By Rev. Irene Monroe
Black History Month, a national annual observance since 1926, is a time for honoring and celebrating the achievements of African Americans and their institutions, including the Black Church. Despite what seems like an ongoing cacophony of anti-gay rhetoric from some ministers, there is a growing number of Black LGBT-affirming pastors who continue to uphold the message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's social gospel of the 1960's Civil Rights movement by working toward equality for LGBT people. Too often we hear African American ministers espouse they are supportive of LGBT people but claim they are stymied by their parishioners and church polity. Not all churches, however, allow anti-LGBT sentiment to stand in the way.
Union United Methodist Church (UUMC), a predominately African American congregation, located in Boston's South End- the epicenter of the city's LGBTQ community is one of them.When Hilda Evans, a parishioner of UUMC, suggested in 1996 the church opens its doors to the entire Boston's South End community, four later years later it did. And on February 15, 2000, Union United Methodist Church, led by the now retired Rev. Theodore L. Lockhart, became the nation's first African American Methodist and denominational church to officially become a "reconciling and inclusive" church. Union’s church council adopted a unanimous resolution to enthusiastically welcome LGBT worshippers along with a statement announcing that UUMC "...affirm the full participation in all aspects of our church life of all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, regardless of their race, color, physical challenge, sexual orientation and/or affectional orientation.”
"The vote by Union United Methodist Church shows that even within the more strict religious institutions there is a diversity of opinions on gay and lesbian issues," said Donna Payne in 2000, then a Human Rights Campaign field organizer, working with people of color and the religious community. "Religious views on [LGBT issues] are not monolithic, and people of faith are increasingly speaking out in favor of full-inclusion for gay and lesbian worshipers in churches, synagogues and mosques throughout America. "Reverend Martin McLee, who served UUMC for eight years, had hoped the church would act as an example for other black churches on how to talk to the black community about LGBT equality. “We need to have a serious conversation about sexuality in our community,” McLee told Boston's black-owned newspaper, the Bay State Banner in 2002. “If we continue to marginalize our gay brothers and sisters, we are going to isolate them. It’s not holy.”
Whereas most black churches, locally and nationally, have been silent and/or inactive on the HIV/AIDS epidemic affecting their communities, UUMC continues to be an ally to this community. For example, before she died of AIDS, community AIDS activist Belynda Dunn, 49, brought frank talks about AIDS to the black church. And she did it first at UUMC. “... Belynda really lit a fire under me...That’s what Belynda did with everyone. She really helped us cross ideological lines and theological lines and not get hung up on the [LGBT inclusion]. She said to the black church: ‘Get over it, ’” said Rev. McLee.
UUMC was the first black church, and to date the only, to host Boston's Annual Gay Pride Interfaith Prayer service, and to have a "Happy Pride" sign posted in front of the church. ‘‘Gay folk have always been in the black church and the white church — that’s not new — but we don’t require folk to pretend that they’re not who they are, ’’ Rev. McLee told the Boston Globe in 2008.Since the church became inclusive of LGBT people, the congregation has hosted a gospel brunch after Sunday worship during Pride weekend for the African American community. McLee has since left UUMC, but the work toward LGBT inclusion continues on now with the Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, the first female pastor in the church’s 190-year history.
In June 2011, more than 100 Methodist ministers in New England pledged to marry gay couples in defiance of the denomination’s ban on same-sex unions. Approximately 1 out of 9 Methodist clerics signed a statement pledging to open their churches to same-sex couples that stated, “We repent that it has taken us so long to act...We realize that our church’s discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the church to the world, and we are [complicit].’’ The Rev. Easterling signed the statement saying she could not in good conscience deny a practicing member of her church her marriage blessing because the person is gay. “We’re laying on the line our ordination that many of us have worked four to eight years to get, as well as the expense and time of the seminary,’’ Easterling told the Globe. “I certainly stand by this movement.’’ UUMC is a movement, and it's an example not just for regional black churches in Boston, but nationwide.
Rev. Irene Monroe lives in Cambridge and is a Huffington Post blogger, and a syndicated religion columnist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Irene Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as Ford Fellow. As a syndicated queer religion columnist, Monroe's columns appear in 43 cities across the country and in the U.K.