When I was a child, it seemed as though everyone was hell-bent on telling me where, as a Black person and as a woman, I did not belong. I did not belong on athletic teams because I am of the “fairer” sex. I did not belong in the school district’s Gifted and Talented programs because Black kids aren’t “smart enough” to be distinguished scholars. Like my other Black sisters, I have had to fight for inclusion in various gendered and racialized spaces. However, there was always one space no one could deny me access: the Church.
The Black Church is a revolutionary realm. It is where we, as a community, took a religion violently imposed on us by means of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, and turned it into a beautiful, spiritual experience. In fact, many modern Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and other Protestant church rituals are still informed by our afro-Diasporic roots. “Rituals in African American Christian churches include call and response interactions between the congregation and preacher, calls for Parishioners to approach the altar to embrace Christ, the laying on of hands and personal communion with the Holy Spirit,” explains Jocelyn Prince in “The Role of Ritual in the African American Church and Theatre.” Our praise honors our heritage by preserving many of the traditions inherent to our afro-Diasporic communities.
Moreover, the Black Church, while obviously imperfect and still patriarchal, has rejected—in practice—the idea that womyn must remain silent and learn quietly. Black womyn essentially have built Black churches for centuries. Even when forced to occupy background positions, we control the Church. The Pastor moves the congregation to its feet, but no one defies the Church Mothers. We are the cornerstones of many congregations, the ones who cook for church dinners, who raise the future leaders of the church, who are quite often the most passionate about our faith. As Black womyn, we have often found ourselves relying on the Spiritual to cope with the violence of reality. Bruises paint our knees black and blue from nights kneeling in supplication. Our hands are the first to hold our siblings in Christ when they need prayer. Our voices linger in the sanctuary, whispering songs of victory, even after the pews have long been empty.
And yet, it seems as though the Church is the last place for queer people, and many members of the LGBTQ community opt to distance themselves from God, or from homophobic congregations. I have spoken to a number of queer Black womyn who agree that, in spite of the religiously grounded homophobia, it is not so easy to cut off ties from our sacred spaces. Frequently, our unique relationship becomes a divisive factor in the big, white-dominated queer community that insists that if the Church isn’t playing nice, we simply should not go. But, how can we leave one of the few spaces where we historically have been granted authority and agency?
I don’t think that the problem is the Black Church, but rather the way the Black Church has adopted white supremacist principles. Describing the historical relationship between the Black Church and gay people, writer and feminist bell hooks defends, “It is no accident that the most ‘out’ of [Jim Crow era] gay people were often singers and musicians who first made their debut in the [Black] Church. Just as the Church can and often does provide a platform encouraging the denigration and [ostracism] of homosexuals, a liberatory House of God can alternatively be the place where all are made welcome—all are recognized as worthy.” The Black Church is not inherently homophobic, but rather, an extension of our communities wherein we are allowed to be equals even when mainstream society maintains that we are inferiors. hooks further elucidates, “In some small segregated Black communities, the Church was a safe house, providing both shelter and sanctuary for anyone looked upon as different or deviant, and that included gay believers.”
If anything, we queer Black womyn cannot give up on the Black Church. The Black Church has lost sight of its roots, but if we leave our home, who will remain to remind our siblings in faith that we belong? We need to know our history, and to teach those who worship alongside us about the love that has been embedded in our spirituality. The cornerstone bears the weight of the structure, and if we are truly the cornerstones of the Black Church, we retain the power to influence whom our spiritual families accept. Through us, the Church can return back to its roots of communal love and reception.
When I first began my process of coming out to myself, and to other people, I knew that one of the hardest parts of my journey would be the inevitable God-hates-gays sermon. I spent many tearful nights asking God why He let me be this way if He loved me. But the Sunday evening when a white visiting preacher screamed, “Someone here is living in sin—homosexuality, adultery, promiscuity—and this person will die tonight,” I felt a sense of peace that reassured me that I was not condemned. You see, in the midst of my spiritual-sexual identity warfare, I happened to stumble across a promise that spoke to my femininity, my Blackness, and my queerness. “God is in the mist of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Psalms 46:5). God is in the midst of us, and with patience, perseverance, faith and love, I believe we beautiful, queer Black womyn can be in the midst of the Church once again.
– Helen McDonald
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at BloodyShrubbery.com.