Darnell: I think that it is fair to say that you and I are what some might call "church boys." I know that some Christian folks tend to place "God" and "gay" in the same sentence when they are referencing "sin" and "hell," but faith and spirituality are important to a lot of LGBTQ folks. The fact that the two of us are connected to faith traditions shouldn't be a surprise, then. I thought about this while we were preparing for the Mississippi LGBTQI2-S 2012 INFusion Conference a few weeks ago. We both had our perceptions of how conference attendees -- folks who live within the Bible Belt -- would respond to conversations on LGBTQ issues. I thought that it would be a challenge, and they proved me wrong. Interestingly, before we left our hotel room, we were listening to gospel music, and I was struck by the fact that we non-church-going, "progressive," gay black men, who have often critiqued Christians who espouse violent theologies, were still moved by gospel music and the communal worship that we experienced in churches. That fact alone tells me that people of faith don't all think and behave the same. Do you agree? Where are you now in terms of your own faith journey?
Wade: Yes, being in Mississippi made me realize how much I missed the church, especially given that I'm such a fan of the Mississippi Mass Choir. And though I do not participate in organized religion, my relationship with God is personal. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that fact, but it is where I am in my journey right now. Religion, or the church, was something that was a huge part of my adolescent experience. Part of me believes I "did my time." I went to church three to five times per week until I left for college, yet I felt as if I'd be judged for living in my truth by people who really hadn't or wouldn't take the time to get to know all of me. So I decided to stop attending. I wanted to protect my family from having to answer questions about my sexuality behind my back, and I didn't feel that my sexual orientation was anyone's business, to be frank. I wanted to go to church to enjoy and enhance my relationship with God and not think about whether anyone was whispering about the "gay ex-football player." Thankfully, I've gotten to a place where I understand that my relationship with God is just that: my relationship. How has your relationship with God and religion changed over time?
Darnell: So much has changed for me, too. I am a lot healthier, spiritually and psychologically, because of it. I was a Bible-touting, scripture-quoting minister-in-training. I preached and sang in choirs and would minister to folks at bus stops, in prisons, etc. Yes, I was that guy. And for all the love (and disdain) that I preached, for all the prayers that I lifted up for myself and others, for all the moments that I would seek spiritual counsel and "deliverance" from a sexual and affective connection to other men, I was deeply depressed, suicidal and self-hating. I was a mess, quite honestly. And my relationships with others and my God reflected the mess that I was. Then, one day, I looked in the mirror and truly saw myself. I saw a person who was worthy of living. I asked myself, "If I can love me, and if my mom can love me as I truly am, why, then, is it impossible for this all-loving God to love me?" That same day I decided that I would rather go to "hell" for living in my truth than make it to "heaven" on the wings of a lie. That was a big moment for me. I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition, and I really believed that hell would be my lot. I don't believe in hell anymore, but at the time my whole theological system was uprooted and destroyed. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me at that moment.
Wade: What I find most interesting and sad is that the church is supposed to be a place where people can go to receive comfort and be part of a community in times of need, yet you and I both decided that the church wasn't a place for comfort or community when we needed it the most. I often think back to my childhood days. I remember like it was yesterday those moments when folks in my church would say that "God is love" and that "love is God's greatest gift." However, I discovered that love was not a "gift" that some received from some members of my church. I heard people gossiping about perceived gay members of my church. In retrospect, I wish that I had stayed and remembered that the only person I should have been worried about was the one who truly loves me unconditionally, and that is God. But I'm in a better place now and understand that "don't ask, don't tell" policies exist within many religious settings. Clearly, the military doesn't own a patent on that idea. How do you perceive your relationship with God now, even though you and I both do not attend church regularly?
Darnell: I want to be clear and note that there isn't a monolithic "church," or "black church," for that matter. There are many churches, and some ground their beliefs in homophobic and even sexist theologies, and some resist "-isms" altogether. I have attended churches where folks gave confirming and loud "amens" when derogatory words like "sissy" were used, and others where congregants publicly celebrated queer folks. I should also mention that there are some progressive queer folks who might consider themselves post-religious or post-Christian who think of spiritual or religious folks as somehow less rational or senseless because they are members of faith communities. That thinking is just as problematic as homophobic theologies. So whether some churches dismiss folks because they are queer and some queers dismiss folk because they are religious, both are wrong. As for me, I have done away with a "god" that some others created for me, and I refuse to give thought to theologies that kill rather than heal my spirit.
Wade: Preach! I'm with you, but there's a part of me that misses going to church, and as soon as football season ends (Mom, don't kill me!), I'm going to search for a church home that welcomes me -- all of me. As I get older I desire to have an intimate relationship with God, and I want to be a member of a church. There were many times that I would sit and listen to a song or a wonderful sermon and the Spirit was palpable. I miss that. Being in Mississippi and having conversations with mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who are church-going folks really excited my spirit and in some ways renewed my faith in the human spirit and the idea that things are changing outside and inside many churches. I want to be a part of that change. I want to have conversations with pastors and congregants about sexuality, not just homosexuality, and help create spaces where other people who feel like me can have a space to engage in conversations about how the church can be there for them and not alienate them.
Darnell: Indeed, Wade. Many LGBTQ people desire spiritual communities, but many of us end up dispossessed because of others' refusal to accept us "as we are" within our communities. Thankfully, there are faith leaders (like Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder of the City of Refuge Church in San Francisco and Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship; Rev. Cedric Harmon, who is an ordained pastor affiliated with the National Baptist and Missionary Baptist Churches and co-director of Many Voices; Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Wiley and his wife, Rev. Dr. Christine Y. Wiley, who are co-pastors of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.; and writer/speaker/theologian Rev. Irene Monroe, among many, many others across the country and world) who are facilitating the creation of affirming worship communities. As my friend Rev. Janyce Jackson, co-pastor of the LGBTQ-affirming Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church in Newark, noted when asked where the black church is in the larger LGBTQ struggle, "we are the black church!" And she was right.