On April 17, 1960, near the end of his first appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Martin Luther King Jr. was asked a simple question: “[H]ow many white people are members of your church in Atlanta?” The answer was none, but his elaboration on that initial response became famous. “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies,” King said, “that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours . . . in Christian America. I definitely think the Christian church should be integrated, and any church that stands against integration . . . is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ.” He added that his church was “segregated but not segregating. It would welcome white members.”
“One of the most segregated hours”—it was the elegance and precision of statements like this that made King so effective. Yet, sadly, 50 years later, it’s still true. Our places of worship are deeply segregated along racial lines. But there’s another sense in which his observation was wrong even then. While King’s congregation didn’t contain a single white member, if it was like many black communities of faith then and today, part of its strength lay in its social and economic diversity. Within the black church can be found representatives from almost every walk of black life: doctors, mechanics, matrons in feathered hats, single mothers with mini-parishioners in tow, stern-looking young men muffling the smell of gunpowder beneath expensive cologne. Only God Himself could bring us all together.
Everyone walks in with some need: a new job, a new car, $50 to get through the week, relief from some incurable disease. We know we can get it here. The preacher is explaining how, so we listen and nod. When he asks if we believe, we say yes. When he tells us God is good, we shout “All the time!” And when there’s talk of miracles, making a way out of no way, and stomping on the Devil’s head, the drummer taps a beat, someone in the front row loses it, dancing out of her shoes, and the pandemonium begins. It’s a type of primal therapy. People run and jump and shout. Backs are arched. Hands are waved. Men and women alike sweat through carefully sculpted hairdos and colorful suits, rolling, screaming, and hollering, amazingly, all to the same rhythm. We call it being “touched by the Holy Ghost.” But if such language were allowed in the sanctuary, you could also refer to the flamboyance, the flair, the feeling of otherworldliness, and the hypersensitivity that descends en masse at this moment as “queer.” Stylistically speaking, for those 15 minutes or so, the black church might be one of the gayest places in America. But don’t tell that to your average black pastor in Maryland, because today, as much of the rest of the state celebrates the passage of last week’s same-sex marriage bill, many black Christians are doubling down on denial.
The presence and contributions of gay believers are obvious in the black church. They’re part of every aspect of ecclesiastical life. It is an open secret that they sing in the choirs and, more controversially, preach from the pulpits. But black pastors were instrumental in delaying a marriage-equality vote in Annapolis last year and are among those organizing a November ballot measure to repeal the new law.
Why would an institution that moved so forcefully to demand racial equality now work to deny equal rights to others? Part of it is due to an interpretation of Old Testament scriptures condemning sex between people of the same sex, but there are churches that are using a broader, more nuanced reading of the many different types of loving relationships described in the Bible to embrace homosexual parishioners. I think the real culprit is black male machismo. If the innocent blond female is one image that animates the collective imagination of white America, the stereotypically strong black man is her counterpart—what many members of one sex want and the other sex aspire to. Anything that challenges that image is seen as a threat.
But to those black ministers who claim to know God’s mind on the matter, my question is this: If God is so offended by the very idea of homosexuality, why didn’t He say anything at last week’s choir rehearsal? Why didn’t He silence the lead tenor before the high point in any of a hundred solos? Sunday after Sunday, gay and straight, as we kicked, and cried, and shared each other’s secrets, why didn’t He burn the church down with every one of us in it?
Like whites who donned blackface to say and do things that would not otherwise be allowed, every week black church folk borrow a gay aesthetic then condemn the people who helped teach us how to be free.