Inner Light embodies the vibrance of the Southern black church, but its congregation remains at the fringes of the Christian tradition. It was among the first predominantly African American ministries in the District to welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), as well as those struggling with AIDS.
A stiff clerical collar peeked from beneath Cheeks’s long, gray dreadlocks as he rose to the pulpit during the anniversary service. His black robes were adorned with colorful African trim. As Cheeks moved toward the altar, one parishioner welcomed him in a loud voice for all to hear as, “a man with angels at his head and at his feet.”
A District native, Cheeks, 60, is black, openly gay and has been living with AIDS for decades.
“For years, I’ve dealt with ministers who want to dump guilt on people” who are gay, he said. “I ask them, ‘Really?’ If you have the ability to send me to hell, let me see you walk on water — what’s holding you back?”
He describes Inner Light as a church “that tries to be what heaven looks like — a little bit of everybody.” The ministry operates independently and serves about 100 parishioners. Nearly two-thirds of them are gay or lesbian. Many, including three members of Cheeks’s ministerial staff, are HIV-positive.
At a time when there is increasing attention on the stubbornly high HIV infection rate in the African American community — with many pointing to the lack of action by many influential black churches — Cheeks is notable for using his pulpit to educate parishioners on the need to get tested for HIV. He is a vocal counterpoint to the ministers who, from the altar, condemn homosexuality.
“In the end, I tell these ministers, ‘If your God isn’t big enough to make someone gay or lesbian, let me introduce you to mine — mine is,’ ” he said.
Beating them at their own game
“Thirty years ago, we didn’t talk about gay people at all,” even though churches benefited from their services and donations, the Rev. Christine Wiley said during her guest sermon at the service honoring Cheeks. “Black folk acted like the LGBT community was invisible.”
She recalls, too, that the black church was a place of deep stigma for people who were HIV-positive in the ’80s and ’90s.
“And then comes along Rainey who says we don’t have to hide, we don’t need to be afraid. We can beat them at their own game,” she said.
For Cheeks, the game is affirming all worshipers — black or white, gay or straight, HIV-positive or -negative. His approach inspired Wiley and many of her colleagues to begin doing the same.
“You need to understand that almost every affirming ministry in this city owes Inner Light Ministries something,” Wiley said.