I was “raised in the church” and as a child reveled in the type of religious community where everyone knew your name, adults looked out for you, and everyone praised your academic and social progress. My schoolteachers, my barber, my mentors and friends of my parents all attended the same Baptist church. For African-Americans in a small southern town the church was not only the place where families “got their praise on,” it was often the nucleus of the community — a place where we were in control, where we provided needed services to those less fortunate while mingling with those of similar values.
When I visit my family in Tennessee, I still attend my home church. Conversely, my church was the first place where I learned that my feelings of attraction to men were despised. We were there — teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, playing the piano, on the deacon board . . . contributing on the sidelines — as often is the place of Black gay men and women. I can’t say that my church was overtly homophobic, no one ever shouted, “We have to do something about these homosexuals!” But no one ever said you are welcome. Homophobia is just as much a feeling as an action directed at you. So, when I finished my undergraduate degree and moved from my hometown — I left church, but not my faith, behind.
I have so much admiration for my brothers and sisters who have stuck it out in the Black Church, an environment that welcomes our gifts with outstretched arms but refuses to see us. There are faith alternatives like MCC and Unity Fellowship Church (at which I worshipped in Atlanta and Brooklyn), but mainstream Black churches that have policies of openly welcoming gays and lesbians are rare. My concern has always been how, as an out, open, up-front Black gay man, do I participate and worship fully in a Black Church?
This summer, in China, I stood behind an intricately carved banister, staring into a Buddhist temple. I listened to the orange-robed monks chanting and knew, feeling their voices reverberate through my body, that something deeply religious was going on, but I was an outsider. Often, I feel the same in church — knowing that something intensely religious is in progress, but I, a Black gay man, will always be on the periphery — because of who I am and who I love. As I sit on the pew, my mind races. Is the pastor including me in his prayers of health and prosperity? When he preaches on the sacredness of a Christian relationship, is my relationship included? How do I know, when my present place of worship has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding sexual orientation. In both my current church, and the church of my childhood, I felt like an outsider. Only the familiarity of shared language and the images of Jesus, trumped the Buddhist Temple.
At thirty, after evaluating my life and finally accepting all of the blessings that the higher power has given me, I gave in to my grandmother and began to seek a church home. In the seven years since I attended church regularly my faith has allowed me to watch my parents grow older, see my niece and nephews born, travel throughout the world, easily find employment in a career that I adore, and settle into a loving relationship. Although I express praise for my blessings daily, I feel the need to publicly show my thanks, and I want to do it in a church home.
We all have heard, “Church is not a building” and it isn’t. But for those of us who experienced childhood and adolescence within the embrace of a church family, time and again church is defined by four walls and a steeple. But for most of us there is a lock on the church door. Whether treating us with invisibility or disgust, the Black Church, represents home for many African-American SGL brothers and sisters. But, it is a home from which many of us have run. Some remain, only to participate behind the mask. Will the Black Church ever step up and accept us, in our completeness, along with our financial support, skills, talents and leadership abilities? Will we ever find our place at home?
James McKissic, MPA is a freelance writer who manages an urban education project in Connecticut.