Monday, March 7, 2011

African-American Faith Communities and the LGBT Community: An Arkansas Church Builds Bridges

National Organization for Marriage chair Maggie Gallagher has recently been crowing that the opposition to marriage equality in Maryland is being led not only by her own Catholic church but by black churches as well.  (Unfortunately for Maggie, her fellow Catholics decidedly do not support her attempt and that of the Catholic hierarchy to block the human rights of LGBT citizens: as Tom Fox noted recently in National Catholic Reporter, Catholic lawmakers and Catholic citizens have bucked the hierarchy to support the marriage equality bill, and polls show 49% of Maryland Catholics supporting marriage equality with 42% opposed--a higher percentage of support than among citizens at large).  

And given the persistent attempt of right-wing political and religious activists to drive a wedge between African Americans and their gay brothers and sisters, I think it's important to note that some of the strongest supporters of the movement to protect the rights of gay Americans have been and remain African-American people of faith.  Martin Luther King, Jr.'s widow Coretta Scott King famously stated in 2003 that her own strong support for LGBT rights was an extension of her husband's civil rights activism:

I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people. ... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.

Seasoned veterans of the Civil Rights movement including Georgia's former congressman Julian Bond have spoken out forcefully on behalf of the human rights of their gay brothers and sisters, drawing a clear line to connect the struggle for black civil rights and gay civil rights.  As I noted last week, Harvard professor and chaplain Peter J. Gomes, a distinguished African-American theologian and Baptist minister (and a gay man) who died on 28 February, spoke out passionately and repeatedly against homophobia in American Christian churches and on behalf of justice for LGBT persons in noted books about the state of American Christianity (and here).

Since Gallagher and other right-wing political operatives with non-existent histories of any real concern to address racial injustice want to engage in ugly, divisive wedge politics when it comes to the relationship between the African-American and gay communities, I'm happy to report these and other countervailing trends which disprove Gallagher's point--that black people of faith oppose gay rights.  Yesterday, a wonderful black church in Little Rock about which I've blogged before (and see also here) invited Steve and me to speak to their educational group about gay issues.

New Millennium is a black Baptist church (but inclusive: it has both black and white members) that shares facilities with another Baptist church which my aunt attends.  It's pastored by a wonderful, prophetic leader, Rev. Wendell Griffen, who also holds a judge's seat in Arkansas--and whom Steve and I count ourselves blessed to call a friend, along with his wife Pat, a psychotherapist and professor of psychology with whom we worked several years ago at Philander Smith College.  Wendell's stellar blog Cultural Competency is in my Bilgrimage blog list to the side of this posting.

Because Pat, Wendell, and their congregation recognize the need to call African-American people of faith to engage in the struggle against homophobic injustice, the church has undertaken an ongoing study of gay issues and questions, in light of the scriptures, theology, and the tradition of the church.  They've been reading and discussing for some time now studies of what the scriptures have to say about these issues (or what many anti-gay believers imagine the scriptures say), about the political background to anti-gay movements in the U.S., about the connections between those movements and movements that have historically sought to oppress people of color, and about what it means to be church, to walk in Jesus's footsteps, in a culture in which these struggles play a prominent role.

Steve and I felt honored to come to New Millennium and help further the dialogue by talking about own own some forty years of life as a committed gay couple, and about the real and painful experiences of injustice through which we've sometimes walked in those years--experiences made even more painful because they have often occurred at the hands of people of faith.  And we ourselves are people of faith, brothers and sisters of those doing gross injustice to us.  We met in the context of the chaplain's office at a Catholic university, and have, from the start of our relationship, considered our life together a shared journey of faith.

I say we felt honored to speak at New Millennium: we also felt trepidation.  We felt no little fear and trembling.  It is not easy to talk about what is closest to one's soul.  It is not easy to talk about the intimate aspects of one's life and relationship in a culture inclined to overlay gay lives and gay relationships with crude myths about sexual promiscuity, disease, pedophilia, and so forth.

Giving witness to the grace that runs through gay lives and gay relationships can feel like being in a forensic witness stand, with bright spotlights aimed at your face.  And that's, unfortunately, even more the case when the witness stand is in a church.

But the experience yesterday could not have been more positive.  My youngest nephew Patrick, who attends the university across the street from the church--University of Arkansas at Little Rock--got wind of the fact we'd be speaking at the church yesterday, and showed up to support us (and we were very touched by this).  And the community at New Millennium had invited us to worship with them prior to our dialogue with the church educational group, laying a foundation for warm inclusion as we sang and read scripture together, and listened to God's word broken in a sermon followed by the breaking of the bread of the Lord's Supper.

For readers who may not have followed this blog from the beginning, it occurs to me to mention something I mentioned frequently in some of the initial postings at this Bilgrimage site: this is that the single factor which, above all, drew me to the Catholic church as a teenager was the Eucharist.  The Southern Baptist church in which I grew up celebrated the Lord's Supper only infrequently, four times a year.  Those celebrations were always solemn and deeply meaningful, amd were preceded by a time of preparation rooted in Anabaptist theology, which stresses the communal aspect of communion--the way in which eating the one bread and drinking from the one cup both makes us one, but also reflects our communion in the body of Christ.  And so it's important, in Anabaptist theology, to try to become the body of Christ by healing division before one celebrates the unity of the body of Christ in the Lord's Supper.

And, frankly, because these solemn celebrations meant so much to me growing up, I wanted more.  When I encountered it, I cherished the Catholic tradition of daily celebration of the Eucharist.  The warm-hearted piety of the evangelical tradition in which I had been nurtured, which views the life of discipleship as an intimate walking with Jesus, found a new expression in the thought of such intimate union with Jesus that one could eat his body and drink his blood--and be nurtured and strengthened in a premier way as one walked the journey to the cross with him.

And so far and away, the most painful aspect of finding ourselves pushed to the margins of our church has been, for Steve and me, finding ourselves shoved from the table of the Lord.  As I've shared in previous postings, for us, the breaking point came when Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina fired first me and then Steve on specious grounds (in my case, no reason at all was given for the firing), and when we tried after that to go to liturgy at the abbey church that belongs to the Benedictine monks who own Belmont Abbey College.

Seeing the very men who had spearheaded our unjust expulsion from the college community stand at the altar and preach about the human rights of everyone, about justice for all, and then break the Lord's bread and offer it to worshipers, when they had removed us from the table of daily bread by taking away our livelihoods, our health insurance, our vocations, was too much for us.

It was impossible for us to believe that Catholic priests who claim to believe in the Eucharist can really or effectively believe in what they proclaim each time they offer the Bread of Life to others, when they can so cavalierly remove others from the the table of daily bread, while enjoying secure lives with assured housing, jobs, health insurance, etc.  The table of the Lord's bread and the table of daily bread are intimately connected.  When the church itself breaks the connection by violating the human rights of lay believers, it undermines everything it wants to proclaim about the Eucharist--and it does so in a very stark way.

And so being invited to the table of the Lord's Supper yesterday at New Millennium, as a preliminary to our sharing our lives in the educational session, was profoundly meaningful to us.  The sharing created a communion on which we built in the dialogue about gay lives and gay issues that followed.

(An aside, but a pertinent one: in the strictest canons of Baptist belief, many Baptist churches practice what's called "closed communion."  This means that not only do they exclude Christians of other denominations from their celebrations of the Lord's Supper; they also historically excluded even other Baptists who did not belong to their particular church.  According to the traditional Baptist theology with which I grew up, each Baptist church is autonomous, and the practice of closed communion safeguards the beliefs of the individual Baptist church celebrating the Lord's Supper--since its beliefs may not agree in every respect with those of another Baptist church.

And so when I was a child and before I became a church member at the age of 8, my parents and other adults in my family would not allow my brothers or me to participate in the Lord's Supper.  With one exception: the aunt about whom I blogged some days ago when I noted that, in my view, the principle that should govern adult interactions with children is the principle of doing no harm--my aunt Kat--did allow us to have a share of the bread and grape juice as it passed to her during the Lord's Supper.  She'd invariably take a tidbit of her bread and offer it to us, along with a sip of the juice.

Doing no harm meant, in her worldview, including.  Not excluding.  Though we children were not yet professed and baptized members of the church, worthy members.  And I thought of all of this, all over again, yesterday as we shared bread and the cup at New Millennium.)

And what to say in conclusion?  Simply this: it's important that churches like New Millennium are inviting openly gay people and gay couples to talk back and forth with members of their congregations.  As one of the church members who came up to thank us for our presentation yesterday said, these dialogue sessions are absolutely essential so that we can get to know each other as human beings . . . 

When many folks, including many people of faith, know their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters only as stereotypes.  As false stereotypes.  It is harder to hate and do injustice to someone when one sees the human face of the person one wishes to treat as an inhuman object.  And the people of God at New Millennium yesterday could not have been warmer, kinder, more inclusive--and well-educated about the issues we were discussing, in ways that should set a standard for other church communities.

When Steve and I returned to Arkansas in 1997 to provide care for my mother in her final years, in a setting familiar to her and close to her siblings, I went to a number of leaders of churches in this area, to ask if they would consider doing precisely what New Millennium church is now doing.  I asked if they would consider helping me organize a speakers' bureau of local gay and lesbian people of faith (and also those scarred by encounters with faith communities, who have understandably distanced themselves from these communities), who would be available to go from church to church simply to meet and talk to people in each church.  About our lives.

No church took me up on my offer.  None wanted to deal with the pushback that always comes when churches in our area open their doors to gay and lesbian folks who are out of the closet, and, more importantly, when faith communities demonstrate solidarity with gay people in the struggle for human rights.

In a heavily churched part of the world like Arkansas, where churches wield enormous cultural and political influence (and where, according to a Pew study whose results were released last fall [see also here], people's religious knowledge is nonetheless abysmally low), initiatives like the one New Millennium church has begun are enormously important.  This small, prophetic African-American church is leading the way among Arkansas churches right now, when it comes to building effective bridges between the gay community and people of faith.

I can only hope that other churches will get the word and begin to do likewise.

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