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Sermons Without Stereotypes

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

It's time for the black church in America to come to terms with homosexuality. Pastors, come down from the pulpit and get to know your choir directors.

No, I'm not saying that all or even most of the choir directors in all or even most of the black churches in the country are gay. I'm just reporting that in my observation, at least, music has long been one of the accepted roles for "confirmed bachelors" in African American congregations. I'm noting that it's fairly common for a preacher to deliver a thundering "Adam and Eve , not Adam and Steve " sermon and then turn to a gay man to lead the church in a rendition of "One Day at a Time."

I raise the subject because of the imbroglio over a sermon preached last month by the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, one of the leading black congregations in Washington. Here is the most widely quoted passage:

"Lesbianism is about to take over our community. I'm talking about young girls. My son in high school last year tried to go to the prom. He said: 'Dad, I ain't got nobody to take to the prom because all the girls in my class are gay. Ain't but two of 'em straight, and both of them ugly.' " The rest of Wilson's remarks haven't made it into general-circulation newspapers because they include R-rated (at least) denunciations of specific sex acts that he envisioned lesbians -- and, apparently, gay men; it's not entirely clear who's doing what to whom -- performing in bed. Suffice it to say that the phrase "strapping yourself up with something" was used.

His church responded with a big "Amen."

What makes this so interesting is that Wilson isn't just any preacher. In addition to leading an 8,000-strong congregation, he is national executive director for the Millions More Movement, a gathering planned for Oct. 15 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March.

And Wilson has no record as an anti-gay bigot. Quite the contrary: For 20 years his socially active church has run programs to embrace and help individuals infected with HIV or afflicted by AIDS. He also held a special session -- controversial within the congregation -- to restore connections between gays and lesbians and the families that had rejected them.

Moreover, in his sermon Wilson was trying to make a point about a real issue: that black women are outpacing black men in education and income, and that so many black men are incarcerated or otherwise in crisis that black women confront a shortage of acceptable boyfriends and husbands.

Wilson noted both his record and his intention in an apology he finally issued, after a month of attacks by gay activists and chatter on black radio stations. "I am not homophobic, nor am I antifeminist," Wilson said in the statement posted on the Union Temple Web site. "To any and all whom I offended . . . I sincerely and most profusely apologize."

I believe Wilson when he says he was trying to address the crisis in the black family, and I agree that there is no greater challenge facing black America. But later in his apology he strayed once again into terra incognita, maintaining that black girls are "engaging in same-sex relations" at "an alarming rate all over the nation," and that "many girls . . . have been threatened and intimidated into participating by same-sex girls' gangs."

Rev. Wilson, I have nothing but gratitude and praise for all you've done to keep me, my two sons and all African American men off the endangered-species list. But I don't know of any research suggesting that girls -- or boys, for that matter -- can be coerced into becoming homosexual. Everything I've read says that simply isn't the way it works.

The black church in America has long mixed its progressive political activism with a deep social conservatism, and that oil-and-water emulsion has served the community well. That conservatism has included a kind of "don't ask, don't even think about telling" policy where homosexuality is concerned. But if institutions are to remain vibrant and relevant, they have to take notice when the world changes. Here are three of those changes:

First, the notion that gay men and lesbians somehow "recruit" boys and girls into the same-sex camp has been discredited as myth. Second, young African American gays and lesbians are less likely to accept invisibility as a condition of being able to sit in a pew.

And, finally, the Rev. Wilson's exculpatory adage -- "what goes on in the family, stays in the family" -- is a thing of the past. Say it on Sunday morning, read about it on the Internet Sunday night.

The writer will be available to answer questions today at 3 p.m. onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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