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Souls 'a Fire 2
by Andrew Davis
2005-08-01

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The relationships of a variety of social issues as they relate to religion were examined at the conference known as Souls 'a Fire 2 ( 'Re-Imaging Black Religious Identity: Race, Class, Gender & Sexuality' ) , June 23-25 at the Chicago Theological Seminary. The gathering was the second national conference of the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry.

It turned out that the conference was aptly named: The lineup of kinetic speakers at each forum certainly sparked a firestorm.

Male problems

'Wrapped Up, Tied Up, Tangled Up: The Politics of Aesthetic Maleness and Masculinity in Black Religious Culture' was a forum presented by academics and artists that analyzed the role of gender as it relates to race and religion.

Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago presented a brief talk entitled 'Re-Imaging the Religious Identity of Black Male Homosexuals.' He commented that he was concerned about Black gays and lesbians out of a sense of 'vocational justice' for a group that he saw as a repressed segment of society. He also said that, as a Christian, he has had to deal with 'systemic constraints.' Lastly ( and most controversially ) , he declared that his own 'biblical exegesis' has led him to conclude that nowhere in the Bible does it state that Jesus is heterosexual.

Victor Anderson of Vanderbilt University presented 'Back to the Basics: A Challenge to the Sleeping Giant,' with the Black church representing the behemoth that alienates African-American gays and lesbians. He commented how all members of the church, including deacons, ushers and even other gays, 'participate in an elaborate conspiracy' to annihilate same-sex loving people. Anderson rolled off some statistics to illustrate his point; particularly telling was one poll result that showed that 74 percent of respondents viewed homosexuality as 'sinful.' He also noted that nothing—including the mass incarceration of young Black males and the war in Iraq—has mobilized African-American ministers more than the debate over same-sex marriage.

Northwestern University's E. Patrick Johnson talked about the passing of legendary pastor and gospel singer Rev. James Cleveland, who Jackson described as officially passing away due to natural causes when the Black gay community knew that AIDS was allegedly the actual reason. 'The fact of the matter is that most of the churches probably knew about his sexuality but chose to overlook it or deny it altogether,' Jackson opined. However, he found the most troubling aspect of Cleveland's life to be that the minister felt he had to conceal his sexuality because of his social position.

Jackson also talked about what he called the 'transgressive 'sissification' of church aesthetics,' embodied in the Black minister's campy acts of twirling as well as the choir member's prolonged fanning and preening. 'They are queering their masculinity,' he said. In addition, Jackson discussed growing up in church, where he learned that ' [ i ] t ain't the Army where you can be all that you can be. It's the church.'

Erica Edwards, a Ph.D candidate at Duke University, talked about an issue she termed 'charismatic authority' by examining the Reigniting the Legacy March that took place in Atlanta last December. [ The march, led by Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Church and the Rev. Bernice King—a daughter of Martin Luther King—was promoted as a 'protection of marriage.' ] In doing so, Erica made the connections between this type of authority, gender, and one's view of morality. She commented that the march was a 'call to crystallize aspects of sexual identity.' However, she added that 'it's not what the leader is, but it's how people see the leader.'

Johari Jabir, a musician and the conference's organizer, analyzed the relationship between the minister and the church organist—one that he says involves a 'negotiation of masculinity.' 'Masculinity is not merely about men,' Jabir said. 'Maleness and masculinity exist along a continuum of gender itself.' He underscored the relationship between the two by declaring that, although Black preachers may establish the rhythm, the musician 'puts everybody in the groove.' However, besides getting feet tapping, Jabir contended that music ( along with the institution of the church itself ) serves another, more pertinent purpose: analyzing class, sexuality and gender.

The forum's respondent, Maurice Wallace of Duke University, had the most sexually explicit presentation as he explored the connection between the spiritual and the erotic as he summarized the other speakers' discussions. He talked about how men who 'get happy' in church experience what he called a 'self-shattering,' which involves 'sacrificing one's aura of being penetrated instead of penetrating.' As the one who 'penetrates,' the minister's 'phallic ego is empowered,' Wallace commented. 'The straight man shouting gets caught up in a third heaven: feeling feelings.'

Personal Memories

The session entitled 'Un-Holy Ghosts: Decolonizing the Churches of Our Youth' was filled with ministers' personal accounts, which allowed the speakers' words to fully resonate with the audience.

Phyllis Penesse of Chicago's Pillar of Love Fellowship Church, spoke about not replicating the structures of oppression that older churches implemented. She also stressed that oppression and domination are overreaching genres that extend beyond sexuality, touching everything from gender to age. She opined that now is possibly the time to tear down and start things over by forfeiting 'spirits of grandeur' and leaving behind the language left by previous generations. Penesse also talked about people being bought into capitalism and the idea of megachurches as a yardstick for success; she even mentioned railing against capitalism in her own way by one preaching in a two-piece FUBU outfit.

John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ ( UCC ) in Hartford, Conn., discussed his Pentecost roots and what it means to be a 'neo-Pentecostal.' He asked several questions, including how does one live completely and with integrity while being receptive to other cultures ( e.g., how does a culturally aware Black person grow up in a white church ) . 'Are we willing to be changed in ways we hadn't anticipated?' he asked. Selders also talked about how people sometimes value others in terms of usefulness instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Tonyia Rawls of Pastor Unity Fellowship Church in Charlotte, N.C., challenged the audience to free itself from the 'un-holy ghosts' in their lives. She talked about seeing Jesus as the liberator—but questioned what freedom 'looks like' and 'what it is for.' She also talked about her perceptions of being a minister versus the reality. For instance, she commented that she expected her sexual orientation to be a problem in the church, but that turned out not to be the case.

e'Marcus Harper, who founded the Liberty Christian Center Church in Washington, D.C., discussed his childhood journey with the UCC and discovered that it is not 'necessary that one accepted his homosexuality. What's important is that one is in a church where he or she can discover that freely.' ( His talk reflected the phrase 'What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.' ) He also talked about how some of his past lovers did very secretive things ( such as have sex in the bushes ) because 'they were never told that they could live with integrity.' He concluded that in order 'to connect with churches [ and ] our past, we need to come from a place of strength and freedom' so that the oppressed do not end up becoming oppressors.

Donna Allen of New Revelation Fellowship Church in Oakland, Calif., in discussing her journeys to and through the ministry, talked about negotiating the structure of denominations. Allen reminded the audience that the bureaucracy of the Black church has produced masses of conformity that exclude the LGBTQI community—not through regulations or documents, but by a system of social control.

Wanda Floyd of Imani Metropolitan Community Church in Durham, N.C., discussed the difficulty of being Black, female and gay in a traditionally white denomination. Floyd also focused on the concept of reclamation. 'How can we reclaim [ certain hierarchal positions ] ?' she wondered. Like other speakers, Floyd advocated a restructuring of the system in order to acquire freedom—a freedom 'to be able to walk into church and not be stared at' as well as the right to see men and women in leadership roles. Like Penesse, Floyd also stressed the importance of language: 'We have to find words that are liberating, not oppressive.'

The respondent of this forum was Lynice Pinkard of the First Congregational Church UCC in Oakland, Calif. She effectively summarized the thoughts of the other speakers and posed her own inquiry: 'Do we identify [ in order ] to reverse patterns of domination?'


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