By Niraj Warikoo Detroit Free Press Staff Writer 10:34 PM, October 18, 2013
Facing a backlash from conservatives in her congregation, a noted Christian leader in Detroit resigned Friday from her church after announcing earlier this month she had married a woman.
Bishop Allyson D. Nelson Abrams stepped down from Zion Progress Baptist Church, where she had served for five years as its first female pastor. Her announcement from the pulpit earlier this month that she had married a woman stunned many local Baptists.
Abrams’ resignation comes just days after the U.S. District Court in Michigan took up a challenge to the Michigan Marriage Act that bans same sex marriage.
Abrams, 43, used to be married to a man, but she told congregants Oct. 6 she was in love with Diana Williams, a bishop emeritus with the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C., a church that broke off from the Catholic Church. The two married in March in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal.
Given the conservative views of many Baptists on the issue of homosexuality and female pastors, Abrams’ announcement caused an intense debate among local Christians. She said many supported her decision to come out while others opposed her gay marriage. Some urged her to stay with the church, but Abrams said she resigned because she didn’t want to further create division. Some in the congregation had found out about her same-sex marriage before she made her Oct. 6 announcement and were making it an issue that was dividing the church.
“I know how important it is for congregations to stay together,” she told the Free Press. “I didn’t want to split the church any further over this issue.”
Abrams also resigned as secretary of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, an influential umbrella group of African-American Christians in metro Detroit, and as co-editor of the magazine of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Abrams cited biblical verses to support the idea that same-sex relationships are allowable under Christian teachings, including Luke 7:1-10, which talks about the love a man has for his male servant.
Saying that love is a big part of Christianity, Abrams said: “We all know that we’ve been made in God’s image, and so no matter what you look like, no matter who you are, no matter what your orientation is,” we should be free to love whom we want.
“Love is something that’s supposed to be unconditional,” she added. “And as Christians, if anybody is supposed to be loving, we are.”
Abrams, who has a doctorate degree in theology, said her views about love and orientation changed a “little over a year ago.”
“I progressed in my theology and came to the point where I would love whichever came to me. I wasn’t just open to (a specific) gender, I was open to love in whatever way the Lord would bless me.”
Asked how she would classify herself in terms of sexual orientation, Abrams said: “I’m not classifying myself in any particular area.”
Abrams’ decision comes at a time of vigorous discussions among Christians over gay marriage, as advocates seek to legalize it across the U.S.
The Rev. Charles C. Adams, the presiding pastor of one of Detroit’s biggest churches, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, said he supports Abrams.
“Bishop Abrams is a very intelligent, conscientious and progressive minister,” he said. “She has done a lot to help people.
“She, herself did not seek to make this an issue,” he added. “It was an issue that from my understanding was ignited by rumors and innuendos … somebody looking up the marriage certificate on the Internet.”
Adams, who supports gay marriage in terms of constitutional rights, said there needs to be more discussion of this issue in the African-American Christian community.
By denying gay marriage, “we are denying people equal protection under the law,” Adams said. “There is no justification for that. We have same-gender couples working in every sector of society and they are not being treated fairly.”
Others disagree with Abrams, saying she is violating Christian doctrine. Elder Levon Yuille, pastor of The Bible Church in Ypsilanti, said that gay marriage is “diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Bible.” Yuille said that unless Abrams stops being in a gay relationship, she should stop preaching.
“To be in accordance with scripture, she would have to give up that type of homosexual lifestyle,” he said.
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Abrams graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in mechanical engineering. She attended law school for two years before deciding to go into the ministry. She got a masters in divinity from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and later a doctorate in ministry from United in 2005.
She gave her first sermon in 1998, moved to Detroit in 1999, and was ordained in 2001. Before leading Zion Progress, she was pastor for seven years at Speak the Truth Baptist Church. Abrams became a bishop last year.
Abrams said her interpretation of scripture is compatible with same-sex relationships. She said that Greek words used in the Bible,“entimos doulos pais,” can be interpreted together to refer to a male lover.
She acknowledges there can be varying views on this issue.
“People have the right to interpret scripture whatever way they please,” she said. “I respect difference of opinions.”
As for what’s next for her, she said she’s considering joining two other denominations but would not say which ones. She said will continue to preach the gospel.
“I’m still going to preach and teach and do what God has called me to do,” she said.