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Pastor and His Small D.C. Church Offer Gay African Americans a Sanctuary From Hate
At 28, Cheeks felt he was at the center of an amazing world. He'd grown up in Northeast Washington, where only his mother knew he was gay. In a neighborhood where gay men were derided as sissies, Cheeks was instead an accomplished practitioner of taekwondo -- so skilled that he competed in the 1973 taekwondo world championship in South Korea.
Now, Cheeks was a manager at one of the country's hottest black gay nightclubs during a heady time for homosexuals in Washington.
A year earlier, gay black intellectuals had emerged from the first National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays vowing to transform the District into a "Paradise on the Potomac." They wanted to work toward electing an openly gay black D.C. Council member, maybe even an openly gay black mayor.
"For black folks, there was the time of being proud and black," Cheeks recalled. "And then you had these black gay men coming out in the open and saying: 'I'm proud, too. Don't let your sexuality stop you. Embrace it.' " But before the revolution could take hold, dozens of gay black men came down with a frightening illness that caused pneumonia, skin lesions and dementia. In 1982, Cheeks began suffering from fever and night sweats that doctors eventually diagnosed as AIDS.
The symptoms went away, and Cheeks felt fine, but he was an exception. "You would watch people get sick, and two months later they would be dead," he said.
The ClubHouse's membership, which peaked at 2,000 in 1985, nosedived. It closed in 1990.
"I remember going through the book and scratching out the names of people who died of AIDS," said Cheeks, who founded the group Us Helping Us to help black men pay for food and medicine. "When we got to 300, we were so numb we couldn't continue. Half our staff was gone."
Cheeks, who had been ordained by the nondenominational National Spiritual Science Center in Takoma Park, found himself praying at the bedside of men taking their last breaths and presiding at dozens of funerals.
In November 1988 alone, he said, "I preached at 17 funerals." He was exhausted. "I didn't have another sermon in me. I was so angry that I told God to stop it."
A year later, Cheeks fell ill with pneumonia and a condition that attacked his nervous system. Doctors at George Washington University Hospital told him that he wouldn't walk again and might die. He thanks God that they were wrong.
'I Felt Like I Was in Heaven'
"If you are HIV-positive, stand up," Cheeks commanded during a morning service at Inner Light in 1999.
Ronnie Walker, who had just moved to the District from New York, remembers fidgeting in his pew. He'd always hidden his HIV-positive status.