3 Black Leaders in the Movement For Inclusion in the Church

Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder

When Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder participated in President Joe Biden’s inaugural prayer service on January 21, 2021, it wasn’t her first Presidential engagement, but it still made history: Being one of five openly LGBTQ+ clergy there made it the queerest inaugural prayer service ever.

Flunder, who was also the keynote speaker at the White House’s 2014 World AIDS Day observance, has been advocating for decades for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, getting into what the late civil rights leader John Lewis famously called “good trouble.”

Her story and those of other Black LGBTQ+ spiritual leaders are well preserved as part of a larger biographical index on the LGBTQ+ Religious Archives Network website. Here’s a snapshot of just three of those stories, starting with Flunder’s.

Founding and Senior Pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ and Presiding Bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, Flunder is a singer, third-generation preacher and native San Franciscan who began ministering to people with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and went on to pursue a lifelong ministry of radical inclusivity.

Flunder began singing and recording in 1984 with Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir and was later ordained by Hawkins. In 1986 she began ministering to people with HIV/AIDS and founded the Hazard-Ashley House, Walker House and Restoration House in response to the epidemic. In 1991 she founded City of Refuge UCC, whose Transcendence Gospel Choir was the first all-transgender choir in the United States.

Founded in 1999, the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries grew out of Flunder’s church-planting efforts and has grown into a “multi-denominational group of primarily African-American Christian leaders and laity representing churches and faith-based organizations from the USA, Africa and Mexico.”

Flunder earned a certificate of ministry studies and master of arts from the Pacific School of Religion (which named her a distinguished alumnus in 2013) and a doctor of ministry degree from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was named a trustee of the Starr King School for the Ministry in 2015 and has served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, was a keynote speaker at the 2014 White House observance of World AIDS Day, and was one of five LGBTQ+ faith leaders invited to participate in President Joe Biden’s inaugural prayer service in January 2021.

After her sexual orientation sparked controversy when she was a guest speaker at the American Baptist College’s 2015 Garnett-Nabrit Lecture Series, Flunder said that the Black church represented “one of the last bastions of power that a lot of my brothers feel like they have, and I represent everything that flies in the face of it. I am a woman. I am woman clergy and I’m a same-gender-loving woman.”

Rev. Peter Gomes

Harvard University chaplain and professor Rev. Peter Gomes, an American Baptist minister who was named “one of the great preachers of our generation” by Harvard President Drew Faust and “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America” by Time magazine, made waves in 1991 when he came out publicly by declaring himself “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”

A lifelong conservative who gave the benediction at Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and preached a sermon at the National Cathedral for George H.W. Bush’s inauguration, Gomes’ coming-out was in response to the publication of an entire 56-page issue of Peninsula, a conservative Harvard campus magazine, devoted exclusively to a critique of homosexuality.

“I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told the Washington Post. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”

Gomes went on to publish The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need, and The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News.

The recipient of 39 honorary degrees, Gomes was an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, England, where the Gomes Lectureship was established in his name, and he received the Preston N. Williams Black Alumni/ae Award from Harvard Divinity School in 2006. From 1974 until his death in 2011 he served as Harvard’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at the Memorial Church. He majored in history at Bates College and earned his bachelor of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

The first out Black lesbian elder in the United Methodist Church, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey was named vice president of academic and student affairs and associate professor of constructive theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School in January 2018 and is an activist focused on peace, social justice, racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights.

“I believe humanity is interconnected. This means, I have a responsibility to the world to agitate for justice; I also have a responsibility not to lose my love for the human soul and human dignity in the midst of that work,” Lightsey said in a biographical statement.

The author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Lightsey has served as a dean and professor at Boston University School of Theology and as a dean and vice president at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

An ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, she served as pastor of Southlawn UMC on Chicago’s South Side and was honored with the conference’s Harry Denman Award for Evangelism in 2006 due to her church growth efforts.

In her role as a board member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, Lightsey has critiqued Christian churches for their homophobic policies and practices and spoke out for justice for LGBTQ+ people at the 2012 and 2016 United Methodist General Conferences.

A native of West Palm Beach, Fla., she earned a bachelors degree from Columbus (Ga.) State University, a masters of divinity from Gammon Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, and a doctorate from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Don’t let your journey stop here. This is truly a brief window into just three of the many lives of Black LGBTQ+ spiritual leaders advancing the cause of inclusion and equality — every single one constituting a powerful reminder of the shoulders we all stand on and of the work being done to ensure that, in the immortal words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

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