Whitney R-E Bond is a Ph.D. student in the field of theology, ethics, and the human sciences at Chicago Theological Seminary. Her research centers on womanist approaches to bridging gaps between pastoral care and practical theology within spiritual spaces, primarily Black churches, for queer-identifying individuals. She is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Spelman College.
When stories and histories are shared, it’s important to clearly identify who shares, who tells the stories, and whose narratives are missing from the collective experience. As someone who has studied Black Church culture academically and as part of my personal spiritual epistemology, I knew I was taking a risk in hoping to witness part of my identity formation witnessed on my television, as I watched The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. My social location and lived experience as a Black Queer woman knew that to hope for multiple LBGTQ+ voices to be included equally, if equability was not a possibility, was a long stretch. With each new segment, I waited to see if a Black Queer person would come across my screen to tell the story of how Queer folks shaped what we know as the Black Church.
In any context, it is extremely important how this collective narrative is shared on a public platform. It shapes how it is digested and how it’s lived out in the world. Thankfully, Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ, was invited to co-labor in this endeavor. But as the only openly Queer clergy person, it was disheartening and expected. I want to make a clear distinction that this is not a critique of Bishop Flunder or her work. What her presence suggests, however, is that as long as one Queer person is included, then the diversity marker can be marked as “done” on someone’s inclusivity to-do list. The individual and collective narratives of Black Queer persons must be included everywhere, and especially when the histories of Black people of faith are being told.
The individual and collective narratives of Black Queer persons must be included everywhere, and especially when the histories of Black people of faith are being told.
If you were to ask the average Black Queer person who has spent significant time in Black churches about their experience in those spaces, they would all probably note how Queer congregants were treated. Typically, sexual identities were shamefully discussed by other members and/or Queer people were allowed to serve the church in various ways as ushers, choir directors, and praise team leaders, but never given room to fully be themselves within this community. This culture of secrecy often becomes the initial site of spiritual trauma. Whether through word or deed, LGBTQ+ members know where our identities begin and end based on how spaces respond to our sexual identities and what we represent. This leads to what I like to call “sectional plate living.” This occurs when individuals represent the plate containing all of our “food,” and we determine when/where/if others will be able to see everything on our plates, the fullness of who we are. Essentially, we learn how to live disjointed lives.
Monday through Saturday, our true identities are fully lived, but this changes when Sunday comes. And why is that? Honestly, most Black churches have not created a true culture of inclusion. When all couples cannot be included in marriage ministries and children of Queer parents cannot share in baby dedications, these churches perpetuate a culture of disembodiment of self (spiritually, emotionally, and mentally). When Black churches begin to demonstrate what heaven looks like on earth, we will begin to see God’s movement in new and refreshing ways. The truth is that the Black Church docuseries was centered on cis-hetero persons. There was space for various cisgender persons, yet only one Queer clergy representative was found in this two-part series. This simultaneously subtle and piercing erasure was not only noticeable, but it also shows pastors and other church leaders that the dominant narrative will be prioritized, regardless of at whose expense it occurs.
When all couples cannot be included in marriage ministries and children of Queer parents cannot share in baby dedications, these churches perpetuate a culture of disembodiment of self.
As I reflected on my own journey into being able to publicly state how I identify, I thought of those who were shamed into silence or into a theology that made them believe they were not created in God’s image because of their same-sex attraction. Many of us have experienced, whether personally or within our community, someone who had to have “the gay prayed out” of them by spiritual leaders. Since I was a child in the 1990s, singer and songwriter Donnie McClurkin has publicly talked about how God delivered him from homosexuality. Whenever someone uses the term “deliverance,” I notice how they define or live out deliverance. What they typically do is suppress or deny themselves of whatever their “struggle” is.
For me, deliverance means that one shows no signs of struggle or connection to what once caused the identified strife and are living their lives as whole persons. McClurkin’s recent “UNCENSORED” episode on TV One reminded me of the damage caused by Black Church culture and spaces, and how, sadly, we will often participate in our trauma. For decades, his homosexuality deliverance testimony was shared, preached, and forced on members of various Black churches, regardless of denomination, because if God can deliver Donnie, God can deliver you! Yet, what happens when the deliverance doesn’t come? Are we not praying and fasting enough? Is God not able to do all things? Why hasn’t deliverance come for Queer folks? In short, we are the deliverance manifested.
Why hasn’t deliverance come for Queer folks? In short, we are the deliverance manifested.
In the New Testament, the story of the woman with the issue of blood is shared in three of the four gospels. However, in Mark’s account, it says the woman was healed because she told the truth. Or, as The Message translation suggests, she took “a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole.” Do we see how transformative the creation of intentional communities of faith that allow members to show up as their full selves can be? To use McClurkin’s platform as an example, think of the music ministers on smaller platforms who witness the narratives and theological implications placed upon him. If McClurkin, someone who sings and preaches across the world, can’t feel safe enough to live into who God called and ordained him to be, then how can we?
Often the most unfortunate and hurtful part is that congregations love the gifts and what Queer folks bring to the collective ministry—song, time, money, etc.—but they don’t love all of us. They get our songs, our stories, our beautifully prepared dishes and clothes, but at what cost and at whose expense? They see our alabaster jars and don’t know what it cost for us to fill it. “Alabaster Box” by CeCe Winans reminds us of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who was willing to spend all she had, just to be close to Jesus. “The room grew still as she made her way to Jesus. She stumbled through the tears that made her blind. She felt such pain, some spoke in anger. Heard folks whisper, ‘There's no place here for her kind...’” We have filled our alabaster jars with healing oil. Oil that sings with conviction. Oil that tarries until a change comes. And we’ve done it in our secret places.
Often the most unfortunate and hurtful part is that congregations love the gifts and what Queer folks bring to the collective ministry—song, time, money, etc.—but they don’t love all of us.
While some of us haven’t found “communities strong enough to hold our truths” as Dr. Itihari Toure states, we have found safety in God’s Spirit—the presence that meets us in our prayer closets and that allows us to pray, preach, and prophesy with fervent power. Spiritual communities, like Black churches, often forget that Black Queer individuals are also “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) and that when God “formed (me) in the womb, God knew (me)” (Jeremiah 1:5). They celebrate and uplift our gifting and anointing, while not always recognizing the cost we often pay for taking a risk to tell and live our truth. For many of us, once we refused to live disembodied lives in order to be in relationship with God, we began to shift the public narrative of who has access to God and how God is manifested in flesh. Which, at its root, is the foundation of how Black churches came into being. And, this is why, when we tell the story, we must tell the whole story. There is a place here for our kind and without us, the Black Church couldn’t and wouldn’t exist.
This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University.