Longform

A House Divided

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"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."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond