This last week I sat in a historic black American site - Mother Bethel Church in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. In keeping with the city’s tradition of being a cradle of American freedom, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first black congregation founded in the north. Established in 1793 by Richard Allen, a black minister who eventually became the first bishop of the AME denomination, this facility has stood as a symbol of the black struggle for freedom in both social and religious matters.
Unfortunately, last Saturday it was the site of a debate between liberal black clergy and conservatives concerning the acceptance of gays in the black church.
I felt compelled to raise my voice against the sponsoring group’s attempt to legitimize the gay life style in the black church. It took a little courage for me to attend such an event because of the lack of civility that the gay community often displays. In fact because of my conservative stand, I have been physically threatened with violence on several occasions.
Why would I risk appearing at such an event? The answer is clear in my mind. Such rallies and debate forums consist of both ardent followers and young people whom these folks are attempting to influence. In other words, I had an opportunity to dissuade some of their new converts.
Let me take a moment to give you a historic and sociological perspective of the gay movement in the black church. Most national polls in recent years have shown that blacks are more socially conservative than whites in their personal attitudes about things like same sex marriage than their white counterparts.
Despite these personal convictions, these same black citizens often vote for people that do not share their conservative perspective of the social landscape.
In a similar manner, black churches have often majored on developing an atmosphere of love and acceptance of all individuals. They preach that they serve a God of a second chance. One of the greatest examples of this attitude is Marion Barry’s 1995 winning campaign for Washington, D.C.’s mayoral post.
Barry ran on a saved-by-grace campaign. He won, despite the fact that he had been caught on video tape in the Vista Hotel using cocaine and having an adulterous liaison with a woman. Gays have enjoyed that “second chance” opportunity in black churches. Therefore, a gay appearance or someone’s past life does not stigmatize black church attendees. After all, how can someone reform if there is no dialogue or opportunity for exposure to truth.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.