In the season of slavery, historians defined the Black church as the “invisible institution.” The name was given because Blacks assembled to worship under a shroud of secrecy because such gatherings were outlawed by those who had the mind to know if a slave had a filled spirit, it would be a matter of time before he/she came into a sense of self. To clear their conscience of reducing African Americans to three-fifths of a human being, our enslavers had to claim we didn’t have a soul. But, the unquenchable passion of our fore parents to feel close to God sparked an innovative flame that produced sanctuaries in swamps, chapels in cotton fields and temples under trees far beyond earshot of their oppressors.
In the 21st century, in spite of African-American churches now having seating capacities that rival stadiums, television air time in as much rotation as “Law and Order” reruns, campuses bigger than historically Black colleges and pastors having more impact than local politicians, it’s a complete mystery (with all that visibility) why we are an invisible institution…AGAIN. The Black church has, by and large, become an invisible institution with acute laryngitis in the conversation regarding gay rights, same-sex marriages/unions, and the HIV crisis that has engulfed our communities. While we seem to vote on the liberal side of the political aisle, the Black church would make the tea party blush with our overt conservatism around sexuality. The elephant in the room is making us look like “Cirque du Soleil” as we juggle around our discomfort, which fosters an environment for “down low” behavior from the choir loft, the deacon board and even from the pulpit. Homosexuals have always been a part of our ministries.
The Black church can no longer afford to be invisible on these issues when same-sex unions and/or marriage, in a growing number of states, quite possibly will not just be administered at the courthouse, and when it’s our members who are seeking the applications. We can’t afford to be invisible when R&B artist Nikki Minaj encourages our teenage daughters to explore the benefits of being bisexual, when “don’t ask don’t tell” has just been told to be quiet or when HIV has become the millennium’s bubonic plague.
Self-identified gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people are here. They are not just the stereotypical hairstylists, choir directors and somebody else’s children. They are our children! If we claim that Jesus died for everyone, are they not included in that number?….YES, they are!
Now, as a third-generation preacher of the nation’s oldest Black denomination the African Methodist Episcopal Church and former national youth director of the NAACP, I have both the Black church and civil rights tradition coursing through my veins. And, as such, I have a bone of contention with the gay community: Their false correlation between the gay rights struggle and the civil rights movement. Since the church has become invisible, no one seems to see this is historically and philosophically out of order and context. While homosexuals have been persecuted, they’ve never had to ride on the back of the bus, drink from separate water fountains, receive subpar education, be sold like animals or hung for looking somebody in the eye. Furthermore, African Americans aren’t granted the option of coming out of the closet; when we come out the door the march towards social justice begins.
Still, we can’t remain invisible on this issue. While our doctrine, theology and faith preclude us from embracing these unions/marriages, they don’t bar us from loving the individual. With our perplexed and painful history, one would think we would operate at a greater level of compassion, but in large measure we have become the new oppressors. When Jesus healed in the New Testament, it was because he was moved with compassion. In order for us to heal the divide, we must move with compassion!
Compassion is not the same as affirming. Fundamentally, we disagree whether acts within the LGBT lifestyles constitute sin or whether lifestyles are a choice, etc., but we can’t disagree with the value of somebody’s life. If we preach homophobia we have stopped preaching hope for compassion! Resolutely across denominational lines we have to agree that Jesus loves sinners but died to do away with sin. So, regardless of the fact that we believe acts within these lifestyles involve sin, the church must love as Jesus loved!?
As a mega pastor that had a major moral failure that led to divorce, I know what grace looks like, and I’m sure it’s available. The 8,000 persons that come to my church weekly, the 4,000 that view online and the 40,000 who follow me on social networking hate what I did but, through grace, love who I am. They love me because of their compassion. Hypocrisy would be for me or any other pastor or church to deny others compassion because we believe they sin. After all, I thought that was what the church was—a place to help people find the love of God!
Let the Church say, “Amen….”
The Rev. Jamal Bryant is pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple and a nationally respected preacher and youth leader.