In 2021, I am still asking these three questions …
Every once in a while a reader will ask me to respond to their question in my column. This reader asked, “What should be the mandate for today’s Black Churches?” The question suggests someone wants a comprehensive response—I am hoping maybe a church, a homophobe having second thoughts, or a LGBTQ+ Christian struggling to come out.
One of the mandates for today’s Black Churches is to address its ongoing struggle with the spectrum of human sexuality.
In 2021, I am still asking these three questions: Why can’t we as an African American community tell the truth about our sexuality? What price do we pay in telling the truth? And what role does the church play in perpetuating not only unsafe sexual behavior but also demonizing its members of the LGBTQ community?
The Black church purports to preach and practice a prophetic social gospel. In truth, however, it preaches and practices a heteronormative conservative gospel tethered to a model no longer relevant to a younger generation that embraces LGBTQ+ social justice issues.
The Black church played a part in the death of African Americans with AIDS. While its silence on the issue was appalling and unconscionable, so too was its various forms of homophobic pronouncements that denigrate both LGBTQ+ people and women.
Sexuality has never been a comfortable topic of discussion in the African American community. This is due primarily to slavery, and what we appropriated from the dominant culture about sexual behavior to deem ourselves human beings in our oppressors’ eyes. First bred as cattle during slavery, and later either touted as sex sirens or taunted as sex predators, Black sexuality has never had a chance to evolve in a milieu free of abuse, violence, and stereotypes.
The raping of Black women and the lynching of Black men in this country by white men have always kept the control of Black bodies away from us. In carving out a racial identity, African Americans have done it at the expense of leaving our bodies and sexualities behind. However, with the embrace of fundamentalist Christianity embedded in its tenets and an asexual theology, African American bodies, and sexualities that were once systematically usurped by white slave masters are now ritualistically harnessed by the Black church with a “politic of silence.” Sadly, this was viewed as a revolutionary act against the oppressive white gaze. But what happens in churches, communities, and families where people lose touch with their bodies and sexualities?
One answer is that the Black church continues to stay on the “down low.” The most significant factor being closeted, homophobic ministers. Pastor Donnie McClurkin, a three-time Gospel Grammy winner and the former poster boy for African American ex-gay ministries, is only one example. McClurkin’s sexuality has been an open secret, but now, at 61 years old, he is lamenting about growing old and being alone. While the Black LGBTQ+ community would applaud someone of McClurkin’s status telling the truth about his sexual past, many of us can’t care because of decades of damning and damaging messages he hurled at us.
However, there might be some light at the end of this tunnel. This month, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black denomination church, dating back to 1787, will convene a committee to study LGBTQ+ issues by examining scripture and doctrine and hearing testimonies of LGBTQ+ individuals. Some of us in the LGBTQ+ community feel the effort is more than “a day late and a dollar short” because a younger generation has left. However, I am hopeful.
Our bodies are our temples, and as our temples, they house the most sacred and scariest truth about us: our sexuality. Sexuality is an essential part of being human. It is an expression of who we are; it is a language, and a means to communicate our spiritual need for intimate communion—human and divine. However, our silence, shame, and stigma around issues of sexual identity, gender expressions, and sexual practices have allowed for behaviors of denial, neglect, and abuse. Also, the lack of pastoral care contributes to high-risk sexual behaviors and the transmission of HIV/AIDS in the African American community.
Right now, Black Churches are in a crisis. The AME Church is now the first to admit openly. The church has contributed to the culture of the “politic of silence” because it not only lacks the language to talk about sex, but it also sees sex as a private and personal matter and not part of the business of the Black Christian community as a way of loving God and ourselves.
Meanwhile, research has shown that sexuality education programs in Black churches would delay the onset of sexual activity among teens, reduced the number of partners among teens and adults, significantly decrease the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and gay-bashing.
Still, the Black church is also uniquely positioned to significantly affect knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors within congregations and, by extension, the entire African American community. It can help congregants live their sexual lives by devising an African American faith-based sex education curriculum where churches embrace the conceptthat sexuality is God-given, an integral part of being human, and at the core of how we interact with one another.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.