New Beginnings Christian Fellowship
The Sunday following President Obama’s statement of support for same-sex marriage, Leslie Braxton, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Faith Center in Renton, addressed his congregation with a sermon titled “What To Do About Same-Sex Marriage?”
For the black church, gay and lesbian issues have long been tough ones. Some black church leaders, like their white counterparts, trumpet a conservative position with harsh rhetoric. More often, black clergy have chosen to look the other way. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ was invented by the church,” says Braxton. But increasingly that’s changing.
Braxton says that he himself has made a “radical shift.” For years, he confessed, he'd accepted the received tradition on these issues, which condemned same sex sexual orientation, citing the six biblical texts that seem relevant. But no more. When he spoke to his congregation that Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day, it was with a new stance on the issue.
“In the house of God everyone ought to be who they are,” he said. For Braxton that includes people who are gay and lesbian.
Responding to President Obama’s statement in support of same-sex marriage, Braxton first argued that the Constitution protects the rights of all people, including gays and lesbians. “As an African-American who has experienced people restricting our rights, the stench of rights restricted sickens me.”
At least for churches, this is not only a civil issue, but an ethical and religious one. Braxton turned to that next arguing that for ethics, “We have to look to Jesus,” he said. “[He taught that] in all things, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The Bible passages condemning same sex relations, he noted, do not come from Jesus but from Moses and Paul. “I am a student of Moses and Paul, but I am a follower of Jesus,” Braxton told his congregation. “Jesus is our interpretive lens.”
After the sermon, 15 of the congregation’s most stalwart members met Braxton in his office. Though he braced himself for their critique, it never came. The congregants had come to tell him that they themselves are gay or lesbian and to thank him for his sermon. The following Wednesday 500 members of the church accepted their pastor’s invitation to a special meeting to discuss his sermon and the issues it raised.
“The President’s position,” said Ken Samuel, pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, “has made it hard for people who want to say they are progressive to remain silent. They don’t want to end up on the wrong side of history.”
Samuel (a personal friend of the writer) has been a rarity among African-American church leaders, taking a position of full welcome and equality for gays and lesbians for more than a decade now. It was a costly choice; his 7,000 member predominantly African-American church near Atlanta lost half its members. In the wake of Obama’s statement, Samuel addressed his congregation, armed wtih his own experience. “Don’t tell me this President lacks backbone," he said. "That took courage.”
Perhaps more typical of the soul-searching among African-American church leaders is the position of Seattle pastor, Alphonse Meadows. For Meadows, who leads Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle’s Central Area, the President's position has prompted a serious personal struggle. “Is the gay life-style a choice or a genetic given?” he asks. To date, Meadows has seen same-sex orientation as a choice, but he acknowledges he needs to talk to people and learn more.
Though he's so far unsupportive of gay marriage, Meadows is not comfortable with anti-gay rhetoric or gay-bashing. “That’s not the right thing to do.”
"We in the black community have been very hostile toward the gay community, very judgmental,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot of hard-to-swallow anti-gay rhetoric in the black community and from black church leaders.”
Meadows “applauds the President’s courage,” and remains, he says, “a big supporter of the President’s. I trust his character. I trust his intent.”
Otis Moss III, another prominent leader in the black church, also came to the President's defense. Moss succeeded Jeremiah Wright at the 10,000 member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where the President and his family were once members.
When a fellow black minister sought to enlist Moss’s support in condemning the President’s position, he responded with an open letter that would be widely circulated among African-American clergy and which he read from his pulpit,
The Constitution is designed to protect the rights of all. We must learn to be more than a one-issue community and seek the beloved community where we may not all agree, but we all recognize the fingerprint of the Divine upon all of humanity.
The question we should pose to our congregations is, ‘Should all Americans have the same civil rights?’ This is a radically different question than the one you raised with the ministers, ‘Does the church have the right to perform or not perform certain religious rites.’ There is difference between rights and rites.
We should never misconstrue rights designed to protect diverse individuals in a pluralistic society versus religious rites designed by faith communities to communicate a theological or doctrinal perspective. These two questions are answered in two fundamentally different arenas.
One is answered in the arena of civic debate where the Constitution is the document of authority. The other is answered in the realm of ecclesiastical councils where theology, conscience and biblical mandates are the guiding ethos. I do not believe ecclesiastical councils are equipped to shape civic legislation nor are civic representatives equipped to shape religious rituals and doctrine.
Meanwhile, in Renton, Leslie Braxton has stood behind his new views as he struggles to reconcile his religious, ethical and civic beliefs. “This has been a growth process for me. But, in time, you challenge what you’ve grown up with,” he says.
Like Samuel and Moss, Braxton has challenged his inherited beliefs about same-sex marriage to lead the African-American church with new candor in a new direction.
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