Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls

Talking About Liberating LGB/T People Through Theology

(Note: Dear Reader, Bishop Rawls wants to begin acknowledging that Trans people have needs and concerns that go beyond sexual orientation, and that they are therefore part of and connected to the Queer community, but also deserving of additional resources and attention. I suggested “LGB/T” to her as a shorthand for this concept, and she embraced it enthusiastically.)

In Charlotte, Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls created the Freedom Center for Social Justice (FCSJ) 10 years ago to be a “culture-shifting organization committed to the growth, safety, and empowerment of marginalized populations.” The FCSJ occupies a suite of sunny offices and meeting spaces that are brightly decorated in the organization’s bold orange. It’s a fitting brand identity for a group of bold people who take bold action.

Near the very beginning of our conversation, Bishop Rawls came directly to the point. “We offer unapologetic counter-narratives specifically about faith and how it affects LGB/T people. In the last few election cycles, faith issues have specifically included LGB/T issues that were game changing. We are looking to push back against those who block theological freedom concepts.”

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This is particularly important here in North Carolina, where HB2 was born as a transphobic response to Charlotte’s initial attempts toward inclusive reforms. At particular issue was the question of which bathroom a Trans person should use, and it sparked a global conversation about gender, identity, privacy, and safety. Opponents often used religious arguments to bolster their positions.

FCSJ is poised for impressive growth going forward. My very first question (because I was so impressed with the scale of what I was seeing) was “How do you pay for all this??” Frankly, I wasn’t expecting this to be the impressive machine I was witnessing. I’d intended to lead with, “Is your work specifically Christian, or is it a broader faith community?” But honestly, that could wait. This was an exciting surprise: A thriving LGB/T non-profit bursting out of its own office? How was that happening?

Bishop Rawls explained that, “We are vested heavily in shifting cultures by finding the intersection of communities of faith, nonprofits, and activism. Think about funding: Often, these are not organizations led by women or people of color. We are mostly funded with grants. Beyond that, we have amazing, unexpected partnerships.” Some of these alliances include the NAACP (Bishop Rawls fills the LGB/T position on the executive board) and the North Carolina Council of Churches. The latter of these will be helping FCSJ with a local event aimed at considering church practices and how they affect people, politics and policies.

But to answer my other question, “We are primarily Christian focused. This is intentional, because of the source of the attacks we’ve faced. It’s due to LGB/T equality being attacked by scripture. Our work is broad (we are interdenominational and interfaith), but we have intentionally focused on the Bible. It’s especially important now when Trans lives, abortion rights, the LGB/T presence in congregations and the need to lift up these communities from a position of faith has to be done within a Christian context.”

With that in mind, Bishop Rawls observed that many strides have been made in terms of the visibility, representation, and agency LGB/T people have achieved in the last 10 years, especially within the context of theology. There aren’t so many pastors lambasting LGB/T folks as abominations, and many congregations have recently become affirming and welcoming. However, everything is cyclical, so it is hard to dismiss any gain as a given.

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To illustrate this point, Bishop Rawls observed that, “The reduction in these attacks comes back to white supremacy, and the role it plays in maintaining an enemy. You have to have an ‘Other,’ in order for that power structure to remain. You need at least one specific group to be at the bottom for white supremacy to exist. Currently, the focus has shifted some from LGB/T people toward immigrants (‘I may be gay, but at least I got my papers!’).

“Don’t be myopic about being gay. Empire building and its maintenance support the system we have. Women being paid less is another example. Or giving blacks a lower pay rate (‘You should be happy you even have a job!’). Unscrupulous employers can work immigrants like dogs for pennies on the dollar to get what they need to help support that oppressive system. LGB folks marginalize the T, and this internalized homophobia also supports the system.

“All of this is an effective political system that keeps people in their places. Look through one lens, and you’ll see what all marginalized people have in common. Follow the money, follow the margin, and you’ll find the maintenance of white supremacy and power. It has become obvious, especially when you look at the reaction to the browning of America.”

So then, with all these challenges, victories, distractions, and machinations interwoven like a rope around our wrists, which theological concept is the most liberating? What’s the one scripture Bishop Rawls feels empowers marginalized people best? “That would be John 3:16. Think about it: ‘If I give you My child, there’s nothing else that can be greater.’ Jesus said, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

“There are no stepchildren,” Bishop Rawls said. “I’ve never seen freedom more beautifully presented than when it is presented by someone who never thought it was possible.”

Visit fcsj.org for more information.

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