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.
Regretfully, gay acceptance doesn’t stop there in many cases. Many of our churches have had a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to gay members of congregations, choirs, and clergy. This means that openly gay behavior has not been condoned, but leaders in churches and denominations have not probed to identify or remove gay people. Often, rumors of gay activity outside of the church are overlooked as long as there are no incidents of solicitation or liaisons at church sponsored events. One minister I know proudly told a few other clergymen confidentially that he had been hired by a new congregation who had already employed a closeted gay music leader. His approach was to have a heart to heart talk in which he warned the man that he would report any problems he observed on church property. He went on to add that what the man did off site was his own business.
In my view, the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to this problem is the height of hypocrisy. Politics may be the place for compromise and consensus. The Church, on the other hand, should be a place of conviction and truth.
The Bible is clear in its statements against gay sexual activity.
Unfortunately, few churches preach biblical sexuality well. If they did, there would be fewer out-of-wedlock births as well as fewer practicing gays in the black church.
Church leaders must stand against the acceptance of the gay lifestyle because of social ramifications as well. Recent studies concerning same-sex marriage have shown that in Sweden and the Netherlands, where such unions have been allowed, marriage is devalued---resulting in fewer and later marriages. Secondly, they lead to rising out-of-wedlock births akin to the current black community dilemma in the U.S.
In addition to the damage that gay marriage does to the black family structure that is already under stress, legalization of gay marriage has the potential of endangering the next generation. Statistics show that children do better in school and are greater contributors to society when a mother and a father are present in the home.
In conclusion, let me state that the battle concerning same sex marriage and gay rights is just warming up in America. I am not willing just to give into the current cultural idiom which says, “Gay is Okay!” There is too much at stake.
I have compassion for people who live a gay lifestyle. Just like Jesus, I will take every opportunity to love the sinner and hate the sin. What about you?
Will you stand with me in this culture war?
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.