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.

In the pews at the church's 10:45 a.m. service on Sundays, gay and transgender people sit among heterosexual families and elderly retirees.

Although the Wileys face opposition, they say they believe they are being called by God to preach acceptance of gays as part of the social justice agenda long embraced by black churches.

"We, as African Americans, should be the last people in the world, based on our history, to turn around and oppress others," said Dennis Wiley, who took over as Covenant's pastor from his father, the Rev. H. Wesley Wiley, 22 years ago.

But embracing gays can come at a cost. Victory Church, a black megachurch near Atlanta, lost 2,500 members -- half of its congregation -- after its pastor, the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, started preaching acceptance of gays several years ago.

"I did not know that my theological view would be so negatively reacted to," Samuel said. Even now, he said, "we are ostracized and criticized throughout the city by pastors and religious people of all types, certainly within the black community."

In the Washington area, a small network of churches welcomes gay people, but most were either set up for gays or are in traditionally gay-friendly denominations, such as the United Church of Christ.

Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, who pastors Inner Light Ministries, a 50-member church of mostly black gays in Northwest Washington, said he has performed 54 same-sex blessing ceremonies in the past 14 years, many for people who were turned down by their churches.

"So often, people are hurt because they cannot do it in their church, which is always amazing to me," said Cheeks, who is gay. "I always ask them, 'Why do you go to that church?' "

The gays flocking to Covenant say the church's deep Baptist roots link them with the rituals and traditions of their childhood.

Monet Dupree, a health educator at a D.C. nonprofit organization who is transgender and grew up as a Baptist, recently began attending Covenant "to reconnect with what I know."

And that was fine with church member Martha Battle, who said she didn't mind Covenant's outreach to gays at first, because "everybody needs to be saved."

But now, "straight people are leaving and gay people are coming in," said Battle, who left the church with her 13-year-old grandson after the Wileys began performing same-sex union ceremonies. "They're taking over. I'm sick to my stomach over this mess. It's not right. Why should we have to leave and let them come in and take over the church?"

Moore, Battle and others estimate that 200 longtime members have stopped attending the church in the wake of the controversy; the Wileys dispute that number, saying that they have seen no reduction in people at services. The church has about 500 members.

The 62-year-old church has gone through changes before. It was largely white until the 1960s, when white families began to move out of Anacostia and black families moved in. Covenant slowly rebuilt itself as a black congregation. Its renovated sanctuary features 13 huge stained-glass windows reflecting the African American experience, with images of civil rights figures Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. A shimmering stained-glass black Jesus clad in purple and white towers over the pulpit.

The church also has a long history of activism and community involvement. It was one of the first churches in the Washington area to launch an AIDS ministry in the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s. It offers HIV testing, and church volunteers teach computer classes Saturday mornings and offer college-prep classes to neighborhood high school students.

From the pulpit, the Wileys have preached impassioned sermons urging tolerance of gay, transgender and bisexual people, and they have led Bible studies making that point. "When we look at Jesus Christ, who he was and how he ministered to what he called 'the least of us,' he would be right here with us on this issue," Dennis Wiley said.

Renix, 41, said he and his partner, Long, 34 -- evangelical Christians who live in Capitol Heights -- settled in at Covenant two years ago, shortly after Renix enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary as a part-time student. Now he is training at the church to be ordained as a minister there.

Under Covenant's rules, aspiring ministers must marry if they are living together. The Wileys decided that, because Long and Renix were unable to marry legally, a blessing ceremony would satisfy the requirements.

The entire congregation was invited to the ceremony. Some members who opposed it attended. Renix said he later heard complaints that the couple's ceremonial kiss was too amorous.

At a church meeting held in April to explain the decision to bless same-sex unions, the ministers said, they had heard no objections, which made the complaints that came after the ceremony all the more surprising.

But those familiar with the process say it isn't surprising at all: Congregations that appear to be accepting of gays often suddenly rebel when it comes to religious rituals that appear to legitimize same-sex relationships.

"It's sort of the ecclesiastical version of the elephant in the room," said Jay Johnson, acting executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. "It's one thing to say, 'Okay, we're going to accept gays and lesbian people in our congregation. We'll even accept having gay and lesbian couples in our pews.' But when you take the step to publicly affirm or bless or recognize, in a liturgical or ritual way, their relationship, then you've removed the possibility of ignoring it."

Despite the controversy, Renix and Long, whose mother escorted him down the aisle, said they were happy with their ceremony at Covenant. Instead of a maid of honor, they had two "men of honor," four groomsmen and four groomswomen.

The service was "was absolutely perfect, and there is nothing I would have changed," Renix said. "Even in the midst of all that is going on now, I keep reminding myself that it was something that God ordained to be."

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