- Theological Education
An online resource seeks to open up discussion on what is sometimes viewed as a taboo subject in African American congregations.
The Rev. Martha Simmons had an inkling she might create a buzz when she started a series of online dialogues on sexuality and the black church.
But she never anticipated the intensity of the reaction she received.
“Folk can’t stop talking about it,” says Simmons, creator and online director of The African American Lectionary and president of The African American Pulpit, Inc., a quarterly journal.
At clergy meetings, through email and in person, Simmons has been deluged with feedback, some positive, some negative.
“What did you mean by it?”
“What do you believe personally?”
“It’s about time,” and “This is ridiculous.”
The 13 articles on the topic posted on the lectionary website first went up in 2011 with a piece by Rice University Religious Studies Professor Anthony Pinn titled Working to Connect Religion, Black Bodies, and Sexuality: What Black Churches Should Know. That was followed with articles on ways pastors can talk about homosexuality, engaging gay teens, preaching on homosexuality, the so-called “down-low” phenomenon and whether black churches are ready for gay clergy.
“I felt we needed to find a way to talk about black sexuality,” says Simmons. “So I said, ‘Let me find five or six topics and have pastors and scholars of all age groups discussing them.’”
Views on homosexuality are changing. A growing number of mostly white mainline Protestant denominations have moved to eliminate barriers to leadership for gays, lesbians, and bisexual and transgendered people.
But among evangelicals, including most African-American churches, there has been little movement. The majority of black churches consider homosexuality a sin.
For most black pastors and lay people, sex between two men remains, as the author of Leviticus states, an abomination.
Simmons and some of her contributors think those attitudes can be dangerous when they result in bullying or discrimination of gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Nor do those attitudes reflect the growing body of alternative theological discourse on the subject.
“One of the things we have to do is decrease the harm that black churches can do,” says Pinn, the Rice professor. “You decrease the harm by making sure those in authority have good information.”
That, in part, is what the 5-year-old African American Lectionary is all about. The website provides biblical commentary, cultural resources and worship ideas for 60 liturgical moments celebrated by African American, mostly Protestant congregations. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the lectionary is sponsored by The African American Pulpit Inc. and the American Baptist College in Nashville.
Josef Sorett, assistant professor of religion and African American studies at Columbia University, says it’s important to recognize that black churches are not monolithic. While it’s true that many strongly oppose homosexuality, others are responding to the topic in different ways, he says.
Some, for example, maintain a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” attitude, recognizing that opinions vary. Other pastors have begun arguing that African Americans can support civil rights protections for gays even if they don’t support church recognition for homosexuals.
Still others, a select minority, have open and affirming policies towards gays and lesbians.
Sorett likened the topic to the1960s battles against segregation.
“There’s more of a similarity to the civil rights movement than folks want to admit,” Sorett says. “[The Rev. Martin Luther] King never represented the majority of black clergy or American clergy. Very rarely has the progressive position been taken by a majority.”
The online discussion includes a handful of more traditional articles arguing homosexuality is sinful, too.
“Everybody’s voice was heard, which is what I intended to do,” Simmons says.
Response to the articles can be divided into three categories, she says: those who welcomed the discussion, those who didn’t and “the fence-sitters” — those who won’t say what they believe.
That last category represented the largest group, but even that is an achievement, she says.
“I believe knowledge and dialogue always make the difference,” she says. “The more people talk about it, the more they’re willing to consider other points of view.”
Additional commentary and resources on this topic from Insights into Religion affiliates include theological and sociological reflections on homosexuality and the book Gay Religion from Hartford Institute for Religion Research; a collection of videos at ‘To Be Gay and Called’ from The Odyssey Network; and Gay Rights and Religious Rites from Religion Newswriters Association's Religionlink.
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