A House Divided
Reverend Benjamin L. Reynolds stands at the pulpit in a rhubarb-colored dress shirt, shaking his narrow hips from side to side, ready to get down and dirty.
"In the black church," he says, eyes wide, "we sit with the saved and the unsaved. We use our hips and our buttocks to give praise -- even if you don't have any, like me."
Laughter erupts from the pine pews, where approximately fifty African-American men and women flip through Bibles. They are here at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Colorado Springs for Thursday-night Bible study, when things are a bit more loose and easy than they are on Sunday mornings during Reynolds's traditional Baptist service, complete with gospel hymns and testimony.
In the fourth row, a young man with a minor afro points at a large screen next to Reynolds. "What's that say?" he asks.
"It says: 'The Dirt on Sex,'" Reynolds replies. "That's the topic of our class tonight."
"Well, all right," says a young woman, clapping her hands. "You came on the right night."
Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church is tiny compared to many churches in Colorado Springs, where tens of thousands commune in the evangelical super-churches and mega-churches scattered throughout the city; the largest congregation, the New Life Church, draws 11,000 souls a week. Most Sunday mornings, Emmanuel tops off at around 600. It's a tightly knit congregation, the kind where everyone knows everyone else, and people talk.
Reynolds has given them plenty to talk about since becoming the senior pastor thirteen years ago. After he took over the pulpit in 1992, he shook the conservative congregation by allowing women to wear pants, sit with the men in church and enter the ministry.
"They thought I was going to be a madman," he says, flashing a sly grin that betrays a touch of devilishness. "But these ladies who were coming straight from work to choir practice or Bible study were sneaking into the basement to change into dresses. It was silly. It was like, ŒGive me a break with this.'
"Some of the things I did, there was some resistance," he continues. "People weren't so happy to change the thing about women pastoring; that one is still controversial. And I don't glory in that. But I figured, in following after Jesus Christ, he was always in trouble, so why shouldn't I be?'"
Even though Emmanuel now has three female pastors, women wearing pants is still an issue, so Reynolds knew there would be some trouble with his latest mission: welcoming gays and lesbians to the flock.
Over the past year, Reynolds has made sexuality -- specifically, gay sexuality -- a cornerstone of his ministry. He feels Jesus Christ has called him to open the church to homosexuals as fully as it has been to the families who have known it as their spiritual home since its founding in 1963. God does not hate gays, Reynolds contends, and he's made it his mission to make sure no one in his church does, either.
"I don't know why, or how, because I never thought I would be doing this," he says. "But I believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit; if there's anything within me that is working, this is it."
In November, Reynolds launched "The Black Church and Sexuality," a biblically based series exploring the church members' relationship to their own sexuality and the struggles faced by gays within the black culture. It's the first time that homosexuality has been openly discussed at Emmanuel, and Reynolds treats the subject with the same seriousness as he would the Book of Job -- even if the approach is a little different. He kicked off the first Thursday-night session by blasting Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" through the church hall.
"That was the first time that song was played in this church," Reynolds recalls, laughing. "I was trying to get things loose, funky. Sex in the church is an outrageous thing. But we can't make this separation that sex is the ugly thing and spirit is the good thing; they're in the same body. Sometimes when someone is very deeply affected on a spiritual level, it can be very much likened to a heightened sexual experience.
"My goal is to bring sexuality into the black church and talk about it," he continues, "and figure out how we continue to talk about it. Good, bad and ugly, let's get it out."
During an early Bible-study session, Reynolds asked the congregants to respond to a questionnaire as if they were gay, and to then share their answers with other members of the group. Tonight, as Reynolds guides the class through a recap of what they've covered, a woman recalls that exercise as a personal challenge.
"I remember when we did that, and it was hard, wasn't it? Yes, it was," she says. "I felt like he asked us to be honest and talk about it, and we weren't really keeping it real."
"I think we have a hard time keeping it real on this particular subject," adds another man. "We all know that there's gays in our church, or we know someone whose daughter or son is gay or what have you, but we would still rather not bring it up."
The Bible-study group is a small sampling of the larger congregation at Emmanuel. There are young people in their twenties, older members in their eighties. In one pew, a young guy sports a hoodie and a new pair of Jordans; in another, a white-haired lady totes a black leather Bible so worn it bears her fingerprints. At times, the confluence of generations is abrupt, the generational differences as clear as the cross on the altar.
When Reynolds asks the class to come up with creative ways to talk about safe sex with young people, for example, a group of twenty-somethings suggest hosting a movie night and showing sexually overt films. An older man in spectacles scoffs.
"You don't need to be creative; just tell the truth," he says. "When I was coming up, we thought that the baby came out of a side pocket on the side of the woman's stomach, with a zipper. We figured it out soon enough."
At the end of the class, Reynolds again directs the group to a projection on the screen, to a list of goals he has for the Bible study. The last one urges "support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denominations."
"I see myself as someone who challenges sexual oppression," he says to the class. "I could use your support. But if you don't agree with me and you don't want to support me, say a prayer for me."
Reverend Reynolds has been a blast of modernity for Emmanuel, which has held holy in its current location just west of downtown Colorado Springs since 1971. Next to the Bible and a big black binder that contains notes for each Sunday's sermon, a laptop is the tool that Reynolds uses most. Emmanuel's ministry now extends well beyond the main church hall -- where purple and gold flags flank the choir rows and a huge gold cross crowns the altar -- and onto the Internet. Two years ago, Reynolds launched a Web ministry so congregants can log on to the Lord 24/7.
"If God be God," reads one of his online sermons, "then surely God knows what year this is.... He is not regulated by AT&T and He is not limited to some mainline.... Jesus is not only on the mainline but is on the digital T1 line and the DSL line and the dial-up modem lines. Jesus is in the satellites and in the fiber optic networks and in the digital networks."
"When I came here, I wanted to be part of a congregation that is progressive in every way," says the 43-year-old Reynolds. "But when I arrived, we had, like, two phone lines, a secretary, a custodian and an old-fashioned mimeograph copy machine. The fumes would be coming into your nose as you cranked it. That was it. There was no such thing as e-mail or anything like that."
Reynolds was living in Dallas, his father's home town, when he was called to pastor at Emmanuel in 1992. After earning a degree in communications from the University of Denver in 1989, he had moved to Dallas to take a job as a court reporter and lead a singles' ministry in a Baptist church. He wasn't sure at first that he wanted to leave Dallas, which was urban and exciting compared to small, isolated Colorado Springs, but leading his own congregation had always been a dream. And when you're called, you're called.
"I think I really knew all along I would be back here in my home church," he says. "It was a burden/blessing kind of a thing. But when I thought about it, I realized Dallas was even less progressive than the Springs in certain ways, and I felt there was a lot of potential for Colorado Springs."
Reynolds grew up in Emmanuel church. His family lived next door to its pastor, who mentored the young Benjamin and encouraged his early interest in churchly things. When Reynolds's two sisters and four brothers were playing sports, he was often inside preaching to his G.I. Joes. Reynolds got his first shot ministering to the Emmanuel congregation when he was eight years old. At fourteen, he was given his own office in the church basement.
"I always loved being in church," he says. "I loved the spiritual leaders. I remember one day taking a ride in the pastor's car, and I just felt so excited to be there. From a very young age, the work of the church was my passion."
In the Emmanuel basement, Reynolds would study and memorize stories from the Bible that he especially liked. He was particularly drawn to the tale about Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. Joseph was an outsider who found value in himself even when others criticized him for being different, and Reynolds could relate to that: He was small, effeminate and interested in books. Other kids called him Wimpy Benjamin, Sissy Benjamin.
"I was odd. I was the strange person. All of my brothers were very athletic. Some people thought I was a punk," he says. "And it stuck with me, them calling me those names. I remember when I went to college, I was criticizing other people, especially gay people. I realized what had been done to me, I was now doing to others. I don't know why, exactly, but I just stopped."
Today there is very little trace of Wimpy Benjamin in the powerful physical presence of Reverend Reynolds. Tall and thin, with a gleaming, shaved head, Reynolds favors finely cut pin-striped suits and shiny dress shirts. He's a polished, proud man of God. He speaks deliberately, penetratingly, when discussing the work of the church, carefully articulating every word as if it were gospel. But he's funny, too: On Sunday mornings, when Emmanuel fills with men in bow ties and ladies in large, feathery hats, he peppers his sermons with jokes that make the church boom even louder than the choir. From the pulpit, he's as likely to quote Chris Rock as he is Corinthians.
"The pastor is an entertainer in addition to a lot of other things," he says. "And I've always thought you should use pop culture, use music, use hip-hop, use whatever to help us figure out how to take what we do in here and take it out there in the world. Truth is truth, wherever it's found."
Reynolds spends much of his time on the phone in his big office, a mirror-laden room crammed with books, African art and his credentials from DU and from the Iliff School of Theology, where he completed seminary last August and will earn his master's in Divinity this spring.
"I am the spiritual guide for this church, but people need guidance on a lot of things," he says. "I've given people advice on buying a car. I go to court with people. I visit the sick. I give relationship advice. This phone never really stops ringing."
But Reynolds's relationship with his flock has been tested recently. His passion for gay equality has put Emmanuel in the uncomfortable position of embracing topics that it has long preferred to ignore. "What happens so oftentimes within the African-American community," he says, "is that those who are oppressed or have been oppressed, instead of reaching back, the attitude is, 'Now that we're in the power seat, don't help out. Don't reach back.' But I did not see how we could stand to be oppressive on this issue anymore."
After all, he tells them, when read a certain way, the Bible allows for all kinds of crimes against humanity, including slavery and the abuse of women and children. Slave owners interpreted Scripture to suggest that slavery was part of God's master plan, and that slaves should fear and serve their masters as if they were God. During the early days of the civil-rights movement, segregationists -- including many prominent members of the all-white Southern Baptist Convention -- quoted the New Testament to defend Jim Crow laws. When people use the Bible to bash gays -- usually, armed with a passage from Leviticus that refers to "man lying with mankind" as "an abomination" -- it's the same kind of bigotry at work, Reynolds says.
"Even I was not always sure, but now I am: Christ never addresses [homosexuality]. And it's not for me to decide if it's wrong," he says. "People look to Leviticus and say otherwise, but as I read and study these verses in their context, they have nothing to do with sexual orientation, but everything to do with abandoning God for other gods.
"The question is: How do we view Jesus?" he asks. "How do we apply the Bible to truly live in his image? He was the one who set the captives free. He unloosens the chains of those who are bound. Christ just says, 'Let us love each other.' That's what I'm trying to do."
Reynolds prefers John 3:16 as a blueprint for his concept of the all-inclusive, accepting "whosoever church": For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
The roots of the whosoever church and Reynolds's sexuality series began at Emmanuel in 1993, when Reynolds formed an AIDS ministry that offered HIV testing and counseling to the African-American community in Colorado Springs. He'd been moved by the lonely experience of a young woman at Emmanuel who'd contracted HIV and had been all but abandoned when she showed up at church, sick with full-blown AIDS.
"She needed love, compassion. She wanted people to be very much aware [of HIV], for us to do prevention, education and outreach," Reynolds says. "Most people were coming of age at that point, as far as awareness of HIV went. They didn't connect that she was ill in that way. They wanted to go run and wash their hands after they were around her."
Reynolds's work with the AIDS ministry wasn't enough to stop the disease from infiltrating his own family. In 2000, his brother, Bart, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. But at home, just like at Emmanuel, it wasn't talked about.
"After Bart told me that he was sick, there were three or four times that I drove over to my parents' house, ready to tell them, but instead I turned around and drove home," Reynolds says. When he finally broke the news, his father said, "If we had talked about his sexuality, we wouldn't be planning his funeral."
Bart had once been the minister of music at Emmanuel; he was well known, and loved, within the church. It wasn't until after his death, in 2002, that the congregation openly discussed the fact that he was gay. "It was kind of like, 'Now we have a male, whose sexuality is in question, with HIV.' That put a face on it," Reynolds says. "When he died, they were able to say, 'Well, he probably did die of AIDS. He lived free and he died free.' In hindsight, they were able to say, 'That was him.'"
Reynolds realized that the silence, and stigma, of sexuality had killed his brother and would kill other brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, too. Communication was the only remedy to the homophobia that lay beneath the silence, so he opened the discussion at Emmanuel. For now, the sexuality talk is confined to the Bible studies, though Reynolds plans to gradually fold some of its themes and topics into his Sunday sermons. By the end of the year, he hopes to have an articulated position on sexual equality worked into Emmanuel's covenant. But he knows that significant change could be a long time coming.
"I'm planting seeds right now," he says. "We don't want to go too fast, but we want to get somewhere. People are scared but excited about this. I've never seen the level of excitement, and that's both positive and negative.
"Even I still come to every one of these classes with fear in my heart, trembling," he says. "And at the end of every class, after everyone leaves, I sit in that chair and wonder, 'What now?'"
Verna Williams has attended Emmanuel for six years, including every one of Reynolds's Bible studies. In her view, homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God. It's not a huge sin -- like, say, murder -- but a sin, nonetheless. As far as Verna is concerned, the Bible is pretty clear about that. It's right there in Leviticus 20:13: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
But Verna says that homosexuality is nothing that a little, or a lot, of prayer can't fix.
"I don't think it's any higher or lower than lyin', cheatin', stealin' and fornication, and I don't believe that we should take the Scripture and beat homosexuals over the head with it," she says. "But I do believe that when Jesus loved people, he transformed them. I think if you're a homosexual in the church, you should at least try to let God change you."
So a couple of years ago, when Reynolds invited a lesbian preacher to address the congregation on a Sunday morning, Williams, like a lot of parishioners, started to wonder just what kind of church she was sitting in.
When Reynolds asked DaVita McAllister -- a pastor at a church in Atlanta and a friend he had met at an HIV conference in the mid-'90s -- to give a sermon at Emmanuel (as he occasionally does with ministers from Baptist churches all over the country), he struggled with the question of whether to withhold a line from the Sunday worship guide identifying her as a lesbian. But he believed she'd be so potent from the pulpit that no one would care. He prayed about it, and ultimately kept it in.
"She had us swinging from the rafters. Her sermon was very powerful, and people loved it," Reynolds says. "It wasn't until Monday morning, after people had a chance to read over the program guide, that the crap hit the fan."
For a week afterward, Reynolds was deluged by calls from members of the congregation. They felt betrayed, emotional. Some were angry. Others were more confused about the direction Emmanuel was heading. Was it to become a gay church? they wanted to know. Didn't Reynolds know that what he was doing was an affront to God?
"I talked to a senior member of the congregation, he had four children, and I said, 'What would you do if your child's life was touched by homosexuality?'" recalls Reynolds, who himself is the divorced father of an eighteen-year-old daughter. "He said he would disinherit that child. He left the church. After that, I sat here and bawled like a child."
Entire families, some with members who had attended Emmanuel for decades, left the church after McAllister's visit. Reynolds looked out on the congregation in the weeks that followed and noticed holes where high-ranking members of the community had formerly sat every week.
"The message was very clear," Reynolds says. "Some left for a while and came back. Some left and I never saw them again. But I knew that God adds by dividing. I love my congregation, and I was saddened about their leaving. But there were others who said, 'Pastor, thank you for allowing me to be here in this safe space.' That made it worth it."
For people who are both black and gay, safe spaces can be hard to come by. Leah Lynn, who was raised Catholic, never felt comfortable in the Baptist and Methodist African-American churches she attended in Denver. But she didn't want to go to any of the handful of white gay-friendly churches in the city: Church is family, and Lynn's family is African-American. Then a friend introduced her to Emmanuel.
"It used to be I'd try out a new church and sit there and wait for the gay-bashing to begin," says Lynn. "In every other church I've been in, it starts out great. Then eventually they get around to it. They start clapping and hollering and condemning my lifestyle. Sometimes it'd be like, 'We're going to pray it out of you.' I'd feel personally attacked, and then I'd leave."
Lynn is still at Emmanuel, she says, because the gay-bashing never started. For the past two years, she's driven from Denver to the Springs twice a week: On Sundays for worship, and on Thursdays for Bible study.
"It wasn't until I came to this Bible study that I realized I was okay," Lynn says. "I really believed all these things I'd been told about homosexuality. I'd allowed myself to be abused by men; I got into drinking and drugs and tried to kill myself. This place gave me a new energy.
"I pray for him all the time," she says of Reynolds. "I think about what he must be going through, trying to bring this to people. I can see the pain in his eyes."
Reynolds's eyes are big, brown and expressive, and they do, often, reflect the challenges inherent in his current campaign. During Bible study, his face is a fluid canvas of emotions: He brightens when the class seems to get it ("Look at how critically you are reading this! Look at how much you've learned!" he exalts to one woman who questions a literal interpretation of a Bible verse) and deflates when they don't. Doing the right thing is often lonely, all- consuming work. To get away, Reynolds goes to the movies, rides his bike around the Springs and takes the occasional trip to Denver for a nice meal at Maggiano's. But mostly, his mind and body are in the church.
"Emmanuel has been instrumental in the shaping of who I am; I never really leave," he says. "[It's] always on my mind. I am constantly thinking of ministry ideas and contemplating ministry opportunities. I enjoy every moment of it. It's my path."
"In the black church, we just assume that everyone feels that homosexuality is wrong," Reynolds says. "That's the traditional way. But we have gay people in our church already. They're already among us. But it's like you could be anything -- a drug dealer, in jail, anything -- but not that. It's still the worst taboo."
Reynolds, a prominent leader of the black community in Colorado Springs, faces that taboo daily. He's the city's president of the NAACP and the guy the local newspapers call when they need a quote about the African-American population. But leaders of other black churches don't call as much as they used to. He's felt shunned by the leadership of the National Baptist Convention USA and American Baptist USA, two umbrella organizations that Emmanuel belongs to. Even within Emmanuel, there is lingering concern over how far he's going to take things.
"I don't know what his intentions are. I don't know that he knows," says Gerald McMillian, a minister at Emmanuel. "But he is the pastor, and as long as I'm there, I'm on the train. If the train doesn't go where I want it to, I'm always free to get off.
"I believe that Pastor Reynolds believes that God has mandated him to do something," he adds. "He's being obedient. And I'm not going to not come because I don't agree with him. I want to show him that I'm willing to listen to him. I trust God to not let his people down."
Last year's presidential election forced the issue to the surface not only at Emmanuel, but at churches across the country -- particularly at black churches, which have been traditionally fundamentalist when it comes to sex. When the first black Baptist churches formed in the post-Civil War era as sanctuaries from unbridled racism, most congregations held a belief that every word contained in the Bible was God's honest truth, to be feared and lived by. That literalist interpretation of the Bible has lingered, so for many communities of faith, the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, and that's that.
As a result, some strange bonds were formed last year, as conservative Christians and right-wing politicians sought, and found, allies in black leaders who historically side with the left on social issues that involve individual rights. Last February, the day after President Bush voiced support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which had just been introduced by Colorado Springs representative Marilyn Musgrave, large groups of prominent black clergy staged rallies of support in Washington, Boston and New York City. The following month, Bernice King, niece of Martin Luther King, led a candlelight vigil to her uncle's grave in support of the amendment. Perhaps the most inflammatory anti-gay statement to follow the birth of the FMA came from a church pulpit in Chicago, where Reverend Gregory Daniels, a black minister, proclaimed, "If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them."
According to a poll taken by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life last November, blacks were more likely than whites to think sexual orientation "can be changed" (58 percent versus 39) and to think gay sex should be illegal (64 versus 48 percent, as tabulated in a New York Times poll taken last December). In 1996, 65 percent of black Protestants said gay people should enjoy equal rights; last November, that percentage had slipped to forty. Suddenly, religious communities that hadn't much considered the issue were facing a strange question: Should the black church accept homosexuality and the idea of same-sex marriage?
"The religious right is playing a game with African-American churches," says Gilbert Caldwell, former pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver. "They've played the black community; they've got folks voting against their own economic issues in favor of issues [such as] same-sex marriage and abortion. They tossed it out there, and a lot of preachers took the bait.
"Homophobia is the last accepted prejudice," he acknowledges. "And black people have a particular responsibility to be conscious of the fact, especially within the church, so that we don't lose the moral high ground to the Dobsons and the Falwells."
Caldwell grew up in the segregated South and worked with Martin Luther King during the civil-rights movement. He now applies his activist bent to gay rights. In 2000, as a member of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, he was arrested twice during the United Methodists' General Conference in Cleveland for staging protests that called for sexual equality in the church. To Caldwell, there's no difference between a ban on interracial marriage and a ban on same-sex marriage. Before he retired his ministry, Caldwell took that message to his congregation at Park Hill, a primarily white congregation.
"It's like Martin King used to say," he recalls. "ŒToo often the church is the taillight and not the headlight.'"
There are, increasingly, bright lights advocating a gay-equality position from within the black clergy. Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University, is gay, out and active. Pastors in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia have, like Reynolds, woven the message into their ministry. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Reverend Kenneth Samuel has pursued an actively pro-gay program in his traditional Baptist church over the past year -- and lost more than 2,000 members as a result.
Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy group, has led a focused outreach to black faith communities over the past two years, and recently met with leaders of National Baptist USA -- which represents more than eight million people -- to work toward articulating a position on the marriage issue. "It's a tough political climate for African-American ministers and religious leaders," says Freedom's Samiya Bashir. "They've been targeted by a lot of political groups as a hot ticket. But now a number of black leaders and faith ministers are standing up and saying, ŒWell, wait, what we need to do is look at our people in our congregation and ask, What are their needs? What are the issues they're asking us about? A lot of them are trying to clean house and come to their own conclusions without the media, the activists, the politicians watching. But the fact that they're even talking about it is just huge."
In Colorado, the black church has been established since 1865, when Zion Baptist Church was built in Five Points. Reynolds is currently the only African-American clergyman to make sexual equality a pillar of his ministry. There are no active black pastors in the membership of the Colorado Clergy for Equality in Marriage, a consortium of one hundred Christian and Jewish leaders from across the Front Range. The Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, an aggregate of 65 black pastors, has yet to express a collective view on homosexuality.
That leaves Reynolds going it alone -- from perhaps the most unlikely place in the United States to launch an equality campaign.
A little more than a decade ago, Colorado Springs was the epicenter of the debate over Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2. Now, Reynolds's home town is at the epicenter of the national debate over same-sex marriage, a discussion that has spread concentrically outward since November 2003, when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts upheld same-sex couples' right to legally wed. In February 2004, U.S. Representative Musgrave introduced her Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution -- for only the 28th time in the country's history -- to ban gay marriage. Senator Wayne Allard brought a similar bill in the Senate. Both died during fairly early stages of their journey through Congress, but Musgrave and Allard have each suggested that they plan to revive their bills this year, newly fortified with provisions that would strip same-sex couples of most of the benefits of civil unions.
To some extent, though, Musgrave and Allard are merely reflecting the values of their constituents in Colorado Springs, where five FM Christian stations blare at all hours from the radio dial and a subscription to The Gazette newspaper comes with a free Bible. The religious and the political have intertwined along a continuum of conservatism in Colorado Springs since the 1970s, when city leaders began recruiting right-wing groups as a way to prop up a sagging agricultural economy. The city is now home to 100 evangelical Christian organizations, including Focus on the Family, the most famous, and powerful, conservative-Christian empire in the country.
Earlier this year, Focus announced it had launched its own campaign for a referendum that would place the issue of a gay-marriage ban before Colorado voters next November. (Colorado already has a Defense of Marriage statute, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.) The organization, whose representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story, is also working to pass similar measures in fifteen other states.
But there have been defiant, pro-gay-equality acts of late in the most conservative pocket of Colorado, a state that's recently made moves to shake off echoes of its former hate-state status. In January, the Senate advanced a bill that would add sexual orientation to Colorado's anti-discrimination law (the state is currently one of 36 without such a measure); the bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee. And in February, the Senate defeated Springs senator Doug Lamborn's proposal that Colorado not recognize civil unions from other states. Last year, Sara Tomas, a young woman from the Springs, sued Palmer High School in federal court after school administrators refused to allow notices about the Gay/Straight Alliance, a student group Tomas founded, to be broadcast over the school P.A. In February, two lesbian couples sued the city over a 2003 law that revoked the benefits they had previously received as city employees. And after the defeat of the FMA, fifty gay and lesbian couples participated in a symbolic wedding at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, which was attended by the city's vice-mayor.
"This is a really conservative community, but the reality on the streets here is that you'll find wonderful surprises like Benjamin Reynolds -- a lot of people who go about their work without a lot of fanfare. And that's very encouraging," says former Springs mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, who is now executive director of the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.
"It's still not an easy place," she continues. "We don't really have any forums at the moment for expression of opposing or different ideas. But there are a lot of people in the Springs who are saying to themselves 'We can't stand by and let this stuff go on.' I am modestly optimistic that there will be other voices heard."
There are fewer people in the pews at Emmanuel tonight than there were last week. The crowds have gotten progressively smaller since "The Black Church and Sexuality" series began. Some stayed away; some came to try to get a handle on what Reynolds is getting at with all this homosexuality stuff. Verna Williams, for one, had to see how things played out.
"I'm still not real comfortable with what sexuality has to do with worship," she says. "Sex has to do with the flesh, and worship is the spirit, and you cannot combine the two. And I'm still not real comfortable with everything that's said about homosexuals and gays and lesbians and whatever you want to call it.
"I do think that some of my attitudes about it have changed a little from being in this class," Williams adds. "But I'm ready to move on to other things. I don't want this to become the all-gay church."
Tonight is the second-to-last session in the series, and there's a feeling of nervous anticipation in the room. Even Reynolds, who sits in the first pew, looks uncharacteristically anxious. Tonight is a test of how far the class has come, how much they are willing to listen to, and how much they'll take.
"I knew that there will be some voices of opposition to what's going to happen here, and I didn't want to invite the same controversy that we had last time," Reynolds says. "But I prayed about it, and I realized that even if there are naysayers, the fact that we're even having this class shows that there's been a lot of growth."
Reynolds has invited Herndon Davis, an author and activist from Los Angeles, to lead tonight's class. Last year, Davis wrote a book called Black, Gay and Christian, an inspirational tome for gay African-American people of faith. The son of a Baptist minister, Davis travels the country speaking to church and community groups. Reynolds brought him to Emmanuel to let his congregation see, and listen to, a living, breathing, homosexual Christian brother.
When the class begins, Davis assumes Reynolds's usual place at the pulpit to address the forty or so students who sit in clusters around the church. He begins with a story about a church service he attended in his home town in Arkansas, when the minister got the congregation so riled up with anti-gay fervor, they sounded like rabid fans at a football game.
"I was afraid to move, because I felt like I'd be lynched," Davis tells the Bible-study students, many of whom shake their heads and interject affirmative "hmmmphs" and clucks of empathy.
But then Davis cranks things up. He picks a Bible up off of the pulpit, throws it on the ground and jumps up and down on it, turning his foot to squash the book as if it were a bug. There is a collective, audible gasp.
"I understand the point you are trying to make -- I think -- but I really wish you wouldn't do that," says Savannah Jackson, sitting in the second pew behind Reynolds, wearing a purple sweatshirt adorned with quotes from Maya Angelou. Jackson is also wearing pants and sitting next to a man who isn't her husband, something she couldn't have done before Reynolds came to Emmanuel.
Davis's point is that the Bible is a tool, not a literal guide, that it's been manipulated by men -- white men, specifically -- to justify oppression. As a gay man, he says, he's felt the negative impact and alienation of those who use the book to justify hate -- Davis calls them "baby Christians" -- and praises his own years of schooling spent cross-referencing biblical texts to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus didn't condemn gays.
"What is the Bible to you?" Davis asks a middle-aged man seated with his wife in the fourth pew.
"The Bible is the living and true word of God," the man answers, without hesitation.
"No, no it isn't," Davis says. "The Bible is a book. The Bible isn't God. If the Bible was God, then I couldn't do -- "
The book makes a loud thud as it drops.
" -- this."
An older man lets out a loud sigh. Heads shake all over the room. A young woman in the third pew passes a note to her friend: This is gonna be World War III, it says.
"I am here to tell you that I am unapologetic and unashamed to be gay, black and Christian," Davis says. "There was a time that I let a twice-divorced, remarried minister tell me I was immoral. I was challenged, depressed. But I wasn't immoral. To treat me that way was immoral."
Near the end of Davis's presentation, he asks the audience to raise their hands if they believe that homosexuality is a sin. All but a few hands go up.
"To me, yes, it is a sin," says Pastor McMillian. "But it's no more a sin than a lot of other things, like alcoholism or adultery. I think we do have to ask ourselves: What sin are we gonna accept, and what sin are we not gonna accept?"
"I think I want to be less concerned with whether homosexuality is a sin than with whether homophobia is a sin," counters Jackson.
Reynolds takes it in, his face revealing both confusion and understanding. Everyone agrees on the concept of the whosoever church -- it's the howsoever part that's tricky. There's a sense that, even at the conclusion of the Bible study, the conversation at Emmanuel is just getting started.
Reynolds calls the congregation together in a prayer circle.
"Well, we have been challenged tonight," he says, clapping his hands together and smiling plaintively. "I would like us all to remember what Brother Herndon said about feeling that he was going to be lynched in a church. You say lynched -- that's a word that's going to mean something to black people. He's telling us that we have gotten to the point where we are oppressing people -- in church."
After the prayer, people come up to shake Davis's hand, but none linger too long. There's a sense that no one's mind has been changed about anything. Leah Lynn looks shaken as she heads out the front door for the long ride home.
After the class, Reynolds goes back to his office to do what he does after most Bible studies: He puts his head in his hands and prays.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.