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.