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Reconciliation: A Black South End Church Is Among The Few Starting to Welcome Gays and Lesbians Into Their Congregations.

By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff, 1/30/2002

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 1/30/2002."
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

It happens every week. During his Sunday sermon at the Union United Methodist Church, the Rev. Martin McLee invites casual visitors to walk to the chancel if they would like to become members of the church. On a recent Sunday, that exhortation was met with an awkward lack of movement. Then Shamalie Graham stirred and gently nudged her partner, Pamela Johnson, into the aisle.

For months, Johnson had occasionally visited the South End church, which two years ago emerged as the first black church in Boston to become what the denomination calls ''reconciling'' by welcoming ''the full participation of all black lesbians and gay men, and all other homosexual persons who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.'' Johnson had always hesitated about becoming a tithe-paying member, aware that United Methodists regard homosexual sex as a sin, forbid gay and lesbian marriage, and don't ordain homosexuals.

On this snowy morning, Johnson overcame her trepidation. Propelling her toward the chancel was grief over the news she'd received by telephone earlier that morning: Her grandmother had died. For the last hour she had basked in the warm words of McLee, who spoke of Johnson's loss during the service and encouraged the congregation to ''surround this wonderful sister with your steadfast love.'' Johnson reached the front of the church, turned her tear-stained face toward the crowd as Union's newest church member, and proudly stated, ''I'm a lesbian, and I love the Lord.''

An increasing number of black gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people who previously sought spiritual refuge in predominantly white denominations or alternative religions are demanding to be more than silent presences in churches that reflect their heritage. Those involved in the struggle call the issue ''explosive'' and ''dangerous.'' After all, much of the black church and some of its followers have branded homosexuality an ''abomination'' and a threat to the black family - often using the Bible to reinforce their positions. Last year the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., spoke out from the pulpit, calling homosexuality sinful.

''This issue has caused as much of a firestorm as race and women's ordination,'' says Kelly Brown Douglas, author of ''Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective'' and religion professor at Goucher College in Baltimore. ''Once again, we're being called to look into the real meaning of our faith. We're being challenged, and all too often the church fails the test.''

A small number of black pastors are now perusing their Bibles and deciding that the Good Book doesn't prohibit the acceptance of alternative lifestyles. In addition to Union, historically black houses of worship such as Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., are now beckoning gays and lesbians into their pews. Programs such as the annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality in Washington educate pastors about homosexuality at a grass-roots level. ''We recognize that there's a great resistance in the church because of ignorance and what they've been taught,'' says Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, organizer of the Black Religious Summit. ''But we see ministers, younger ones especially, dealing with this issue in a very honest and straightforward way. So I think that the perception of the black church is changing as it relates to homosexuality.''

Of course, homophobia isn't unique to the black church. Many white Baptist, Catholic, and fundamentalist Christian churches scathingly condemn gays and lesbians. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 43 percent of Americans still think homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. In the black church, the subject remains a dirty-laundry topic that people don't want aired. It's so sensitive that those working for acceptance speak carefully, reluctant to erase progress by joining what McLee calls the ''beat down the black church bandwagon.'' Many black pastors in Boston didn't return calls about the subject.

The black church's disapproval of homosexuality is a vestige of its discomfort with sexuality, Douglas writes in her book: ''Because white culture racialized sex and `sexuated' race by equating blackness with sexual deviance, the black community has been diligent in its efforts to sever the link between such deviance and blackness.'' Silence, or a search Johnson grew up in the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church in the South End, where she performed in plays as baby Jesus three times and was treated with respect as the granddaughter of an elder church member. When it came to her sexuality, however, she remembers ''an overriding sense of needing to stay silent,'' she says. ''I've never heard any active speaking out against homosexuality. It was simply ignored, and it wasn't included in those unions sanctified by God.''

Church is also in the blood of Douglas Brooks, who four months ago invited Johnson to Union and stood by her side as she became a member. His parents were leaders of the African Methodist church he attended in Macon, Ga. Reflecting on the experience now, Brooks says the church ''wounded'' him by forcing him to keep silent about his sexual preferences.

''That's the source of pain,'' says Brooks, 39, a Jamaica Plain resident who joined Union in 1998. ''The very place where one should have been able to go to receive the solace and the consolation from the worldly pains was not available. I couldn't go to my pastor and say, `This is what people say about me,' for fear he might say, `Well, they're right, and on top of that you're going to hell.'''

That's what Darnell McCarter, 51, heard after she refused to hide her sexuality from the pastor of her Methodist church in New York City. She remembers being told, ''`You need to change your sexuality. You're wrong. You're going to hell.' It was like I was committing a Godly sin.''

The pressure to stay silent turns some black gays and lesbians into spiritual wanderers in search of a religion that accepts their sexuality. Johnson meditated and joined a lesbian circle honoring Shiva and Oshun. While living in Provincetown, Brooks attended a Unitarian Universalist church where, he says, ''there was some room for my Christianity, but not a lot. It just wouldn't have been acceptable to have a sermon on Jesus more than once every two to three months.''

The conundrum this group faces, says Johnson, is that ''you sometimes have to choose to worship in community groups that don't necessarily reflect you in order to feel good about coming to worship on Sunday. You sometimes need to make a choice between your racial identity and your sexual identity.''

That becomes tiring, says McLee. ''The whole notion of making up your own faith is kind of wearing away because that doesn't have any lasting strength. Folks want to have a connection with God in a communal way that has some tradition, and what better way to do that than in a denominational church setting?''

Union began offering that environment two years ago, when the congregation unanimously voted to become reconciling. The move had been spearheaded by one of the church's oldest members, Hilda Evans, 76, who had watched as the South End welcomed a growing number of gay residents. Her question - ''What is the church's stance on homosexuality?'' spawned a committee whose members for two years perused the Bible and read reports to educate themselves on the subject.

Another question on Evans's mind was ''What would Christ say about this if he were in church today? Would Christ turn them away?''

Since the committee answered the latter inquiry with a resounding ''No,'' other local black pastors have approached McLee about the issue ''off the record in a very clandestine way,'' he says, chuckling. ''Our Baptist brothers, they're not trying to have that dialogue. It's too hot an issue for a lot of pastors to deal with openly, but there are several pastors who feel a compassion for folk who can't find life in the church.''

A church in transition

Union doesn't keep records of members' sexual orientation, but based on anecdotal evidence, McLee says ''there's been a huge, marked increase'' in gay and lesbian membership since the church became reconciling. New members are not only black. Michael Hight, 37, of Somerville, took the membership walk along with Johnson just a few weeks after his partner, David Rudewick, became a member. Says a beaming Rudewick of the congregation, ''They don't see me as sex. They see me as a beautiful person.''

Since joining the church, gay and lesbian Union members aren't sitting around singing ''Kumbaya.'' There's still work to be done, they say, concerning the denomination's stance on homosexual sex, unions, and ordination. Bill Bows, who joined Union in July specifically because it is reconciling, says of the United Methodist position, ''It makes me feel sad, but then I just focus on my spirituality and I try to keep in mind how I could possibly be hurting anyone by my feelings.''

However, McLee, who was thoughtful enough to purchase a book of short stories by lesbian writers for Johnson days after she became a member, defends the denomination's stance.

''There are people who would love to make us an example of what a church should be: marrying gay folk, having gay clergy,'' he says. ''That's the Church of Christ. That's the Unitarian church. That's not who we are.''

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