Nevertheless, during a midnight holiday musical program, “one of the ministers said there were all these evil spirits running around. He said we’d need shields to deal with the spiritual warfare because of all the homosexuals out there,” Burgess says, adding that the minister then encouraged congregants to “`turn to your neighbor and ask if he or she is gay. If they are, run to the other side.’

“I got up and left,” he says. “I felt I’d been insulted to the nth degree, and I never set foot in that church again.”

However, Burgess says he doesn’t think African-American churches are necessarily more homophobic than other churches. “It’s more complicated and layered than black folks’ not liking homosexuals,” he says. “It’s more `We’ve got so many strikes against us, and this is one more strike.'” He adds that after generations of being violated on many levels, it’s hard for African-Americans to talk about any kind of sexuality, not just homosexuality.

Living in a major metropolitan area, Burgess was able to find a black church that’s gay-friendly. His minister, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, leads a traditional gospel music service, while also speaking out against homophobia and publicly encouraging the inclusion of gays in the church. Although the United Church of Christ is a mostly white denomination, Trinity is 98% black.

Milwaukee HIV educator and trainer Randall Brown has had a more difficult time finding a home church where he feels comfortable. “There are no black churches here that are gay-affirming,” laments Brown, vice president of the House of Infinity HIV prevention service.

Last year, Brown says, black ministers in Milwaukee opposed including gay men in their annual Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. “We were allowed to take part, but after it was said and done, they asked, `Why were they allowed to be there?'” His organization is reluctant to participate in next year’s program.

Now 27, Brown says he left the Milwaukee Baptist church of his youth when he was in his early 20s because he knew of pastors in the faith who lived a double life.

“In his sermons he would announce that he wasn’t gay, and the congregation would clap,” Brown recalls of one particular pastor whose gay sex life was common knowledge among gay men in the area. “I told him I had a problem with the contradictions and I didn’t trust him, [and] he made it known that I was not welcome [at his church].”

The Rev. Allen Spencer, now an 40-year-old assistant minister at Unity Fellowship Church in New York City, grew up in a black Pentecostal church in Detroit where, he says, being gay was considered among the worst of sins. But because his pastor was a trusted family friend, he chose to confide in her about his sexual feelings for men.

She promised to keep the disclosure private, but to his horror, the following Sunday she singled him out before the congregation to give an impromptu “confession.”

Upon hearing of Spencer’s attraction to men, his fellow congregants leaped up from their kneelers and started pouring oil on his head and laying hands on him, he says. “They were calling for the homosexual demon to come out,” he recalls. “At some point it dawned on me, `This is crazy,’ and I headed for the door.” He punched a man who was blocking his way, and he left, never to return.

Spencer doubts that the scenario would have been much different had he been a white gay man attending a white Pentecostal church. Pouring oil and exorcising demons is routine stuff among Pentecostals, regardless of race, he says.

But black mainstream churches have their own procedure for singling people out, says the transgendered Isis Tiffany Soul Lamar, 40, a former Miss Black Gay Ohio who has been asked to leave several churches.

“They’ll let you come in, but you’ve got to get out fast and sit by the door,” she says. “If the minister sees someone gay in the audience, whatever their planned sermon is, they’ll go around their sermon to get to the point that homosexuality is a sin. They will swing their head back to look that person’s way, and everyone else will turn that way and look at that person.”

Burgess says the situation has improved somewhat but that those changes have come slowly. “In the last couple years I’ve seen almost an uprising of black gay men across the country saying, `I won’t tolerate this anymore.’ There are choirs that have walked out of concerts because the artist they were backing up said blatantly homophobic stuff.”

Donna Payne, who organizes annual gospel and soul choir concerts in her role as the liaison to people of color and the religious community for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, says she’s seen improvements as well. When she first started calling church leaders, they wouldn’t return her calls, let alone agree to be part of the concert. “I had one sister to a minister tell me, `We don’t participate in things not of God,'” Payne says. “I told her, well, then, she wasn’t talking to me, because I am of God.”

Payne kept calling, though, and eventually her persistence started to pay off. Five gay-friendly black churches participated in last year’s Gospel and Soul concert, including Union Temple Baptist Church and National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C. Similar concerts are planned for March 23 in Detroit and April 13 in Atlanta.

For other activists trying to reach out to black churches, Payne advises, “Keep in contact and keep talking. It’s not a time to run from our people. If they don’t hear you now, they will hear you one day.”

A year after leaving Cleveland’s Mount Zion, Toles and Underwood have still not found a church where they both feel comfortable worshiping. Toles now attends a United Church of Christ where the services are more reserved than he’s accustomed to. Underwood joined a “don’t ask, don’t tell” black evangelical congregation.

They wish they could worship together, but neither regrets leaving Mount Zion. “Let’s get real,” Underwood says. “They had a problem. We were out and in-their-faces. Two black men did something they all wish they had the opportunity to do. But they were afraid to do it.”

Find more information on the organizations mentioned in this story at

Putre is a staff writer for Cleveland Scene magazine.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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