Church, Human Sexuality, Theology

United Methodist Church Bishop’s Homophobic Rhetoric

13 Comments 17 January 2017

On the day that I write this, the death of Bishop Eddie Long fills the headlines. I have mixed feelings about even mentioning his name. Like all humans, he was a complicated soul. Long pastored one of the largest predominately African American churches in Atlanta, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. In an article found in SPLC’s Intelligence Report, he was called “one of the most homophobic Black pastors in America.” In one of the great ironies of his ministry, in 2010, four men accused him of sexual coercion dating back to their teen years. I and many others wrote about those allegations and innuendos floating around the city regarding Bishop Long well before what was then being reported. Not surprisingly, the public responses are the same: highly charged, filled with pain, sorrow, respect for the family and scripture-laden cautions and rebuke. Big sigh.

I also have mixed feelings about this article. I’ve wrestled with whether to write it for days. Frankly, I don’t want to write this article. On the other hand, I believe it is best that these words come from me rather than leave this matter to someone else; someone whose words may not land on the page with as much hope, grace and loving-regard that I want to convey.

Homophobia is a debilitating bane on the Church. It shows up in our liturgy and polity. It shows up in our music, sermons and fellowship. For years I have listened to people justify their homophobic rhetoric, read articles calling for Christians to “stand up against the sin of homosexuality” and declare their words as innocent and/or “taken out of context.” Unsurprisingly, we are divided. The pain is deep, and based on recent events, I doubt healing will come to our churches anytime soon. How can it when people we love and respect tear into our hearts with words so profoundly insulting? Kim Burrell, Shirley Ceasar and now one of our own United Methodist bishops, Sharma Lewis.

Last week at the Convocation for Pastors of Black Churches, Bishop Lewis, brought a remarkable sermon entitled Called to Fresh Vision(Facebook Jan. 11th at 9pm).  Largely via manuscript but seasoned with extemporaneous moments she began with the argument that “a vision is birth out of a concern” and moved on to demonstrate for those gathered the need for vision in building vital ministries. In her final remarks ending what had been a well-received sermon, Bishop Lewis shared about her experience of tarrying before and question God after her 2012 unsuccessful run for the bishop. Speaking about that moment, Lewis revealed the pain of being personally attacked via email. She recounted how she asked God, “Why would they send an email in the middle of the night saying that I’m gay?…I’m too cute to be gay!” Bishop Lewis went on to give the audience an apology for preaching because she felt her sermon – which came after a very spirited time of worship – “got in the way of God.” Among the admonishments that followed, Lewis declared there are times when leaders are “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.”

By her admonishment, I had no reason to believe, but that Bishop Lewis would hear my response to her comment that she was “too cute to be gay” and without delay offer an apology to the LGBTQ community. Moreover, I had known Bishop Lewis for many years, had heard her preach on several occasions, even at the church I pastored in Chicago. As a queer lesbian, I knew she and I held different positions when it came to the rights and lives of LGBTQ persons within the UMC. Our theology differs but – like our relationship as colleagues and as Black women – was not hindered at all by those differences. I had never known her to say utter a homophobic comment. Until that sermon.

I was shocked when I viewed the sermon (and I watched the ENTIRE sermon). Shocked, offended, hurt and then, in denial. Because I love our church, I have always sought to do a proper collection of facts before speaking out on many issues. I prefer going to the source, as I did on this matter. I immediately began reaching out to Bishop Lewis. I wanted to hear from her, wanted her to hear from me, wanted to talk about how offensive her comment was/is and especially wanted to encourage her to make a public apology. I hoped she would be courageous; I hoped she would practice what she had preached, not to be “too afraid to say when we’re wrong.” To date, that has not happened.

So here we are, listening to yet another sermon with language that is specifically insulting to LGBTQ persons. What would have been a sermon worth seeing by a broad range of people is tainted, made particularly insulting by a homophobic and alienating comment. Ironically, just that morning I’d read the brilliant essay by Ashon Crawley entitled, Kim Burrell and Feeling Ugly. In it he writes, “To call our way of life perversion, to declare death on us. In another register, in another key, this is to call us ugly.” Bishop Lewis’ retort, “I’m too cute to be gay,” is another episode of LGBTQ persons being made to feel ugly. One need not even get into the theological implications of her statement to know it’s DOA. Its faulty logic reaches its conclusion based on two premises, one spoken, one unspoken. Minor premise: I am not ugly. Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay. Unspoken major premise: All gay people are ugly. As a rhetorical device it would look like this:

Major premise: All gay people are ugly.
Minor premise: I am not ugly.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am not gay.

While the major premise is unspoken. It nonetheless is heard, and felt. With this one spoken sentence – frankly something that has been said by more than Bishop Lewis – we are left to wrestle with a host of questions. So, gay people are ugly? How cute do you need to be not to be gay? Is there some cosmetic secret that can resolve gayness? Theologically, how does casting gay in such a way impact what we say about the body of Christ? How do we respond theologically when children and adults lament being called “ugly”? Ought we even buy into the cultural phenomenon of beauty aesthetics? How do you minister through that pain?

I hope Bishop Lewis and others will think long about her conclusion and the ways she will respond now and in the future to emails questioning her sexual identity (so much I can say about people who launch those type horrible attacks) as well as to concerns from the LGBTQ community and its allies stemming from other homophobic comments. I can tell you; the loving response is not what Shirley Caesar advocated: take the cell phones when you want to speak to your members. Neither should it be along the lines of Kim Burrell’s justification that boils down to her basically arguing that her words were misconstrued or taken out of context. We heard what we heard. It’s not digging in like Long and declaring Christianity is being “attacked by the enemy.” The enemy being a type of homosexual Goliath. It’s not retreating into denial and deciding you’ll just be more careful about what you say (because the queers may be in the room). Silence will not resolve homophobia. This is not a demand for political correctness. It is a matter of children of God not having to sit through, over and over and over again, sermons that call us ugly, perverted, sinful, reprobate. This is not about correctness; this is about grace and love.

Right now, the United Methodist Church has entered a season of determining if our denomination will remain “united.” How do we even trust that our episcopacy can lead us forward when we hear such disparaging words? This is not a mistake in preaching. And though I do not feel that it was said to cause pain intentionally, I do know that those words and the absence of an apology reveal what we know to be true: We are not of one mind, and it’s not likely that we will get there when the episcopal leaders of our church say such things and feel no need to repent.

Both Lewis and I have our communities of accountability. My vision for the United Methodist Church is in concert with my concern for the well-being of oppressed persons. It’s not an easy work. People love you for “speaking truth to power” until it’s their sense of power you call to task or until it’s their beloved paragon whose virtue is being questioned. Now as in times past, perhaps, even more, I write as an out queer lesbian elder of the United Methodist Church disappointed by yet another hurtful statement FROM THE PULPIT.

Near the end of her sermon, Bishop Lewis gave the most prophetic words of the night: “We have the opportunity to speak new vision into our community.” I envision a Church so transformed by the power of the love of God that what we say – about Black and Brown people, about women, about the disabled, about the poor, about immigrants, about persons of other faith traditions, and about the LGBTQ community – matches the love of God that fills our hearts.

Religion, Sexual Orientation, Theology

Congratulations and Many Prayers Bishop Abrams!

2 Comments 20 October 2013

This morning I read an article by detailing the resignation of Detroit bishop, Allyson D. Nelson Abrams from Zion Progress Baptist Church. In March, Bishop Abrams married bishop emeritus Diana Williams of Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C. According to the article, Bishop Abrams decided to step down to avoid further division within the church whose membership had mixed responses to her stepping down and to her same-sex marriage. I find it admirable that she had what appears to be a good number of members who were quite supportive of both her coming out and remaining on as pastor. She has even garnered the support of Rev. Dr. Charles C. Adams, lovingly known by many as the “Harvard Whooper.”

Some may wonder why Bishop Abrams did not remain as pastor and use her coming out and subsequent marriage as opportunity for critical reflection and discussion about sexual identity and orientation within this very church that had witnessed and benefited from her dynamic ministry. Some even wonder why, after coming out and admitting her same-sex marriage to another woman, Bishop Abrams is so reluctant to “classify” her sexual orientation.

I think the answer to both these questions is in the bishop’s own words. In the article we are told that this is her first same-sex relationship and that her theology about “love and orientation changed ‘ a little over a year ago’.” My own experience with coming out was such a time of trying to understand who I was that “how I identify” was not even in the picture! Like Abrams I had been married to a man (in my case almost 16 years). I liked men. Found them sexy. But I was physically attracted to women. Coming out of one normative constraint only to be held to another at a time of trying to figure it all out was not something I wanted to do. Fortunately for me, I had my research to turn to and that research led me to queer theory. Queers are persons who persons who defy normative sexual categories, binary constructs of gender and support sexual fluidity. Many years since my coming out I can have genuinely productive discussions about human sexuality in the church. But those first few years, I was trying to overcome years of being taught horrible things in the church about “homosexuals.” Years of being told that anything short of being heterosexual would guarantee a ticket to hell. Years of squashing my attraction to women. Years of being ashamed and afraid.

So yes, she did hide her relationship. But too many churches- especially those with members who are predominately people of color – make the idea of coming out and being in a loving relationship with another consenting adult, just totally unacceptable “behavior.” Remember, she had given her life for the church. Her ministry is not only her vocation but also her identity. I believe she loved those members and it tore her heart to think of hurting them in any way. Better to simply walk away than to think you are damaging a ministry you helped build.

This type of event happens more often than is told. So I am especially thankful to hear Bishop Abrams’ story just as I am especially sensitive to those experiences from which her story is derived.

And there are others…




Long Fall For the Czar

No Comments 26 September 2010

The recent charges brought against Bishop Eddie Long are long overdue. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if criminal charges are not soon brought against him as well. One can only hope.

And the gullible offer the usual naive responses: “Only Jesus can judge him.” “Touch not mine anointed” “This is just devilish spiritual warfare against the man of God!” “What if God allowed our lives to be shown to the public?” “Just pray for him” Well, I can tell you: 1. Naw, not only Jesus but the US court system is going to judge him. 2. Anointing extends beyond clergy and includes innocent children. 3. Which man of God? 4. Using this tactic to shame the critics of Long is ridiculous! And actually, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if God were to put the spotlight on perpetrators guilty of the same charges alleged of Long. Continue Reading

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