‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the Black Church

Published: March 4, 2013
I’d been assigned to write a story for Loop21.com, an online African-American publication, about how pastors at black churches were handling homosexuality with their congregations. I’d picked one of my friend’s fathers to interview, a Pentecostal minister in Chicago.
It was my first time talking to a minister about homosexuality. In fact, it was my first time discussing it with anyone of his generation (He is in his late 50s.) A few times it had come up at home with my mom while watching TV when there was a love scene involving a same-sex couple. “This is a bit much,” she’d say and that would be the end of it.
Over the years, I’d grown close with the minister’s family. His daughter and I were college roommates, and we are both praise dancers — it’s like being in the church choir except with dance.
I went into the interview in reporter mode. I was about to ask questions I wouldn’t normally discuss with an elder certainly not a minister. And I didn’t find it easy. In past years, I’d attended gatherings at the minister’s house and even had vacationed with the family.

As I sat across from him at the kitchen table, drinking mint tea, I turned on my recorder and took a breath. Has the Christian church adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy? I asked.
“I would have to say yes,” he answered, shifting in his seat a little nervously, it seemed to me. He noted that many black churches like his own had made concessions to accommodate the growing acceptance of same-sex lifestyles. “There is a compromise because there is such a prevalent hard-core view on what’s considered right and wrong. People are feeling that in order to even retain a certain amount of membership, you can’t be very dogmatic about any of their sins.”
Said another way: If a minister is too rigidly homophobic, it could scare away members, which would decrease contributions and might ultimately be the end of a family-owned church.
I’d watched the minister try to balance the old and new in many ways big and small; he now permits young women to wear pants to services, not usually allowed in Pentecostal churches.
He explained that for many years his policy was clear: The church was open to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, to come for fellowship and worship, no judgment passed. But if you were openly gay, you could not become an official member. “I would never turn anyone away,” he said. “But I do preach that homosexuality is a sin.”
When a young member of the church came out two years ago, the pastor was forced to re-evaluate his policy. The man, in his 20s, had been baptized in the church and shared a father-son bond with the pastor. “Since he grew up in the church, you understand how you can love a person and still hold firm on your beliefs,” he told me.
I could see he was torn — his humanity wanted to be welcoming, but his religious beliefs made him feel he had to draw the line.
“To some degree you have to find out what is in the person’s head. Is the person thinking, ‘yes I’m wrong,’ or is the person thinking, ‘the church is wrong and needs to change?’ I’m constantly in prayer about it,” he said.
He talked about a time in his younger years when he wouldn’t hold a conversation with a fellow worker because the man was gay. “I didn’t have a problem working with him, but from what I was concerned I never wanted to be his friend. We never hung out after work or anything like that.” I’d always thought of the pastor as open-minded: I knew he mostly supported liberal Democrats, had voted for President Obama and was involved in community activism. I’d seen his progressive streak. In his own family, when a close relative came out as bisexual, he did not change his relationship with the young woman.
My friend believes her father’s increasing openness and comfort with homosexuality come from personal contact with these loved ones.
Growing up in the church, I’ve sat through many sermons on homosexuality, where pastors preached the words of the Apostle Paul:
“Paul talked about it and he said neither shall the effeminate inherit the kingdom of God,” a typical sermon would go. “When you research the word effeminate, it means a man that’s acting out feminine qualities. That would be one of the biblical reasons why it’s a sin. The other example is Sodom and Gomorrah.”
My views are very different.
Since I was a teenager I’ve had a circle of close gay friends. I was in high school the first time a girl opened up to our group about her homosexuality. There were five of us hanging outside a friend’s house. “Y’all,” she said, “I’m gay –” That simple. It surprised us because she always seemed to have had a boyfriend. We were teenagers, and barely understood how sex worked between a man and woman, so were curious about the intimate things she and her girlfriend did.
More recently, a friend took me to dinner to reveal his same-sex lifestyle. My response: “That’s good to hear –” and we went on to the next thing.
I’ve never struggled with these things, and I consider myself quite religious.
The pastor told me he worries about how his sermons sound to the gay loved ones in his life. “My conflict comes in that I don’t want to treat persons as if they are not welcomed in the church, because then they may never come back or go to anybody’s church,” he said. “At the same time, I categorize homosexuality with everything else that is sinful.”
I know that the black community is considered a more homophobic culture than most; how we resent the comparison between the gay rights and civil rights movements; how we are more likely than other groups to interpret the Bible — and its condemnation of homosexuality — in a literal fashion.
And then there’s fear of H.I.V. infection, which plagues black neighborhoods at a disproportionate rate.
The media have a role, too, including Oprah’s widely publicized show about black men living secret lives on the down low, married to women but sleeping with men. Women I know wondered if their husbands could be.
But I also notice what seems to be a shift as President Obama has spoken in support of same-sex marriage. In my own church the pastor permitted a flamboyant young man assumed to be gay to join the praise dance team. Despite being upset about the pastor’s many homophobic comments, the young man continued coming to church; he loved being a praise dancer.
I see older churchgoers making compromises. For years my mom complained about me wearing pants to church; now she says, “as long as you’re going to church, it doesn’t matter what you wear.”
Several friends — mostly middle-class professionals in their 20s — are moving away from traditional Baptist and Pentecostal churches and joining nondenominational congregations. We are seeking a safe place to explore our religious curiosity without feeling judged on our lifestyles.
I appreciate the come-as-you-are welcome I get when visiting these nondenominational churches, especially since I am living in New York.
But I also appreciate the Pentecostal pastor I know for his honesty and willingness to struggle — and his openness about it all. I may not share his views on this, but I embrace his love for religion and for Sunday mornings spent at church.

Ro Ho

Ro Ho

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