“God is love and love is for everyone,” says Bishop Tonyia Rawls. She is just one of a number of voices featured in the “Many Voices: A Black Church Movement for Gay and Transgender Justice” campaign. The movement “embraces the diversity of the human family and ensures that all are treated with love, compassion, and justice.”
If you’re a member of the queer community who grew up in the church, or you were a PK (Pastor/Preacher ‘s kid) like I was, then you’re probably all too familiar with the struggle. My story isn’t unique by any means – in fact, it’s sadly very typical. I grew up Methodist and came from a long line of Methodist preachers and church officers. My family has a legacy in my home church that will probably follow my children and grandchildren to come. Unfortunately, the church that holds such a rich history for my family, the one I was baptized and confirmed in, never felt like home to me. It never felt like a comfortable, safe or welcoming place. Getting bashed, shamed, ridiculed and sent to “hell in a hand-basket” from the pulpit was often a weekly occurrence for me. From the time I could walk to my own pew and long before I even knew what the words “gay, lesbian, or transgender” meant, I knew that it was wrong to be any of those things – or at least that’s what I was told every Sunday.
I became a Christian at a very young age partly because I loved Jesus, partly because it was just what you were SUPPOSED to do and partly because I was terrified of going to hell! I was told there was no salvation for someone like me and even before I really knew who and what I was, I knew I had better hide it from everyone. I, like many queer people in the church, tried to pray it away. Every night I’d ask God to please take away my attraction to women and every morning when I went to school and saw Mrs. Philips (named changed to protect the innocent), the FINEST English teacher who ever lived, I knew it hadn’t worked.
I thought God hated me and that He’d turned His back on me because He wasn’t answering the ONE request I made of him. To make matters worse, I attended a Christian boarding school all four years of high school which meant that I spent puberty locked in a dorm full of girls every night! How could a loving God who wanted me to change my ways allow THAT? I did my best to remain faithful but I’d end up sinning repeatedly in both my thoughts and my actions. Apparently, hormones don’t care one bit that you’re “sold out for Jesus.” It was a tortured existence and it went on for years.
Finally, I decided that if I was going to hell, I might as well have fun on the way and I kicked life into high gear. As soon as I left home and the watchful eye of my parents and my church, I partied dangerously. I made it my mission to be as promiscuous as I could. I tried to drown-out every sermon I’d ever heard that damned me to hell by getting into some situations that I knew were detrimental. Instead of suppressing my sexuality like I’d been forced to do all my life, I now suppressed my relationship with God, even though I could still feel Him calling out to me. I became bitter and resentful and angry at Him and at everyone else. It wasn’t until I began to really read and study the Bible for myself, conducting my own independent research about God and His everlasting love for me, that my life started to turn around. I learned that He loved me not despite who I was but because of it. He reminded me that He created me exactly the way that I am and that He doesn’t make mistakes. I felt liberated and healed and truly happy for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, my church back home hadn’t had the same liberation and change of heart. If anything, it has gotten worse in a country that is already a hostile climate for gays and lesbians. The church should help us, stand by us, protect us and pray for us. Instead, they are often our worst enemy. I still have to close my ears, bite my tongue, and cringe in my seat when I go back to the church that raised me.
That’s why I’m so moved by the message of “Many Voices” and their mission to change the way black churches see queer people. Maybe one day, because of the work of this campaign and others like it, they’ll see us as just…people…people who are loved by God.