For over a century, African-American clergy have descended upon Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia for an annual pilgrimage to the Hampton University Ministers' Conference. The week-long convening, held the first full week in June, is regarded as the largest ecumenical gathering of black clergy in the nation. The Conference was regarded as the political, cultural, and theological epicenter of progressive black American Christian thought and praxis, where many of America's civil rights voices like Dr. King, Benjamin Mays, Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman, and Prathia Hall-Wynn found a spiritual home. It continues to draw big name speakers like T.D. Jakes, President Obama, and a host of other preachers and politicians who clamor for the opportunity to address conference attendees.
As upwards of 8,000 clergy convene next week at Hampton University, an interesting yet disturbing subtext has emerged that casts a cloud over the gathering. Ever since the university published the conference brochure earlier this year, many insiders and conference attendees have noticed the name of one clergy leader conspicuously omitted from the list of executive officers. It would seem that the omission of Delman Coates' name as a member of the Executive Council was no accident at all. Rev. Delman Coates, the senior pastor of an 8,000-member church in suburban Washington, D.C. and a former candidate for Lt. Governor of Maryland, was apparently dismissed last year from his leadership post in the conference despite serving his position since 2010. What has troubled observers is the emerging consensus that Coates was ousted because of his vocal support of marriage equality and LGBT rights in Maryland and across the nation.
A leader who has been nationally recognized for his work on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to criminal justice reform, income inequality, and fair policing, Coates has been regarded as a rising star in the fight for human rights and social justice. Ebony Magazine and The Root identified him as being among the nation's most important African American leaders, and Rev. Al Sharpton tapped him to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Action Network.
That is why many progressive black clergy and attendees of the Hampton conference were surprised to see that Coates was dismissed as an officer despite a track record of proven leadership and the Conference's own long-held tradition of progressive leadership. For many others, Coates dismissal is not so surprising given the controversy he has stirred as an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights and marriage equality--issues many black religious leaders remain steadfastly opposed to. In 2012, Coates played what the Human Rights Campaign has called a key role in getting same-sex marriage legalized in Maryland when he supported an initiative legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. It appears that Coates' support of LGBT rights has exposed latent bigotry and homophobia within the conference that has characterized other popular segments of American Christianity.
Even more disturbing are the comments made by the Rev. Errol Gilliard, Senior Pastor of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church of Baltimore, Maryland regarding Coates' removal. In a sermon delivered June 15, 2014, two weeks after last year's election of officers and airing on Gilliard's weekly radio broadcast, Gilliard attributes Coates' support of same-sex marriage as the reason Coates was not re-elected. Gilliard states that the chair of Hampton's nominating committee, the Rev. Dr. A.C.D. Vaughn, Senior Pastor of the Sharon Baptist Church of Baltimore, informed him that Coates' support of marriage equality came with "consequences," the consequence in this instance being that he was not welcome back as an officer of the Hampton University Ministers' Conference (Click HERE for audio clip of Gilliard's sermon).
Misogyny and homophobia -- disguised as theological orthodoxy -- have a long history in the black church. Based upon Coates' public writings, it appears that his work is an attempt to model an alternative vision of the Black church's stance on gay rights. His quiet dismissal is an unfortunate reminder that the Black church has more work to do on the issue of inclusion and compassion. The Conference's affiliation with Hampton University, an institution of higher learning that claims to support intellectual freedom and diversity, is also deeply disturbing. Coates' dismissal is being viewed by some as a move by conference leadership to police the free flow of ideas within the black church and to make a strong statement about the Conference's stance on LGBT rights. A conference that for many was at one time a bastion of progressive African American religious thought, now appears to have come under the influence of an ecclesiastical sub-culture that seeks to punish theological diversity on matters of sexuality and engage in professional reprisal. While it is still a special gathering, much of the justice emphasis that characterized the conference in the past, has been replaced by an emphasis on personal piety, a trend reflective of the current Christian landscape in America.
For #BlackLivesMatter and other 21st century freedom movements, issues of community, solidarity, are intersectionality in the Black community are more poignant than ever before. And the people that have long been excluded from our communities will no longer be silenced or support institutions that refuse to openly support them. The Black church is not exempt, though it has served interminably as a source of cultural pride and preservation, education, economic support, and political organization within our community. The Black church's capacity for mobilization of the Black community still cannot be overstated. That is why it's leadership and theological trajectory could never be more important than right now.
Can the black church hope to retain its legacy ground-zero for social justice work if it refuses to "do justice and love mercy" in the areas of gender and sexual orientation while silencing religious leaders like Coates and others who seek to make equality a lasting reality for all people? Should it? If justice is indivisible as Dr. King said, can the same black clergy who oppose LGBT equality be taken seriously in their public protests against police brutality? If Coates' dismissal from leadership in one of the nation's largest ecumenical gatherings of black clergy is any indication, the black church is prepared to further entrench itself in centuries old ways of thinking that have oppressed and marginalized more folks than it has liberated and helped to save.
Ahmad Cheers is a senior philosophy major at Morehouse College, former member of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Assistants Program, writer, public intellectual, and member of the Ubuntu Writing Collective.
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