NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — More than half a century ago, a small Baptist seminary in Middle Tennessee was a fertile seedbed of social justice that produced several giants of the civil rights movement.
But American Baptist College, formerly American Baptist Theological Seminary, has largely slipped into obscurity in the decades since John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette and other national civil rights leaders emerged from its ranks. Now the historically black college is seeking to return to its social justice roots, but the effort has become complicated after a lesbian bishop was invited to speak at the college last month as part of a lecture series.
Some pastors affiliated with the college threatened to withdraw financial support. The move has revived a debate that has roiled the Baptist church for years over the question of whether gay marriage and homosexuality comport with Biblical teachings.
For American Baptist College President Forrest E. Harris, the answer, at a school with such a strong civil rights legacy, is obvious — and so is the right thing to do.
"How could a tradition of education here at American Baptist College not focus upon equality and justice for all people, when the very fact of this institution had to fight ... a culture of racism in this nation that excluded black people?" Harris told The Associated Press.
Harris has helped push American Baptist to the forefront of the modern-day drive for social justice.
In December, the school hosted a retreat for a group of young activists fighting for racial justice in the aftermath of the killings of two unarmed black men by white police officers in Missouri and New York. The young people had come to the school to strategize.
Harris said the school was happy to host the retreat, and that teaching about social justice is "part of what we do every day."
But it was the visit by Bishop Yvette Flunder of Oakland, California, a few months later that thrust the small, scenic campus overlooking the Cumberland River into the national spotlight once again — and back into a larger conversation about its role in the push for equal rights.
A group of Baptist pastors called the invitation to Flunder to be a speaker and worship leader "irresponsible, scandalous, non-biblical, and certainly displeasing to God." They asked Harris in a news release to disinvite Flunder, who is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and is legally married to another woman, her partner of 30 years.
Harris did not rescind his invitation, and Flunder is glad he didn't.
"It's time for us to talk about this," Flunder said. "There is an absence of a study of human sexuality. There are a lot of different flowers in the garden of God. People are not just straight or gay, or male or female."
Her presence at the college, however, once again ignited the controversial same-sex marriage issue that Baptists — black and white — have been wrestling with across the country for years. Last year, Kentucky Baptists chose to sever ties with a Louisville church that is open to performing same-sex marriages. Flunder's visit also raised discussion about whether the gay rights movement is a civil rights movement, an idea many black ministers and leaders oppose.
Pastor Dwight McKissic, who helped organize an unsuccessful effort to disinvite Flunder, said to include same-gender sexuality in the discussion of social justice represents "intellectual dishonesty."
"To equate social justice with how two people prefer to perform a sex act is insanity," said the Southern Baptist minister. "There is no relationship between social justice and how people choose to behave sexually."
But some of the legendary civil rights leaders once affiliated with American Baptist College say otherwise.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights icon who was once an American Baptist College student, agrees.
"There's always a problem when you try to put down any group of people," said Vivian, a close friend and lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"God loves people. Are gay people human? If they are, then they are to be loved. It's just that simple."