Rift Over Gay Unions Reflects Battle New to Black Churches

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Never in a "million years" did Robert Renix think he would find a Baptist church that would accept someone like him: a black Baptist gay man. Never mind one that would allow what happened one Saturday last month, when a tuxedo-clad Renix stood in front of the pulpit at Covenant Baptist Church in Anacostia, exchanging vows with his partner, Antonio Long.

It didn't turn out to be that simple, though.

About 140 members jammed into the fellowship hall a few weeks later for a tense meeting about the recent decision of Covenant co-pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley to conduct same-sex union ceremonies. Some expressed their opposition through Bible verses, saying they were worried that Covenant was getting a reputation as a "gay church." Others wept as they defended the Wileys, said people who were there.

"I don't care who does it in their bedroom with whom," said Yvonne Moore, a longtime member who left the church over the same-sex ceremonies. "But don't bring that foolishness into my church."

Other heterosexual church members defend the Wileys and their actions. "It's never been a traditional church," said Jeffrey Canady, a lifetime member who lives in Takoma Park. "That's the beauty of the church. It has always been at the forefront of change."

The split reflects a tug of war that is developing between a few black churches willing to welcome gays and black denominations that consider homosexuality a sin.

For years, disputes over homosexuality have convulsed predominantly white Protestant denominations -- Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian -- but they have only recently hit black churches.

"It's going to be a real challenge," said the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, minister at Fellowship Baptist Church in the District and founder of the annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality. "We're just beginning to really deal with it."

Most major historically black denominations have taken strong stances against homosexuality.

The National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the nation's largest predominantly black denomination, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church forbid clergy from officiating at ceremonies for same-sex couples, and Pentecostal denominations such as the Church of God in Christ consider homosexuality a sin. The Progressive National Baptist Convention, of which Covenant Baptist is a member, has not taken a stand on homosexuality or same-sex unions.

The Wileys say the backlash in their church caught them by surprise. For years, they have preached that homosexuality is not a sin. Despite the objections, they performed another same-sex union ceremony Aug. 10, for a lesbian couple.

Covenant Baptist works with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, on outreach to black churches and is the only Baptist church listed with the city's Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs as being welcoming to homosexuals.

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