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A Sanctuary From Hate
Pastor, D.C. Church Offer Gay African Americans A Message of Acceptance and Responsibility

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.

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.

Then, to his surprise, about a dozen HIV-positive men and women answered Cheeks's call. Finally, Walker stood, too.

"I felt like I was in heaven," said Walker, who always heard homosexuality condemned from the pulpit of other churches he had attended. "The only place I feel safe is in my church."

He credits Cheeks with changing his life. The bishop told him to let God in and stop living in the shadows.

Walker was able to confess a deep secret for which he had long sought forgiveness. On the night of his honeymoon in 1973, he had slipped away from his wife to have sex with his best man. During his seven years of marriage, he betrayed her again and again.

The acceptance Walker found at Inner Light gave him the strength to stop abusing drugs and alcohol, he said. But it hasn't entirely erased the stigma of having HIV. Every morning, Walker opens a chest drawer filled with about 20 brown and white bottles of medicine for HIV, staph infection and failing kidneys. He doesn't keep the pills in the medicine cabinet of his Northwest Washington apartment for a reason, said his partner, Keith Short, who is also HIV-positive.

"You don't want visitors to come into the bathroom and say, 'Oh my God,' " Short said.

The desire to hide being HIV-positive -- not just from visitors but from prospective sexual partners -- is powerful and difficult to change. Some men are reluctant to reveal their health status to possible partners for fear of being rejected. Short said he might avoid the subject if he and Walker broke up and he were dating again.

"It would depend on how I feel," Short said, adding that he would probably use a condom but that in the heat of the moment, he couldn't guarantee it. "Sex is a very powerful thing."

That attitude, Cheeks said, is part of why gay black men in the District are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. And why he has to keep preaching the message of safe sex.

Fighting Complacency

A light rain drummed on Cheeks's umbrella as he walked to the downtown offices of the Washington Blade several weeks ago. He had been invited there by the newspaper's editors for a roundtable discussion about gay life in the District to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots -- the clashes between police and homosexuals in New York that sparked the modern gay rights movement.

The discussion among older gay activists and younger participants was congenial until the conversation turned to HIV and AIDS. Cheeks listened as 22-year-old Antoine Smith, a former Bojangles' shift manager who lives in Prince George's County, matter-of-factly described the disease as "manageable. It's not the death sentence it used to be."

"I dated someone with it," Smith said, "but I'm still free of it." Although he said he is tested every three months, he said he hadn't always protected himself from HIV. Then a friend who had AIDS died two years ago.

"That's what gave me my fright to stop doing what I was doing," he said. "I was the one being carefree, knowing that this was out there, but at the same time thinking I couldn't be touched."

To Cheeks, Smith sounded too cavalier about AIDS. The bishop lurched back in his chair when Smith described it as "an everyday disease." Even today, Cheeks said, distraught gay black men frequently call his cellphone, asking him to help them cope with their new HIV infections.

Although powerful antiviral drugs keep many people with HIV from developing AIDS, "there's no guarantee that your body will react well to the medicine," Cheeks said. The medical advances have made too many people complacent about HIV, especially young men such as Smith who don't fully grasp its threat.

Twenty-two percent of men in Washington who contracted HIV through sex with men are between the ages of 20 and 29, the District government reported in March. And 40 percent are between 30 and 39.

As he left the Blade's offices, Cheeks said the discussion had driven home the need to start a youth mentoring program at Inner Light. "Most messages . . . to young folk is if you're gay or lesbian, you're going to hell," he said. "So why take responsibility if you're already condemned?

"They need to understand God loves them. But they also need to be accountable for their sexual behavior. Not everything goes."

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