A Black Church’s Dilemma

Obama’s support for marriage equality sparks conversation about gay rights in an unlikely place.

by JR Tungol

In the struggling North End neighborhood of Detroit, a community resource building, a family center and a chapel line a stretch of Woodward Avenue, each a part of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church. Unmistakable sounds of gospel music resonate from within, and on summer Sundays like this one in early July, open doors exchange cool breezes for spirited song.

One voice can be heard from any seat in the cathedral’s lines of pews. When the choir breaks, the Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church for 40 years, plants himself in front of a microphone on a glass and wooden podium five steps above the main floor. Holley, 68, wears a cream-colored suit appropriate for the heat of the summer and rimless glasses. His black hair is slicked back against mocha skin. He speaks authoritatively, his voice raspy and dignified. “Let the church say ‘Amen.’” Holley repeats this line throughout his sermon. “I said, let the church say ‘Amen.’”

The speakers surrounding the church nave carry Holley’s message to his predominantly African-American congregation. The church, a neo-gothic cathedral built in 1927 and home to the Little Rock congregation since 1979, is packed except for a few empty spots in the upper balconies. The people, some fanning themselves with folded church newsletters, sit and stand shoulder to shoulder. Parishioners listen to Holley intently, nodding their heads in contemplation or agreement, waving their hands in the air. A few comply with his request and yell back, “Amen.” Churchgoers revere the established pastor, a fervent supporter of President Barack Obama.

Yet Holley’s confidence in his president wavered back in May when Obama announced his support for marriage equality. The first black president, a man the reverend respects and endorses, broached a sensitive topic for a culture in which being gay carries shame and stigma. Holley found himself in a bind, as both a man of God and an Obama advocate.

“It caught me off guard,” Holley said. “My support for [Obama], I had to consider that.”

Not only was Holley’s faith in Obama tested, but members of the church were also put in a peculiar position: Who would they listen to? The pastor or the president?

THE “BLACK AND GAY” DILEMMA

Homophobia, whether intentional or not, is apparent in black culture. Kobe Bryant infamously made anti-gay slurs on the basketball court last April, while Chris Brown and other African-American musicians find their careers profit from prejudiced lyrics.

The Rev. William Owens, president and founder of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, reprimanded Obama for his stance on marriage equality at a press conference in July: “I am [ashamed] that the first black president chose this road, a disgraceful road.” Often the message sent to African-Americans is that homosexuality is abnormal.

But attitudes may be changing. For every Kobe Bryant, Chris Brown and William Owens, there’s a Jay-Z, Will Smith and Al Sharpton speaking in support of marriage equality. That’s not to mention the handful of black professional athletes, including retired basketball player Charles Barkley and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who’ve been advocates for marriage equality since 2006 and 2008, respectively. Shortly after Obama’s announcement, the board of the NAACP voted to endorse marriage equality, and in July, Frank Ocean became the first mainstream hip-hop artist to come out of the closet.

“[The support for Frank is] an extension of the overall kind of support we’re seeing across the country for LGBT people, and not just in a broad sense, but specifically from iconic members of the black community,” said Daryl Hannah, director of media and community partnerships for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

According to the 2010 Census, 83 percent of Detroit is black. When Obama ran for president in 2008, political pundits and analysts jumped to scrutinize the African-American vote. Would black voters come out in droves? How aggressively would Obama’s team engage those voters? What issues were most important to them?

Prominent pastors rallied their congregants to charge the polls. As records show, Obama won Michigan’s 17 electoral votes with a large margin of approximately 16.5 percent against John McCain in 2008.

At that time, voters focused on the economy. This fall, it’s no different. Despite the elevated attention Obama has brought to LGBT issues – ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” deeming the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and, of course, vocalizing his support for marriage equality in May – Americans still put economic concerns over social issues.

So when Obama asserted his support for marriage equality, inspiring Newsweek to nickname him “the first gay president,” Holley felt compelled to address the issue in his sermon.

“From my perspective, as a minister, a gay lifestyle is sinful and is just as bad as having an adulterous lifestyle or fornication,” Holley says. “All of it is sins. [Homosexuality] is at the same level.”

Obama’s announcement initially left Holley disappointed and conflicted about his support for the president. So after two weeks of rumination, he stood at the podium like he does every Sunday and spoke about marriage equality and homosexuality – topics rarely brought up at Little Rock.

“In my whole soul, I just want to make sure that I’m not judging them, and as a minister, I’m not trying to gay-bash or anything like that,” Holley says. “I’m not going to try to dictate how they [the parishioners] feel or how they should feel. But I’m obligated to what the word of God said, not the word of what Obama said or other social agencies.”

“I’m here to preach the word of God in the context of the scripture. That’s my calling and my mission,” he continues.

But Holley has had church members tell him they’re gay. He preaches to them as he would to any of his other followers. He just draws the line at marriage.

“Species of the same sex that cannot [reproduce] is not what God had in mind,” Holley says. “You’ve gone over the line. They’re rejecting it and saying, ‘I don’t want your gospel.’”

NEW THOUGHTS TAKE ROOT

After the choir sings out Sunday service, some church attendees stick around for food and small talk. People mingle in the hallways and on the sidewalks. Adult board members meet in the basement and families eat brunch together in the lower-level dining hall.

Tyrone Early, a chatty 21-year-old who’s been going to Little Rock all his life, stands at the top of the stairs leading to the basement. A thin teenage girl with high cheekbones, demure in comparison, accompanies Early. They talk about homosexuality and the prevalence of anti-gay remarks in their community. One friend of Early’s, a 32-year-old man, calls homosexuality an “abomination.”

Early’s thoughts don’t align with that friend’s; he has a gay cousin. He says black men are very homophobic. Early’s companion says nothing but nods her validation.

“If you’re a black man, you should be a man,” Early says. “If you see a man who’s feminine or gay, you’re not going by the book.”

Ryan Oliver, a 29-year-old Detroit native who also grew up Baptist, agrees. “Straight black men have a different masculinity compared with other men,” he says. “All black men in their development have this need to feel masculine as much as they can. It’s even in our religion. The teachings of the southern Baptist church say the man is the provider – the rock.”

Despite homophobic feelings in the black community, 59 percent of African-Americans in the U.S. support same-sex marriage, according to a May Washington Post-ABC News poll. In addition, Public Policy Polling found that month that 63 percent of Michigan Democrats now support marriage equality, up from 48 percent a year ago.

Little Rock members like the Williams family seem to validate those cultural mores and statistics. Down in the church cafeteria, Tracy Williams, 44, wears an apron and fixes up plates in the kitchen; her husband, Ulysses, as charismatic as his wife at 52, flits back and forth between the mess hall and the church board meeting across the hall. Both are Detroit natives raised Baptist; both attended Holley’s sermon discussing Obama’s comments on marriage equality and were glad the pastor spoke up about the issue. They have four kids.

As they eat fried chicken and coleslaw at a round dining table covered in white cloth, Tracy says, “I don’t think anyone should tell anyone who they should marry. People are people. God made us all.”

“Who died and made you the boss?” her husband chimes in.

RECONCILING POLITICS AND PIETY

Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh recognizes homophobic sentiments in the African-American community need to be addressed more thoroughly.

“I think there are many black men who feel that being gay is the ultimate insult,” Pugh says. “You can hear it when they talk. I think it’s getting smaller and smaller, but many folks in black circles don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Before his election in 2009, Pugh was widely known as a local Fox News affiliate anchor. He ran for office as an openly gay black man. In campaigning, he sought and gained the support of local Baptist pastors including that of his own, the Rev. Charles G. Adams of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, just seven miles northwest of Little Rock Baptist.

“We [African-Americans] are not that bigoted,” says Pugh, 41, who was born and raised in Detroit. “African-American pastors need to get over their own feelings and look at the benefits of a man who’s worked so hard for millions of Americans to have health care and created jobs in this horrible economy. I don’t believe African-Americans are going to be fooled by any pastor’s bigotry.”

During the race, Pugh’s campaign team stressed the importance of finding a home-base church in the area. Black constituents would frown on a candidate without a regular church, his team counseled. He settled on Hartford Memorial, which he’s been attending since 2008.

“If you have right-minded, influential people sparking conversation in settings with large amounts of African-Americans, we will begin to expose the idiotic nature of that notion [of homophobia],” Pugh says. “Whatever people’s personal feelings are about homosexuality and gay marriage should be set aside, and look at Barack Obama’s record and what he’s done for Detroit and the auto industry. It would be catastrophic to follow blindly what pastors are asking [parishioners] to do.”

“I think that religion has had a significant impact on the overall black community’s ability to accept and be open to the LGBTQ community. I think the message that’s been delivered has actually misled people,” says Ryan Oliver, who used to be the youth program manager at Affirmations, Detroit’s LGBT community resource center. After all, the parishioners and pastors of Little Rock and Hartford Memorial, the City Council President and his team, and black LGBT activists like Oliver seem to defy the stereotype that you can’t be both black and gay-friendly.

Despite signs of increasing support for marriage equality in Detroit, Pugh doesn’t want to downplay the nationwide controversy complicating the issue. “A lot of times this is used as a wedge issue,” he cautions. “The level of vitriol of this topic, particularly in the African-American community, I don’t want this to be one of the ending factors [for Obama].”

Back at Little Rock, Holley shares Pugh’s thoughts going into the upcoming presidential election. “I feel there are other things the president will do and has done that I disagree with, but to withdraw myself from this election just because of gay marriage?” he says. “There’s too much at stake.”

Marriage equality sits high on Holley’s list of concerns at stake in the upcoming election. The internal dialogue he had with himself after the president’s remarks, in the end, only caused him to question Obama’s motives – not his own. His beliefs about marriage equality remain the same.

“Always remember, I’m not going to be mad at nobody because you believe differently,” Holley says. “I love everybody. I’m not perfect. But the point is if [Obama] believes it, he’s got to answer to God for that. Just like how I got to answer to that.”

After the summer Sunday service, parishioners scatter across Little Rock’s property. Church staff members in suits wait right outside the building’s side doors to assist Holley to an SUV no more than 20 feet away. Though he usually sticks around to chat with congregants, the pastor isn’t feeling well today, says one of the workers.

Within seconds, Holley takes off and leaves behind a still-lively crowd, a group attuned to the scope and weight of the November election. Their beloved reverend believes one thing; their president believes another.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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