Longform

A House Divided

Page 6 of 9

"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.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond