Interview by Aleia Mims
I recently sat down to interview Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams, a 43-year-old Baptist pastor who made headlines last fall when she resigned from her Detroit church after marrying a woman. The former elected official (she served as president on a Michigan school board) has since joined forces with various LGBT advocacy groups, began doing virtual ministry, and will be opening a new church, Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the beginning of May.
Although I was nervous about speaking with someone so accomplished, my fears were allayed in the first few minutes of the interview as it became clear that we were both two busy women doing what we do best—multi-tasking. She: doing her hair during a snowstorm. Me: closing my door at a busy turnaround urban middle school. When you talk to Bishop, you get the sense that you’re sitting at the feet of a stage and getting a one-on-one lecture. Your thinking is challenged and you soak in the knowledge that this woman of God has—that seems free from agenda, and instead coming from a place of love, affirmation, and confidence in the Spirit. She opens up about her next chapter and the miseducation of theology in the Black church.
ELIXHER: What has this journey has been like for you?
BISHOP ABRAMS: Being a Black pastor and bishop and coming out, people have not been as friendly from the Baptist tradition. All of my preaching engagements were cut off. All of my potential teaching conferences with those groups have been cut off. Even with being a writer with a global publishing company where I was one of the commentary writers for a Sunday school book, that’s gone. All the stuff that I worked very hard to build has now been erased.
It’s good because it frees you to be able to be able to say, “This is who I am,” and I no longer have to lead a dual life. I’m free to walk in authenticity everywhere. It’s just been refreshing to meet people who are confident in who God has graced them to be.
ELIXHER: What is it that makes us [the Black church] afraid to take that next step and evolve in our thinking?
BISHOP ABRAMS: One of the things is that we are so stuck in tradition and holding on to what we have been taught over the years that we don’t want to see the revelation of truth of the Scripture. Many people would prefer to believe a lie than to hear the truth. One of the things that people like Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Dwight Hopkins, [and] some other scholars who have studied Old Testament and have studied New Testament can say [is]: “This is not what these scriptures mean.”
You cannot allow other people to determine whether God has or has not called you. – Bishop Abrams
BISHOP ABRAMS: When you look at the church, you have to look at the miseducation on a lot of scriptures. I taught preachers the Biblical Interpretation class at the seminary for seven-plus years, and one thing I used to always tell them is that you cannot read the Bible on its face. You cannot take it literally. You have to do some exegetical work. What is the history of this text? What context was it said in? Who were the group of people they were talking to? What issue were they specifically addressing? Does this apply to everybody? The people don’t really want to do that type of study. They just want to read it, [assume] what it means, and say you can’t do this and you can’t do that. Our community has got to get to a point where we want to be educated to another level on the Bible.
I don’t have a problem with us being convicted about the Bible, convicted about God, convicted about our faith, but let us at least be convicted off the truth and what the Bible is really saying and know how to apply it in our lives. What bothers me is that we’ve hurt so many people, wounded so many people in error! We have people who will not go to church today because of what preachers have stood in the pulpit and said about this. We have people who have gone through all of this supposedly “deliverance therapy” and getting you away from this “spirit.” That is not the God we serve, that is not what the Bible said or means or indicates in what it is saying. And then people have to learn how to bring an over 2,000-year-old document up to today. Yes, it is the job of a pastor but if the pastor is not an educated person and has not learned those tools from seminary or some other training institution, they’re not going to know how to do that.
There’s so much information out there today because we live in the Information Age. There’s no reason why people would not understand that a lot of what was going on during that time was relative to the time in which they were living. [W]hen I first came out and talked to the newspaper myself (I went to the newspaper myself and gave my own story because as a former politician I was always taught you get ahead of any story that’s about to come out about you, you tell your own story)…
ELIXHER: Because if not, they’ll tell it for you.
BISHOP ABRAMS: Right, exactly! One of the things I told them, I said, “Are we Christians or are we Paulinians?”
ELIXHER: Yes, yes.
BISHOP ABRAMS: Because when you look at it, we hold so true to all the things Paul said but Paul is not the one who saved us, Paul is not the one who died for us. First of all, Paul did not even walk with Jesus. So now if we’re going to talk about following somebody, we need to be true to those things that Jesus said and we know those things are in the Bible.
ELIXHER: But you know that steps on a lot of toes if you even go there because you get the whole “Paul was divinely inspired” and you’re preaching heresy now according to a lot of people when you tell the truth.
BISHOP ABRAMS: Oh yeah, but I’m divinely inspired as well. Paul was one who was being groomed to be the Jewish leader. So all of his training was that. Now yes he was converted, but whenever you’re converted, you have to look at the fact that a lot of what you’ve been taught over the years is still there. The more you grow, the more you release that stuff. So when you look at epistles, the letters that he wrote to the different churches about different issues, you can see how he began to change over time but some of his old thinking was still there initially, and you can say that with anybody. When somebody becomes a new Christian, some of that old thinking is still there as you learn and embrace this new way, the new Christ that you’re following but you can’t say that that stuff is released overnight.
Now yes, I agree that he was inspired, the Spirit led him to address certain topics, certain issues to deal with certain things that were going on in his church, encourage people, build people or convert people. Yes that is inspiration and the Holy Spirit will lead you to do that. We are inspired all today.
I have people who said they have never heard a pastor tell that God loves them the way that they are and that they were created in God’s image. I was totally shocked because that to me is Church 101. – Bishop Abrams
ELIXHER: What are some of the things you’ve found yourself releasing and growing from over your ministry?
BISHOP ABRAMS: I would say one key thing is that you cannot allow other people to determine whether God has or has not called you. Secondly, I had to release language that was not inclusive. When I was in seminary back in ’98 at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio I learned that I had to work on and grow to be inclusive and use inclusive language and to be sensitive to others’ experiences and walks.
ELIXHER: What would you say to same gender loving people about being accepted or finding a church that reaches them?
BISHOP ABRAMS: That’s the problem I’m having now. I’m finding that so many people are out of the church and refuse to go to church that are in the LGBTQIA community, so I try to tell people that you don’t have to be ashamed. I do a Bible Study conference call every Wednesday, and one of the things I told the young people that were on the call is that God loves you and God created you in God’s own image. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you the way that you are. You are talented, beautiful, just as you are. There is some purpose in life for you. I have people who said they have never heard a pastor tell that God loves them the way that they are and that they were created in God’s image. I was totally shocked because that to me is Church 101, but so many people are wounded and hurt because they love God, they feel that God doesn’t love them, that they’re going to Hell, and that they cannot be in the church unless they change.
ELIXHER: Where can someone find information about all of your various ministries and services that you offer?
BISHOP ABRAMS: We have a website, www.empowermentliberationcathedral.org. When I came out, I established a GoFundMe because I needed people to assist me and try to make sure that I was still a voice. I haven’t had a lot of support with that. But I do know that in order for the LGBT community to have representation in the pulpit, sometimes you have to step out and help those who are representing you because I have seen that the people are okay with the LGBT person sitting in the pew, but they have some serious issues with the pastor, the leader, the bishop being LGBT. [T]here are LGBTQ [faith] leaders. We have to support those leaders because if the LGBTQ community doesn’t support them, who’s going to support them?
Aleia Mims is a mother, daughter, sister, and friend for whom writing is a form of liberation. She shares her journey so that others may name their own experiences and realize their higher truths. Her commitment to self-empowerment was a key feature of her eleven years as a classroom teacher, and remain as such with her current work as an educator based in Dallas, TX.
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