Pentecostal pastors preach “revolutionary” message of unconditional love
It is often said that good writers write what they know, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s church.
I’ve mentioned my religious upbringing in this column before, that I was raised by a Pentecostal minister and a mother who was not only my grade school’s librarian but also my Sunday School teacher. My childhood identity consisted of school, family and religion, and like many black gay youth, the hate-filled intolerance of homosexuality within the black church fueled much of my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality.
The term The Black Church typically refers to traditional Baptist, Pentecostal and A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) denominations, or any derivative thereof (Apostolic, Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, etc.). Most have direct roots in slavery, when African-Americans would conduct their own services in the slave quarters of plantations, filled with much of the hand-clapping, Holy Ghost-filled hands-laying and foot-stomping worship we see in predominantly black churches today. Sunday was the only day of the week slaves felt free from the persecution of their masters. Church was a celebration.
That spirit of celebration still carries on today, but it has since been paired with a fire-and-brimstone message that cast God as an angry zealot always poised to strike down those who defy him. It often ignores the Bible’s messages of God’s unconditional love for all people. And much of this hateful rhetoric has become targeted toward the LGBT community. When President Obama came out in support of marriage equality, African-American religious leaders nationwide openly opposed his views, saying he’d turned his back on The Black Church.
When you’re a preacher’s kid and you’re gay, growing up hearing this message every week isn’t easy. Because of this constant need for my pastor to reiterate that being gay was an abomination that sent you straight to hell, I felt dirty and evil for much of my life.
Thousands of LGBT African-Americans stay hidden in church for fear of rejection. You know what I mean. It’s the choir director who winks at the deacon whose hand lingers when he pats the back of the pastor’s right-hand Armor Bearer who leads a new handsome congregant to the back office for another pre-membership “counseling” session.
Check into any black gay man’s dating record and you’ll find at least one closeted church queen among the mix.
“We can’t even get to the conversation of homosexuality because we haven’t even had the sexuality conversation,” said Bishop O.C. Allen, the openly gay senior pastor of The Vision Church of Atlanta and presiding bishop of the United Progressive Pentecostal Church Fellowship.
Allen was referring to an age-old practice of many African-American churchgoers to sweep certain issues under the rug. “Give it over to God, he’ll take care of all your needs” is a familiar sentiment.
Since opening its doors in 2004, Allen and his 3,500-member Vision Church have become the poster ministry for the possibilities of progressive Pentecostalism and progressive Christianity within the black community.
“The pushback has been profound, especially in the beginning,” Allen said. “But I don’t think black people are more homophobic than any other group of people.”
It’s an interesting conjecture given the social climate, but he goes on to explain: “It is a sociological reality that oppressed groups are typically conservative. … But it’s also about perception. Gay was considered ‘white’ or something outside the scope of the black community. Black people are wrestling with the reality of coming to terms with our own truths. And there are so many disparities against our community. … But I think all of these conversations play a role. There’s not just one reason. And all of these conversations converge on Sunday morning.”
The rise of the open and affirming movement has created a place where LGBT people of faith can finally worship without persecution, but for a long time it was reserved for more progressive denominations like the United Methodist Church. With ministries like The Vision Church that’s not the case anymore.
“Gay and Pentecostal have traditionally been an oxymoron. But when you really think about it, (being open and affirming) is the foundation of Christianity. If you read the Bible, if you read the Christian story, it is about freeing oppressed people. It’s liberation theology at its core.”
And now this progressive Pentecostal movement has even made its way to Central Ohio.
Last year Michael Heard returned to Ohio from Atlanta a changed man. Ten months earlier, he abruptly left Columbus during his tenure as head of Destined for Greatness, a ministry he started but wasn’t ready to lead.
“We were accepting but not affirming,” Heard said. “I wasn’t out. I had a lot of work to do on myself before I’d be able to lead anyone.”
So he left. The lies of trying to hide who he was, a bisexual Pentecostal preacher, had reached a boiling point. When he left, he planned to never return, but during his escape to Atlanta he discovered The Vision Church. It was something Heard had never thought possible. Joining Bishop Allen’s ministry became a choice that changed his life.
Heard brought Allen’s “radical” theology back with him late last year and began laying the groundwork for The Goodlife Church of Columbus.
“All I needed was to see that it was possible,” Heard said. “I just needed to see that pastoring authentically was possible. I would sit in the back of The Vision Church and cry every Sunday. I needed to heal and change all the bad things in my life.”
The Goodlife Church opened its doors in January and has become a revolutionary place of healing for those rejected early on for being who they are. It has grown from three members to nearly 200. It’s operating out of Summit United Methodist Church at 82 E 16th Ave in the University District, with services every Sunday at 1:30p and Friday at 7p.
“I want Goodlife to become not just a place for the LGBT community, but for everyone who wants an authentic place to worship,” Heard said. “Without truth and authenticity there can be no growth.”
When I finally came out to my church as a kid, the hateful response was so strong that I left and rejected my faith altogether. I always associated the bigotry of the church’s members with God and religion in general. So I wanted no part of it. It took me a long time to accept that God loved me because I was gay, not in spite of it.
Truthfully, I enjoyed going to church as a kid. I enjoyed the singing, the worship service and the strong emotional ties between people in the church community. For years, I felt that had been unfairly taken from me because of something I couldn’t control. I thought I’d never be able to get it back.
But now, because of ministries like The Vision Church and The Goodlife Church, that doesn’t have to be my story anymore.
For more information on The Vision Church of Atlanta or the United Progressive Pentecostal Church Fellowship, visit http://www.thevisionchruch.org. For more on The Goodlife Chruch of Columbus or The Goodlife Reality Show visit http://www.mygoodlifenow.org.
D.A. Steward writes The Other Side every month for Outlook. He also hosts Queer Minded, an online radio show that airs every Tuesday and Friday at 10p at talktainmentradio.com. You can find more on all his projects at http://www.dwaynesteward.com.
~from Outlook Columbus