Black Church Summit Takes Stand Against Anti-Gay Discrimination
Revolution #33, February 5, 2006, posted at revcom.us
A landmark summit of Black clergy took place in Atlanta on January 20-21 to strategize about fighting against anti-gay discrimination in African American churches. More than 200 ministers and gay rights activists took part in this first Black Church Summit, which was called by the National Black Justice Coalition. The summit was held at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, and keynote speeches were given by Rev. Al Sharpton and Bishop Yvette Flunder of the City of Refugees Church in San Francisco.
There is a deep rift within the Black churches and clergy over the questions of homosexuality and gay marriage, part of the sharp polarization within American society overall. And this was reflected in the experiences and backgrounds of many participants in the summit who are taking a principled and very positive stand in the face of intense opposition. Rev. Timothy McDonald, who heads First Iconium and hosted the summit, said that he received hateful phone calls and heard cries of opposition at Sunday services when the summit was announced and that many ministers who were invited refused to attend. McDonald himself used to denounce gays until a member of his congregation died of AIDS. Recalling the effect of that death, McDonald said, "This thing has changed my values. As a pastor, you don't choose your congregation. You have to be a pastor for everyone."
Another example of changing attitudes and principled stands among the participating clergy was Rev. Ken Samuel, pastor at the Victory for the World church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Samuel also used to condemn homosexuality from the pulpit, but he says that he changed his views as he recalled a childhood friend who committed suicide because he felt ostracized by his church for his homosexuality. When Samuel began to preach against anti-gay discrimination, he lost about half of the 5,000 members of his mega-church, but he stood his ground.
Samuel described his move away from a literal interpretation of the Bible: "There is a disconnect between religion and reality, and it contributed to the death of a young man. That set me on this path to try and figure it out. We have to find ways to incorporate it with the Bible, the same as was done with slavery. The Bible condones slavery. We have to interpret rather than exclude."
Rev. Al Sharpton made a very crucial point during the summit. Referring to the alliance between a section of the Black clergy and George W. Bush, he said, "They couldn't come to the black church and talk about war; they couldn't talk about health care, they couldn't come to the black church and talk about education. They started with gays, but they will end up with everybody else."
Progressive religious people have been struggling for years to change attitudes within the Black churches, but the stand taken at the summit by those who might be considered more "mainstream" is significant and positive. Rev. Deborah Elandus Lake, co-founder of the Chicago chapter of the Interfaith Alliance and executive director of Sankofa Way Spiritual Services, told Revolution: "While I was a seminary student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I had the honor of organizing a major community-wide discussion about homosexuality and Black churches. Even then, when we were relatively new at having this kind of dialogue, it became obvious that beliefs about sexuality, race, and gender served to complicate any movement toward progress."
On the other side of the divide are reactionary sections of the Black clergy that have close connections with and backing from powerful Christian fascist forces--and these forces have their man in the White House. In the midst of his 2004 re-election campaign, Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, claiming that such an amendment was needed to "protect marriage." This was not simply some mindless Bushism (as if same-sex marriage somehow threatened heterosexual marriage) but a calculated move to pander to and mobilize an audience--including among Black people--that views the world through the prism of Biblical literalism and sees gay marriage and homosexuality in general as an attack on their core values and institutions, with the traditional family at the center.
And there were significant forces within the Black clergy that did get mobilized by Bush's move to use the issue of gay marriage. As the SF Chronicle noted, "In San Francisco, a city known for its acceptance of gay and lesbian people, a coalition of African American pastors condemned same-sex marriage during the 2004 presidential election." In Atlanta, the pastor of a suburban mega-church led a march of 10,000 in support of Bush's proposed anti-gay marriage amendment; among the marchers was Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. (Meanwhile King's widow, Coretta Scott King, had taken a stand in support of the right to same-sex marriage.)
These developments have given rise to a sense of urgency among people like those at the Black Church Summit. The National Black Justice Coalition said that "The summit is a direct response to anti-marriage proponents pandering to the black church for their own agenda."
The sharp divides around gay marriage and homosexuality point to something very serious. Anti-gay prejudice is not in the interests of the masses of Black people. This can be seen concretely, for example, around the question of HIV/AIDS. As Sylvia Rhue of the National Black Justice Coalition points out, "HIV and AIDS is a major concern in the Black community, and churches can't deal with it if they can't deal with human sexuality."
Furthermore, the reactionary mobilization around the question of homosexuality and gay marriage (along with abortion) is a wedge used by the Bush regime to build up a fascist social movement and political machine within the Black community, and to organize people to act against their own fundamental interests. This is a Christian fascist movement whose agenda has real elements of genocide against Black and other oppressed people.
Along with the use of gay marriage as a wedge issue, Bush has been building up a base and political machinery of Black preachers through his "faith-based" government programs and the networks of the Republican Party. Overall, these "faith-based" initiatives and programs are increasingly the way that social services are supposedly being addressed. So money for government programs dealing with basic needs of the people--like education, health, job training, and so forth--are being slashed, while funds are being directed to churches. And through this the right-wing preachers get big financial grants-- and their main role is not to "provide services" but to spread ignorance and bigotry and help suppress resistance to the political power structure.
This reactionary machinery could be seen in operation in the marches in support of Bush's anti-gay marriage amendment. It was also in action around Hurricane Katrina, when Bush drew on some Black preachers to meet with him and even travel with him as "political bodyguards" at a time when he and his administration was was being exposed for their criminal neglect of the hurricane victims. These preachers also served Bush and his agenda by blaming the masses themselves for the hurricane.
These were truly acts of betrayal. As this paper has noted, these pro-Bush preachers are reminiscent of the Judenrat under the Nazis--Jews who were given special privileges and power under the Nazis and who convinced themselves that things would go better for everyone if they rounded up their fellow Jews instead of forcing the Nazis to do it. The Judenrat told people not to resist and snitched on those who did. (See article in Revolution #18, "'President Bush Doesn't Care About Black People...'--Damn Right! And That's Not the Half of It," online at revcom.us.)
Those at the Black Church Summit have stepped forward to take an important stand against anti-gay bigotry. The advance of the Christian fascist theocrats among the Black clergy and churches is extremely dangerous development--and more initiatives like the Black Church Summit are urgently needed and should be supported by all who want to see a decisive change in the course that this country is headed now.