Black, gay and Christian: the importance of the church in LGBT communities of color
Q-Notes looks at three congregations across N.C.
by Donald Miller
Unity Fellowship’s Rev. Elder Tonia Rawls.
Oftentimes religious devotion and commitment to human equality across the board are not concepts that easily walk hand in hand — thus many gays and lesbians find themselves turning away from Christianity.
There are others in the LGBT community, however, that have reconciled their sexual orientation with their faith. Some denominations of Christianity, including The United Church of Christ, The Metropolitan Community Church, Unity Fellowship and many other independent churches that identify as a variety of denominations, ranging from Methodist and Presbyterian to Lutheran and even Baptist openly accept — even embrace — gays and lesbians as members and clergy.
Nowhere is that spirit of belief and support more evident than in the churches that serve predominantly LGBT communities of color.
For many, if not most of the African-American LGBT community, the ties to the church today are as strong as they were for the generations that came before them.
“It’s a concept that goes back to the days of slavery,” says Rev. Wanda Floyd, the pastor of Imani MCC in Durham. “God is all we ever had, so I think it’s sort of ingrained in our blood. The history of being spiritual beings have seen us though so much — slavery, oppression, the fight for civil rights. The church has always been a backbone to the African-American community. I think it would be too difficult to turn away from something you had spent your lifetime in, just because some people in the faith don’t share the belief that God creates us as we are.”
Spiritual merriment at Unity Fellowship.
Rev. Roger Hayes, the pastor of Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship in Winstson-Salem, concurs with Floyd’s assessment.
“Our need and quest for solace and peace initially came about in the midst of lots of oppression. Blacks turned to the church for hope at a time when there was none. The message is there in the African-American hymns, the Negro spiritual — if you will — centered around a future of hope in gospel songs like ‘This World Is Not My Home.’ That root runs very deep in our community. The root of faith is not a shallow root — so it’s something that’s very hard to let go of.”
“I think for us, church is community,” says Rev. Elder Tonyia Rawls of the Unity Fellowship Church in Charlotte. “For many people of African descent — that’s where they gained their core of strength.”
Rev. Roger Hayes, the pastor of Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship.
Rawls moved to Charlotte from Washington, D.C. in 2000 to found Unity Fellowship, which today boasts a membership around 260.
She’s acutely aware of the challenges gays and lesbians often face when coming to terms with their sexual orientation while attempting to maintain the spiritual life they’ve grown accustomed to.
For a time Rawls lived in California, where she attended church while living life deep in the closet. “At that time I lead an abstinent life,” says Rawls. “I felt I couldn’t be a same gender loving woman and serve God. What made me change my mind was I almost got married to an elder in the church. This man came to me and said he felt that I was supposed to be his wife, so at first I thought this was something I was supposed to do — but I knew I was not straight! I went to God very angry — I said ‘you don’t love me how could you do this to me?’ God spoke to me and told me that he did, in fact, love me as I am. So I called off the wedding and moved to D.C. I began a journey — seeking God in prayer and I realized God didn’t make a mistake. Shortly thereafter I found Unity and for the first time I heard gay and good — at the same time.
A praise ensemble performance at Holy Spirit.
Unity is predominantly African-American and LGBT, with an ever growing number of heterosexuals and non-blacks.
The church is very active in both the LGBT community and the greater Charlotte community at large with performances by the Unity Fellowship Choir and a Drum Corp for youth ages 4-18.
Rawls is exuberant about the level of involvement from church-goers. “We ask them to tithe — but we also ask them to offer their time and talent. People are writing, dancing, singing and miming. We’ve been in the MLK parade for five years. There’s a lot of talent here.”
Winston-Salem’s The Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship shares a space with St. Jude’s Community Church.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for both ministries,” says Hayes. “St. Jude’s is a predominantly Caucasian congregation. It allows us to unzip that proverbial veil of segregation that exists in the church and really get to know each other.”
The Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship’s congregation numbers around 65.
Hayes has been there for five and half years.
“Prior to that I was a member of a Baptist Church,” he recalls. “I was licensed and ordained in a traditional church in 1995.”
Imani MCC’s Rev. Wanda Floyd
Like Rawls, Hayes eventually came to a crossroad.
“I no longer fit into the traditional church because I had reconciled my sexuality within the church,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was an associate minister. The pastor called me in and asked me if I was in a relationship with another man. I could have lied, but it was my moment. In that moment I said ‘yes — it’s true.’ The bottom line was I was not willing to live a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ kind of life. I think we in the black church do a lot of that. As long as we don’t say, ‘I’m gay’ everything goes on as usual.
“That bothers me. I see so many of my brothers and sisters in bondage. In an affirming ministry — it’s a safe place. For those who are searching and trying to figure it out and the parents who are trying to understand. Affirming ministries are all about reclaiming the church and making it a safe place for everyone.”
While Hayes’ affirming message may be something new — many elements of his style of worship differ little from a black church of the mid-20th century.
“We sing those old songs we sang in Grandma’s church,” Hayes chuckles happily. “I love the new stuff — that’s fine and dandy — but I believe we must reclaim that church of our youth.”
Hayes’ congregation is a mixture of society — a point that brings him imminent pleasure.
“I truly do believe we have what I call heaven families — husbands, wives and children, straight, gay, black and white. It’s wonderful.”
Of the people that come to Holy Spirit Hayes says this: “People today want to find truth and something real. They want to find love. They may come in broken, but they leave healed.”
Floyd presides over Imani MCC in Durham where she has a congregation that also numbers around 65. Like Holy Spirit, they rent space from another church.
Floyd also has her own coming to terms story to tell — she grew up Southern Baptist. “I spent 17 years in the church,” she recalls. “But I didn’t come out until I was in college when I kissed a girl.” She was later kicked out of a church when other members confronted her about her sexual orientation. The experience was so devastating that Floyd walked away and didn’t attend church for five years.
Services at Imani MCC.
Eventually, she says, God called her back.
Prior to founding Imani in 1997 Floyd was an associate pastor at St. John’s MCC in Raleigh for four years.
The two churches have always maintained friendly relationships and Floyd is the first to confirm there was never anything negative about her decision to leave St. Jude’s.
“I was going through a deferment process — a time of prayer. I just felt it was time to found a church for Durham.”
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Imani — Floyd points out — is the affiliation with MCC and the makeup of the church’s congregation.
“In the MCC denomination we are one of the few that are predominantly African-American and female. Our leadership is mainly female. We do have some men and a lot of families who come — so it’s not exclusive — but it is mostly women.”
info: Unity Fellowship Church
2127 Eastway Dr., Charlotte, N.C.
The Church of the Holy Spirit Fellowship
2873 Robin Hood Rd., Winston-Salem, N.C.
1419 Broad St., Durham N.C.