Aisha Moodie-Mills and Sally Steenland talk with Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Wiley, co-pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., about his work toward LGBT equality within the church. They also discuss a new CAP report, “All Children Matter,” about the legal and social inequalities that hurt LGBT families.
Sally Steenland: Rev. Wiley, it’s often said that rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people is a “white issue.” You say that’s not true. In fact, you’ve said in your writing and speaking that “gays are us.” Tell us what you mean.
Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Wiley: I simply mean that a lot of times in the black community, we find that some of our leaders and others decrease the emphasis on LGBT rights. They often say we have more important issues. Partly this might be because whites are often in the forefront of the LGBT movement. But there are other reasons too. They’re related to racism, the centrality of a kind of conservative religiosity within the African American community, the quest for respectability and civility within the larger society, as well as sometimes not as much educational exposure as we would like to have. My argument is simply to remind us that in our families, on our jobs, in our schools and neighborhoods, and of course in our churches, LGBT people are all around us. We have adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy instead of allowing our LGBT brothers and sisters to affirm who they are and support them.
Aisha Moodie-Mills: Another thing you talk about in your “Gays Are Us” series is the connectedness of oppressions. You lay out three different oppressions and how they are interrelated. Can you talk about connecting the dots?
D: Martin Luther King has been a tremendous influence on me and my theology. So have many others, including James Cone, whom I studied with for my doctorate of philosophy degree at Union Theological Seminary. He is considered to be the father of black theology.
I grew up in a black Baptist church in the south, and so I have always been in the church. In terms of connecting those dots, Martin Luther King, toward the end of his life, put a strong emphasis on racism, materialism, and militarism as the three giants of oppression. In so doing, he was connecting the dots. He was helping us understand that the issue of black people in this country is not just racism in an isolated way. We must also look around the world and be in solidarity with the freedom for oppressed people anywhere. That relates not only to racism in America but to poverty and classism wherever it may exist. Dr. King also understood he could not be a nonviolent warrior in America without being against the insidious violence that is perpetuated by this nation and other nations on each other. And so he came out strongly against the war in Vietnam. He got in a lot of hot water with that. He was controversial but he was very strong and very clear.
Today it seems clear that other issues have risen to the surface, including sexism, as well as heterosexism, which has to do with discrimination against our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters.
We are complex human beings. None of us lives in an isolated silo. We are people who need health care, employment, and good housing. We need education. We hope that we will not be trapped in the criminal justice system, which is now being called the new Jim Crow. These are issues that we as human beings need to confront together. We can’t just say, “I am going to deal with this one issue and ignore the others.” We need to be sensitive, involved, and engaged in all these issues.
S: You wrote some beautiful articles for CAP where you gave persuasive rebuttals to arguments within African American communities against gay and lesbian rights. You talked about history, religion, the family, manhood, and more. Can you give us some headlines from those arguments?
D: The argument concerning history is that a lot of times people argue that the LGBT issue is not part of our history as African Americans—that somehow we were influenced by Europeans to adopt it. This is totally false. Homosexuality is a part of the human experience. It is not relegated to one race or ethnicity.
In terms of religion, that is perhaps the strongest obstacle in terms of embracing full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. For black people in this nation, the church has been the central institution ever since slavery times. And the Bible has been the center of the church. But it has often been a very conservative interpretation of the Bible, so we have latched on to this conservatism, especially as it relates to sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.
The argument of the family suggests that marriage equality and gay rights are somehow against the family. We had a wonderful experience at the Center today as the report “All Children Matter” was released. I was on a panel and said that I speak from personal experience, not speculation, conjecture, or theory. My wife and I co-pastor a church in Ward 8, the poorest ward in Washington, D.C., and a predominantly African American ward. We have determined that our church will be an inclusive church, welcoming and affirming all people regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, identity, age, or ability. That sort of makes us radical within this nation’s capital. But we simply see it as trying to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have some of the strongest families in our church that are parented by LGBT people.
The last point you mentioned has to do with manhood, and that is related to the family issue. Coming out of slavery, sexual stereotypes were imposed upon black people. And even during slavery one’s manhood was challenged in terms of men not being able to legally marry or keep their families intact because they were broken up at will. In the Jim Crow era, not only did lynching continue but there were other forms of discrimination and oppression where a black man could not figure into the traditional macho definition of manhood. It is out of that kind of experience that some of our black men have tended to be sensitive to anything that suggests they are feminine or have inequalities related to femininity.
A: I grew up in a black southern Baptist church too, and I don’t recall the ministry encouraging the thoughtfulness about scripture that you present. It was presented more as dogma that urged you to simply adhere to what the pastor says without question. I am curious what reactions you get when you offer your rebuttals to anti-LGBT arguments to parishioners, other pastors, and people in the community. And how do we operationalize these views and move to a place as a community where we act based on these principles?
D: It has been a mixed reaction. Some people are very resistant. For instance, when I started doing Bible studies that deal with the issue of sexuality, especially homosexuality, there were some people in the congregation who made up their minds they were not coming. If they heard “he is teaching that again,” they would stay away. And then I must admit, my wife and I took a very radical step when we performed two union ceremonies in our congregation, two years before marriage equality was legalized in the district.
Taking that step brought quite a bit of backlash and fallout from our congregation. Many members gradually left the church because they were okay as long as we were saying we were welcoming to LGBT persons, as long as we could say that we were “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” But that is problematic because we believe it denies the essential and authentic personhood of these individuals. And so we have been through quite a transformation. But it is indeed a paradigm shift that is happening.
I am sorry we lost those members but I am glad we gained new members, and these are members who are thirsty for this kind of ministry. They have come out of situations where they have been oppressed, where they have been abused, where they haven’t been allowed to exercise their intellectual ability to struggle with scripture. As one of my ministers who came to us Sunday said, “We don’t have to protect God. We may feel like we have to protect each other, but God can take it.”
We encourage critical thinking and struggling with the scriptures. We also encourage understanding, and this is why we united with the United Church of Christ. God didn’t stop speaking when the last word of the Bible was written. God is still speaking. God not only speaks through the Bible but indeed through experience, through culture, through history. Also in the Christian church, we claim that Jesus Christ is the living word. So even though he died many years ago, he was resurrected and still speaks to us today.
S: Some would say that’s the Holy Spirit.
D: The Holy Spirit is right. Three in one, exactly.
S: I want to go back to Dr. King. The civil rights movement was steeped in social justice—yet very often LGBT equality, which is another social justice movement, is seen as completely separate from the civil rights movement, with the two having nothing in common. You have preachers steeped in the civil rights movement opposed to LGBT rights. How do you square that with the unifying theme of social justice? If you take one, do you have to take the other?
D: I think you do. But I am very disappointed with some of my brothers and sisters who are very steeped in the history of the civil rights movement and emerged out of that movement but don’t seem to see the connection between the struggle for civil rights as it relates to African American issues on the one hand and gay rights on the other hand. In fact, there are people who are offended by the comparison between gay rights and civil rights. Now I have tried to understand that. I have struggled with that. I don’t have that same offense, but I have tried to understand people who have that reaction. From what I understand it stems from a certain kind of affection and identification of civil rights, specifically with that era, Martin Luther King, and the struggle for racial equality.
But if we think about it, civil rights applies to everybody. Whether you call it civil rights or human rights, everybody deserves to be treated fairly, to have equal protection under the law, and to have equal access to all the services and conveniences, benefits, protections, and even responsibilities that go along with living in a civil society. I continue to be quite puzzled by the fact that some who can speak out so strongly for racial justice cannot speak as strongly for LGBT justice.
A: You and your wife are a straight couple. You don’t have to champion these issues. Yet being a straight, black, Baptist couple that pastors a church, you dove knee deep into marriage equality in the District of Columbia. Why did you do that?
D: Well, I will have to go back a ways. Let me just confess that I am sure that at one point in my life and development, I was just as homophobic as anybody else, but over the course of the years, I began to see that was wrong. I became pastor of what was then Covenant Baptist Church, now Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ, 26 years ago. We just celebrated our 26th anniversary, and at that time I was pastor and my wife was assistant pastor. Now she is co-pastor.
When we became pastors, one of my first Bible studies was “money, sex, and power.” I came to that office already convinced this was an issue we needed to work on. But I didn’t try and throw it on people all at one time. It was a gradual process. We didn’t introduce marriage equality overnight. It was gradual, trying to work with people and sensitize them, raise awareness and consciousness. And we had great success.
But interestingly enough, I knew that somewhere down the road, if we were really serious that LGBT people are equal and truly included in the congregation in every way, then what is going to happen when someone comes and says, “We want to get married as a same-gender loving couple?” So I had prepared myself for that and my wife had too.
When the issue emerged, it came out of my wife counseling two same-gender loving couples, one in each couple aspiring to ministry. We didn’t want to set a double standard. If it had been a heterosexual couple, we would have asked, “What is going on in your living situation?” And so we challenged them to get their houses in order. They were delighted to be offered the opportunity to consecrate their union in an official union ceremony. So that is what we did. At that point it was the next logical step if we were serious about what we were doing.
And from there—again, we received a lot of fallout. But we have been steadfast and haven’t looked back because we believe it is right. Not because it is popular, political, or safe, but because we believe it is right.
S: That is a journey. People are on different points of their journey, and I imagine that sharing your story is very powerful, so thank you for doing that.
We have one last question. As you know the economy is in terrible shape. I am sure that people in your church and community, like millions of Americans, are suffering. They’ve lost their jobs and homes, many don’t have health insurance. At a time of such economic suffering, gay and lesbian rights can seem less important than economic issues. Why should it be a priority?
D: I think it should be a top priority because all the issues you are talking about, when you go to the bottom line, are quality of life issues and ultimately about life and death. For me LGBT issues are right there. I can’t tell you how many people have come into our church and said, “This has saved my life.” Just because everybody doesn’t have that experience doesn’t make it any less important. If we can save one person’s life, it seems to me that justifies the importance of that issue.
The other thing, of course, is that LGBT people experience all the same issues you just talked about, such as poor health care. Children of LGBT people are discriminated against. They are sometimes bullied and harassed because their families are different. LGBT persons are sometimes senselessly murdered simply because they are trying to live authentically.
As a minister of the Christian gospel, I often refer to Jesus Christ regarding these issues. I get a lot of people who respond with, “But the Bible says…” I can respect the fact that people have different theological positions. What I have difficulty accepting is the animosity, venom, and hatred. I can’t tell you how many times I have been sentenced to hell, not by God but by human beings who want to come and beat me up with the Bible. I think I know the Bible just as well as the folks who come to me. But they seem to act like I have never read it. Yes, I have read it. There are many themes in the Bible. But to me the underlying theme is justice, love, equality, freedom, compassion. If we look at Jesus as our model, that is what we get.
To come back to your question, this issue is critical because if we continue to push it to the backburner, it will never see the light of day. I am not saying it should always trump other issues but it should always be in the mix. We should never push it to the backburner because too many people have suffered. Too many lives have been lost. And we as a people, as a world, and human race all suffer when our LGBT brothers and sisters suffer. We ought to be a people who not only tolerate each other but celebrate LGBT people because they have so much to offer.
A: Amen. That is beautiful. Thank you so much for being here with us and sharing your thoughts. We are always inspired by you.
D: It has been my joy and my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills is the Advisor for LGBT Policy & Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress. Her work with the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative explores the impact of public policy on gay and transgender people of color.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative visit its project page.