Pastor and His Small D.C. Church Offer Gay African Americans a Sanctuary From Hate

Washington was once a mecca of culture and community for gay blacks, but AIDS in the 1980s devastated their ranks, leaving them with few leaders. Youths in community today are scared of the disease, and many lack family support.
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009

In the middle of a sermon, Bishop Rainey Cheeks felt his medicine bottle bulging in his pocket and realized he hadn't taken his pills. He paused in the pulpit and faced the congregation in his tiny storefront church.

"Excuse me," Cheeks remembers telling his parishioners last year as he poured three pills into his hand. "This is my HIV medicine. I'm going to take it now."

As he washed down the pills with water, Cheeks saw some members staring with wide eyes. Everybody knew that their pastor, an imposing man with flowing dreadlocks who once competed in taekwondo championships, is gay. But not everyone knew that he is HIV-positive.

"Go ahead, Rev," a few congregants urged. But most shrugged and waited for the bishop to swallow and get on with delivering the good word.

Inner Light Ministries in the District's H Street corridor might seem like a traditional black church, with fiery sermons, electric gospel music, a soulful choir and a congregation that sways and claps in rhythm. But it is hardly that.

For 16 years, it has served as a sanctuary for a small community of black gays and lesbians who say they feel shunned from all directions -- by black men and women who give them cutting looks of disapproval, by mainstream black ministers who condemn homosexuality, and by white gays who make them feel unwelcome in subtle ways, such as switching from hip-hop to country music in a club when too many black men hit the dance floor.

At Inner Light, members say they can be themselves. In the pews on a recent Sunday, a woman adoringly placed an arm around the shoulders of her girlfriend. A man with a linebacker's strong build sat near the front wearing mascara. And condoms sat in a basket near the door in case any worshipers wanted to grab some on their way out.

Safe sex is part of the message Cheeks preaches. Two-thirds of his 100 or so parishioners are gay and lesbian, a congregation that includes the young and the old; the healthy and the sick; those who are open about their sexual orientation and those who are more guarded.

They come to the church to pray for forgiveness and seek redemption. But many also come to share their experience of being black and gay, living and loving in a city where HIV and AIDS lurk in epidemic proportions in nearly every community.

Nearly 60 percent of men in the city who contracted HIV through sex with men are black, according to a D.C. government survey released in March. Every minister and deacon at Inner Light Ministries has had a close encounter with the disease. Four of them are HIV-positive, including deacon Ronnie Walker, 54, who said that 20 years ago he had unprotected sex with a partner who never mentioned that he was sick and dying.

Cheeks, 57, contracted HIV in the early '80s, when few people knew much about the strange new infection that was sending so many gay men to their graves. Much to the bishop's chagrin, HIV continues to ravage his city almost three decades later.

A 'Time of Being Proud and Black'

In 1980, Cheeks stood on a perch over the dance floor of the ClubHouse disco in Columbia Heights and watched Nona Hendryx belt out a song to a packed room of about 1,200. The singer strode boldly into the throng of dancers, who bodysurfed her back onto the stage.

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