An Urban Pilgrimage: Thoughts on Race, Sexuality and Spiritual Violence

I have, since 1996, lived in the Borough of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. A mainly working-class town, Wilkinsburg has a population that is about half African-American and half non-Hispanic Caucasian. In my four years in Wilkinsburg, I have discovered no evidence of any significant Latino population. Because I am one-half Puerto Rican (on my mother’s side) and identify as Latino, the apparent ethnic constitution of Wilkinsburg sometimes makes me feel like a minority of one.

But that’s OK with me. I have my personal library of Latino literature and music to keep me grounded in my mother’s culture, and I can always contact my family via telephone or Email when I feel the need. Furthermore, I feel that being a Latino in a primarily black-and-white town makes me a sort of human “bridge”: an ethnically transitional figure who can move between cultures and races, and hopefully help to promote an intra-community solidarity that transcends race and culture.

It was with this sense of self that I began a rather ambitious community service project in March 2000. I had earlier contacted our monthly community newspaper, The Wilkinsburg Update, and proposed that I write a series of profiles on the religious congregations of the borough. I wanted to focus on the constructive, reconciliatory work being done in our community.

But on March 1, a tragedy occurred that brought a sense of urgency to my proposed project. On that date, Ronald Taylor, a man with a reported history of mental illness, went on a violent rampage through my Wilkinsburg neighborhood. He shot five individuals, three of whom were dead within a few days of the incident.

This terrible event received nationwide coverage. But I was disturbed by the media’s seeming fixation on the racial aspects of the case. Taylor, who is African-American, had apparently targeted white males for violence. Witnesses reported that he made several anti-white comments. Police who searched Taylor’s home discovered written declarations of hatred against white people.

The media coverage of the Taylor shootings seemed to tap into people’s worst fears and anxieties about gun violence and racial division in Wilkinsburg, and in America in general. So I was even more determined to seek out, interview, and report on those individuals and congregations that are working towards peace, social justice, and racial reconciliation in my community.

But my project was complicated from the start by another concern. I am a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, where I also hold a teaching fellowship and write for our campus newspaper, The Pitt News. In my eight years at the university, I have earned a reputation as an outspoken advocate of lesbian and gay rights, and as a harsh critic of those who oppose such rights.

And in my work as a gay rights advocate, I have again and again been confronted with the fact that mainstream churches are often complicit in attempts to deny lesbians and gay men their civil rights. So although I was entering the religious worlds of Wilkinsburg with a sense of hope and a spirit of reconciliation, I was also wary. My “homophobia detection antenna” was up and running.

The first few months of my pilgrimage across Wilkinsburg were largely positive. My first visit was to a Muslim congregation which was mainly African-American. The warm fellowship which I had with this faith community inspired me to stay the course I had charted. The next congregation I visited was a mostly white Episcopal parish which, under the leadership of its white female pastor and her interracial staff, has made great strides towards breaking down racial barriers.

But I ran into the homophobic roadblock I had been dreading during evening Bible study at another Christian church. I had joined a group of about twenty who had gathered for fellowship and scriptural exposition. When the class leader announced that his topic would be “lust,” I braced myself. This was, of course, one of those code words often used to uncork bottles of anti-gay rhetoric.

Unsurprisingly to me, one of the class participants took the bait. Quoting Romans 1:26, the gentleman interpreted this verse as a condemnation of homosexuals, as he bitterly complained, “And now they want their rights.”

The class leader was equally unsympathetic. Dismissing the notion that lesbians and gay men have should seek civil rights, he declared, “They have the right to be saved. They have the right to be born again.” Condemning gay relationships and political activism, he added, “We know that this is against what God has ordained. God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

I was fuming in my seat by now, and furiously scribbling notes in my notebook. The leader continued on, condemning attempts by activists to secure health benefits for same-sex partners of employees at my own academic institution, the University of Pittsburgh. After a heated discussion in which I too participated, the leader declared that the whole problem would be solved if gay men and lesbians would simply accept his own theological viewpoint. He concluded his argument with a particularly offensive rhyme: “The won’t have to homo’ no mo’.” By this time I was so disgusted that I felt like screaming.

But it got worse. The church’s pastor took over from the leader and slowly, deliberately read from Romans 1. He laid particular stress on certain words, which the congregation repeated: “against nature,” “unseemly.” After he finished reading, the pastor chided, “Sometimes it is a lack of understanding that calls us to error.”

As I sat silently listening, I felt like I was being spiritually raped. The class leader and the pastor, from their positions of power, were controlling the show. And although they let me get in some comments and questions, they ultimately imposed their bottom line on the discussion: They were right, and I was wrong, period. No shades of gray; no real room for alternative interpretations of scripture.

Mel White, the gay-and-proud Christian minister and founder of the advocacy group Soulforce, has referred to such rhetoric as “spiritual violence.” As I sat in that church, Dr. White’s terminology immediately came to my mind. I was also reminded of a documentary example of spiritual violence that I have taught in some of my American literature classes at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1861, former slave Harriet Jacobs published her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, under the pseudonym “Linda Brent.” In the thirteenth chapter, “The Church and Slavery,” Jacobs describes an incident that exemplified the spiritual violence and racial injustice of the pre-Civil War South. The slave masters of Jacobs’ hometown, having decided that religious indoctrination would make their “property” more submissive, had the slaves gathered together – a literally captive audience – to be preached at by a white clergyman. The preacher chose as his text Ephesians 6:5 – “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”

Like anti-gay biblical interpreters today, Jacobs’ preacher ignored the larger literary, historical, and spiritual context of this problematic verse. He allowed only one interpretation: this verse meant that African-American slaves were required by God to unquestionably obey their white masters, and that any attempt to escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad was a capitulation to selfishness and sin. And like today’s anti-gay preachers, this minister used his position of power as a way to impose his narrow interpretation on an audience.

This is my understanding of spiritual violence: the use of religion as a tool by which to promote injustice and bigotry. Fortunately, many Christians of that era were able to effectively counter the spiritual violence of the pro-slavery preachers. And today, forward-thinking individuals of all religious persuasions are working to counter contemporary spiritual violence.

Spiritual violence is a problem of great concern to lesbians and gay men, and to their loved ones. But it should also be of particular concern to Latinos regardless of sexuality. Those of us who claim a Hispanic/Latino heritage represent the intersection of four great divisions of humankind: the Native American, European, African, and Semitic peoples. Today’s diverse Latino communities are the product of centuries of genetic and cultural blending of these four races.

And tragically, most of the encounters that have so produced today’s Latino peoples have been marked by both spiritual and physical violence. The bloody conflict between Spanish Moors and Christians, the persecution and expulsion of Spanish Jews, the genocidal wars waged by Spain against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the enslavement of African peoples in New World colonies: each of these atrocities was justified by men who claimed religious sanction for their actions. Conquerors and inquisitors regularly held the scourge in one hand, and the Bible in another.

So as the son of a Puerto Rican mother, as a proud Latino who is aware of the many holocausts that lie in his ancestral past, I refuse to tolerate any type of spiritual violence. After the conclusion of the Bible study at that Wilkinsburg church, I engaged in a frank dialogue with the class leader and his wife. I shared with them both the story told by Harriet Jacobs and an alternative interpretation of that passage from Romans 1. In contrast with the oppressive atmosphere of the Bible study, the tone of this private conversation was, I felt, much more constructive. I intend to continue my travels to the churches of Wilkinsburg.

Although my focus is to seek out those engaged in the work of healing and reconciliation, I am sure I will have more encounters like that troubling Bible study. But I refuse to be victimized by spiritual violence, and I refuse to be silent when I hear it directed against others.