Feb. 1 begins Black History Month, a national annual observance since 1926, honoring and celebrating the achievements of African-Americans and their institutions.
The one institution least expected to be lauded among LGBTQ people of African descent in the month-long celebration is the Black Church.
In this ongoing cacophony of anti-gay rhetoric from fire and brimstone, bible-thumping ministers are those courageous few who not only reminisce about their march with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King during the 1960s civil rights movement, but those who also continue to uphold the message of King’s social gospel by fighting for LGBTQ civil rights.
Too often we hear African American ministers espouse they are fierce proponents of LGBTQ social justice issues but are stymied by their parishioners and church polity.
Not all churches, however, allow homophobic churchgoers or ecclesial powers to stand in the way.
Union United Methodist Church (UUMC), a predominately African American congregation, located in Boston’s South Endâ€”the epicenter of the city’s LGBTQ communityâ€”is one of them.
When Hilda Evans, a parishioner of UUMC, suggested in 1996 the church open its doors to the entire Boston South End community, four later years, later it did. And on Feb. 15, 2000 Union United Methodist Church, led by the now retired Rev. Theodore L. Lockhart, became the nation’s first African American Methodist and denominational church to officially become “reconciling and inclusive” church.
Unionâ€™s church council adopted an unanimous resolution to enthusiastically welcome LGBTQ worshippers along with a statement announcing that UUMC “…affirm[s] the full participation in all aspects of our church life of all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, regardless of their race, color, physical challenge, sexual orientation and/or affectional orientation.”
“The vote by Union United Methodist Church shows that even within the more strict religious institutions there is a diversity of opinions on gay and lesbian issues,” said Donna Payne in 2000, the then-HRC field organizer, working with people of color and the religious community. “Religious views on homosexuality are not monolithic, and people of faith are increasingly speaking out in favor of full-inclusion for gay and lesbians worshipers in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout America.”
McLee had hoped UUMC would serve as an example for other black churches on how to talk to the black community about homosexuality.
â€œWe need to have a serious conversation about sexuality in our community,â€ McLee told Boston’s black own newspaper, the “Bay State Banner” in 2002. â€œIf we continue to marginalize our gay brothers and sisters, we are going to isolate them. Itâ€™s not holy.â€
Whereas most black churches, locally and nationally, are silent and/or inactive on the HIV/AID epidemic ravaging their communities, UUMC continues to be an ally to this community.
For example, before she died of AIDS, community activist Belynda Dunn, 49, brought frank talks about AIDS to the black church. And she did it first at UUMC.
â€œBelynda really lit a fire under me. â€¦Thatâ€™s what Belynda did with everyone. She really helped us cross ideological lines and theological lines and not get hung up on the homosexual issue. She said to the black church: â€˜Get over it,â€™â€ her pastor, then-Reverend Martin McLee said.
UUMC was the first black church, and to date the only, to host Boston’s Annual Gay Pride Interfaith Prayer service, and to have a “Happy Pride” sign posted in front of the church.
â€œGay folk have always been in the black church and the white churchâ€”thatâ€™s not newâ€”but we donâ€™t require folk to pretend that theyâ€™re not who they are,â€ Rev. Martin D. McLee told the “Boston Globe” in 2008, who served UUMC for eight years.
Since the church became “reconciling and inclusive” the congregation has hosted a gospel brunch after Sunday worship during Pride weekend for the African American community.
McLee has left UUMC, but the fight for LGBTQ civil rights continues on now with the Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, the first female pastor in the churchâ€™s 190-year history.
In June 2011 more than 100 Methodist ministers in New England have pledged to marry gay couples in defiance of the denominationâ€™s ban on same-sex unions.
Approximately 1 out of 9 Methodist clerics signed a statement pledging to open their churches to LGBTQ couples that stated, â€œWe repent that it has taken us so long to act. â€¦We realize that our churchâ€™s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].â€
The Rev. Easterling signed the statement, saying she could not in good conscience deny a practicing member of her church her marriage blessing because the person is gay.
â€œWeâ€™re laying on the line our ordination that many of us have worked four to eight years to get, as well as the expense and time of the seminary,â€ Easterling told the “Globe.” â€œI certainly stand by this movement.â€
UUMC is a movement, and it’s an example not just regional to black churches in Boston.