Monday, April 18, 2016

Embracing and Affirming LGBTQ Diversity Within the Black Church: Notes from a Conference Sponsored by New Millennium Baptist Church, Little Rock

Fred Clark, Slacktivist

As I mentioned on Saturday, this weekend, Steve and I attended a conference on "Embracing and Affirming LGBTQ Diversity Within the Black Church" sponsored by New Millennium Baptist church in Little Rock. Those of us attending this wonderful event made a covenant not to tweet or share personal information revealed by participants in conference discussions, but unless I completely misunderstand, we're welcome to share information about the conference itself and about the important discussions that took place over the course of the weekend.

One of the participants was a United Methodist minister with a long history of civil rights advocacy, whom I have featured in a number of postings here over the years — Reverend Gilbert Caldwell. Click his name in the labels below if you want to find my previous postings about him.

Gil Caldwell marched with Dr. King, and has worked tirelessly over many years to call his United Methodist Church to prophetic leadership in combating racial injustice both in the culture at large and in the church itself. His advocacy for civil rights for people of color then began to flow in the direction of advocacy for LGBTQ people when movements developed to lift up LGBTQ rights. As Gil Caldwell has consistently noted for years now, the movement to secure rights for people of color and the movement seeking rights for sexual minorities are the same movement. 

And as Gil Caldwell mentioned yesterday and has said in other contexts, the people in our society and in our churches who now oppose same-sex marriage and rights for LGBTQ people are the same people who previously opposed interracial marriage and rights for people of color. I've pointed out several times here (and here) that if you take a map of Methodist state conferences that opposed abolition of slavery and were willing to split the church over the issue of slavery, and if you superimpose over that map a map of Methodist state conferences that resisted integration and that now refuse to welcome and affirm LGBTQ people, you'll find that these maps are virtually the same map: they coincide.

In Gil Caldwell's United Methodist Church, Methodists now working to keep queer people outside the church and let them know they are not welcome are descendants of Methodists who, a generation or two ago, tried to bar the church door to people of color. Those anti-integration Methodists were, in turn, the grandchildren of Methodists who split the church over the issue of slavery. Gil Caldwell's observation about this point yesterday:

When I hear "traditional marriage," I think of traditional segregation. The language they use to slam gay marriage today is the same language they used to use to slam interracial marriage.

Because of his advocacy for LGBTQ people and their human rights, Gil Caldwell was arrested along with other United Methodist advocates for LGBTQ rights at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2000. Given his distinguished history of civil rights advocacy, it was interesting to hear Gil Caldwell state in a presentation yesterday that the New Millennium conference was a mountaintop experience for him in his many years of working for rights for the marginalized. As he noted, it is critically important that the moral insight African-American churches brought to American society in the Civil Rights movement regarding rights for black people now be brought to bear by churches regarding rights for queer people.

And, as he and others at the conference repeatedly stressed, in this regard, many African-American churches have a long way to go . . . . There continues to be marked resistance to the rights of queer people in many African-American churches, along with resistance to the claim made by Dr. King's widow Coretta Scott King (video link) and many other African-American civil rights leaders that the quest for civil rights for people of color and for LGBTQ people are the very same quest. As another distinguished black church leader, Dr. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.,  insisted in his presentation at the conference, "In far too many cases, religious black folks fail to do any critical thinking about what they take for granted as religious truth" — and this refusal to wrestle with issues like biblical fundamentalism and exclusion and denigration of LGBTQ folks based on such fundamentalism undermines the moral witness of the black church today.

And so a major theme of this conference was not merely to examine what churches can do for queer people, but to ask what LGBTQ people can do for the church — to ask what queer people can do to assist the church to be the church at this point in its history. As Rev. Malik Saafir of the Janus Institute for Justice in Little Rock put the point in his framing remarks for the conference, 

Those shoved outside the church redefine church. Then if they're ever allowed back inside, they bring an important gift with them: they help the church become what church is meant to be.

This theme of probing what LGBTQ folks have to offer the church was repeatedly stressed by another powerful presenter at the conference, Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder and director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both in her keynote address on Saturday about the biblical foundations for a welcoming and inclusive approach to queer people and a sermon she preached yesterday, Bishop Rawls repeatedly noted that she is more concerned today about what the churches are doing to themselves in showing active disdain for LGBTQ folks than she is about the LGBTQ community itself. She feels an increasing mission to work with the church — to stop the church from destroying itself and eviscerating its moral witness as it attacks LGBTQ people.

Because she is in the thick of the battle regarding the new anti-trans legislation in North Carolina, she noted how many churches tend to be silent about these matters until, every four years, it becomes important to the political and religious right to drum up votes by going after the queer community. And then the churches, to their discredit, lend their pulpits to messaging and activism that in very many ways works directly against their to peace, mercy, and justice in the world. As a panelist in a panel discussion, Manny Ayala of the Church Within a Church movement, noted on Saturday,

African Americans were taught the Christianity of the slaveholder. Lationos were taught the Christianity of the conquistador. It behooves the oppressor to teach the most conservative form of his Christianity possible. 

In other words, in attacking first the gay community and now the transgender community in places like North Carolina, churches that lend credibility to anti-LGBTQ arguments are doing the work of very oppressive and very conservative social, political, and religious groups in the U.S. — groups that have never supported the rights of African Americans. Bishop Rawls's biblically based warning to church folks about colluding with these ugly political crusades to deny rights to members of a minority community in order to get out the vote for conservative politicians:

The people you wanted to send to hell five years ago, God's telling you today to invite to dinner. If you're always comfortable, you need to ask yourself if you're really walking with God. If you're really walking with God, you'll keep saying, "Lord, that just can't be my neighbor!"

The graphic is a screenshot from a posting by Fred Clark at his Slacktivist site today.

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