Spiritual LGBT Life in the Big City

02/23/2012 06:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2012

Not one month into my tenure as pastor at Spirit of Hope in Detroit, the first guest in our community kitchen came out to me with his positive HIV status that was threatening to develop into AIDS. It counts as one of the most humbling moments of my life. A twenty-six year-old spiritual student of life, allowed to wear a plastic collar attached to his neat black dress shirt, is exposed to the reality of a man one generation older who lives on the streets. The man and I still talk regularly, but I do not know how or if he defines his sexual orientation, nor do I know anything about his sexual activity or gender preference. I do not even know how he contracted HIV.

Many in our Spirit of Hope community who define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are with us in the first faith community that ever accepted them. Not only our members, but many we serve and with whom we live in our near west and southwest sides of Detroit are estranged from family, friends, their home faith communities, their workplaces, neighbors and more. Yet the differences between the LGBT community defined in our church community, and the publicized and funded arm of the movement fighting for deserved civil rights, are all about economics, race and often even gender.

As the national conversation about the rights of the LGBT community revolves around marriage, our local community focuses on survival, on the man who came out with his HIV status. While I do not know his sexual orientation, I do know that the LGBT community here has embraced and supported him. At the risk of over-dramatization and negating the joy that outweighs the hurt in our community, it is not unheard of for our people to face beatings, homelessness, health risks and just plain loneliness in a world that is hostile to their, and our, very existence.

Marriage issues are important. Marriage rights put front and center the reality of the existence of LGBT people in our country. Marriage rights, when achieved, will increase the visibility of people suffering from oppression throughout our community. Yet we in the movement must be careful, because marriage rights must not be our final goal. The goal must be the lifting up of all members of our community in every context and reality of our peoples' existence. Marriage is one of many tools to achieve that goal, but not the only one.

The prevention of HIV, the housing of those who are rejected by family and friends, the building of relationships across racial and gender lines while being aware of systems of discrimination and prejudice, the use of our wealth to build long lasting systems of hope and the support of our LGBT elders who never had the luxury of being fully out must be at the top of our agenda as well.

Nine years ago, not long after I talked to the man mentioned above, I walked three blocks from Spirit of Hope to a local, more fundamentalist Christian youth organization that has a strong influence on many youth in our community. In those three blocks, I walked past abandoned and falling structures, one functioning drug house and several groups of youth milling about at bus stops and on street corners. Upon my arrival, one of the adult advisors at my destination informed me that the biggest threat to our youth is the rapid expansion of lesbianism in Detroit high schools. It was as if there was a Santorum bubble around this man that did not allow him to see reality, including the reality of a gay pastor standing before him.

Faith leaders must step forward now to teach and, if necessary, to shame those who abuse outsiders to uplift their own moral righteousness. Soon we begin the annual National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. Women's history month is here in March. Pride celebrations begin in June. Every day of the year we have an organization supporting and sheltering youth in Detroit and vicinity. We must lift up all of our community and get out of our spiritually neutral closets.

And to my fellow leaders in the establishment LGBT fight for justice, we must turn our eyes to our entire community. Race, gender and income are serious parts of our struggle. It means even more risk for our entire community that lives at the precipice of demoralization every day, especially in Michigan where beating up the LGBT community is a conservative sport. It may not feel like we have privilege, but comparatively, many of us do.

We have strength in numbers. Even battered and journey-weary travelers have power in the binds of common purpose. More people are on our side than we think. And even when we cannot see it happening, conservative shackles always yield to the spirit of justice that resides in the base of our historic living faiths. Truth always wins, even if it takes time to come out. Let us all come out together.