washingtonpost.com
Seeking to put asunder
Despite D.C. setback, Bishop Jackson carries his national message -- and mission -- against gay marriage

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This is how Bishop Harry Jackson spent his summer vacation: He hustled back and forth across the District rallying his faithful flock who oppose gay marriage. He leaned into microphones over at the Board of Elections and Ethics, quoting biblical verse, decrying those who would trumpet marriage between man and man, woman and woman.

He continued his protests when the leaves began to fall and the early darkness crawled across the sky. He heard amen this and amen that from the pulpit of his Beltsville church. They sent him out to spread their version of the Gospel, and off he went, hopscotching across the country. Sometimes crowds would gather around him like geese, in Denver, in Los Angeles, sometimes 10,000 at a time. He spoke to swelling groups of people who felt the same way he did about same-sex marriage: No, no, no.

He popped up on national talk shows. The conservative radio commentators ushered him into their studios.

And he'd come back to the District, feeling almost unstoppable.

But Tuesday afternoon, Jackson, 56, one of the more vociferous leaders in the anti-gay-marriage movement across the country, suffered yet another setback -- this one perhaps lethal -- when he received word that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics had ruled against his "Marriage Initiative of 2009," which would have recognized only marriage between a man and a woman. While gays cannot marry in the District, same-sex marriages legally performed in other states and countries are recognized.

The ruling means Jackson's initiative will not be on the local ballot for 2010, his months-long objective.

"We always believed we'd have to take it to Superior Court," Jackson says just minutes after receiving a hand-delivered copy of the ruling. "We believe the board has a wrong interpretation of the Human Rights Act."

Board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin says: "The board cannot accept an initiative that authorizes discrimination prohibited under the D.C. Human Rights Act."

But even if Jackson's options appear to be dwindling, he vows the battle will continue.

"The Lord is in all this," the bishop believes.

Setbacks seem only to embolden him.

"All over the country, it's evident that the strategy of the radical gay movement is to work the courts and legislatures," Jackson says. "It's gonna be a knock-down, drag-out legal situation."

His neck is thick -- nearly stretching the clerical collar -- and his voice is smooth as molasses.

"I just feel like I'm on a mission," he says. "It's not a mission of hate. It's a mission to protect godly boundaries."

Using his Pentecostal congregation, Hope Christian Church, as a springboard, he has founded the High Impact Leadership Coalition, which comprises ministers who plow into national moral dilemmas. In addition to same-sex marriage, the coalition focuses on abortion, two hot-button issues that cause liberals and conservatives to cross swords.

His admirers have multiplied, and so have his critics. More than once, police have stopped by his Southeast Washington apartment to check on his safety.

His mother, Essie, calls her son's crusade one of "holy boldness."

Jackson calls it stopping the erosion of the black family.

He's not a televangelist, but he has a televangelist's following.

Early start in activism

The arc of Harry Jackson Jr.'s life took shape around death and a mother's divine prayers.

Growing up in Cincinnati, he had a grandfather who was a preacher and parents who doted on him. Essie introduced her son to social activism and politics by shoving campaign fliers into his hands. He strode proudly up and down the streets sticking them behind screen doors.

Young Harry was precocious, and he got himself admitted into Cincinnati Country Day School, where the elite sent their children. His parents scraped up the $2,500 a year in school costs. "And that was a lot of money then!" Jackson says. "My dad told me when he sent me there that he wasn't going to be able to give me an inheritance. He said, 'Your inheritance is going to Country Day.' "

He liked Country Day, the kid who didn't look like every other kid. There were invitations to sleepovers at the pricey dwellings of classmates. "I was the black kid at Country Day who stayed in the houses of wealthy white people," he says, matter of factly.

He was a star on the football team, but it was the late '60s and there were cataclysmic goings-on in America: riots, marches, the King assassination. Nevertheless, he could tell how proud Essie and Harry Sr. were watching him on the football field, watching him stand in assembly to receive academic honors. "That was the generation that felt education could do it for black people," Jackson remembers.

After high school he entered Williams College -- prestigious, mostly white, Massachusetts -- in 1971 and majored in English lit. He again played football. He was a middle linebacker and he hit hard. Pro scouts glanced in his direction. He got a tryout with the New England Patriots.

"I prayed he wouldn't make the football team," recalls Essie, now 80. She secretly wanted him to go into the ministry.

Answered prayers: Harry got sent home from training camp. "I lasted three days," he says.

Then Daddy died.

The wound of Harry Sr.'s passing gnawed deeply. In the grieving and the searching, in those darkening weeks when young Harry was being bloodied and knocked to the ground by sorrow itself, he picked up a Bible. And with that, Harry Jackson found himself.

Part-time preaching

In 1973, when Harry was 20, the Jackson family moved to the D.C. area. His father took a job with the federal government, eventually buying a family home in Silver Spring.

After college graduation, Jackson got an executive job at Republic Steel, working in both Cleveland and Cincinnati. He was intrigued with corporate life, thought he might hightail it up the ladder. He got admitted to Harvard Business School. "I wanted to do high-level sales."

He bumped into a childhood acquaintance at a restaurant and was smitten. He and Michele married in 1976 in Cincinnati. (His wife goes by the name V. Michele Jackson, and serves as executive pastor of Hope Christian. Both of their daughters, Elizabeth and Joni, also graduated from Williams.)

Then it was back to Cleveland, where he began part-time preaching in storefront churches. "Preached downtown in the 'hood," he says.

There wasn't a seminary, or a school of theology. It was just preaching, getting invited to other pulpits and letting word spread on the grapevine. "I was trained in the field," Jackson says, pride in his voice.

As he preached and worked, he'd look at black family life and get sullen about the grim statistics of divorce and crime. In his mind, too, there was a convergence of black family life and the clashing of alternative lifestyles. He saw abortion rates and gay marriages as undermining traditional family values. He found the pulpit, just as a cause found him.

"Some of the smartest people I knew in college were gay," he says. "Some black students I knew who were gay were off-the-charts smart."

But gay marriage is wrong, he says.

"I don't know of anybody black who says, 'I hate gay people.' We're more accepting generally. But you overlap that -- homosexuality and gay marriage -- with broken families, and we don't know how to put it back together."

He took a job with Corning Glass, and moved with his young wife to Corning, N.Y. He took his Bibles and old sermons, a businessman by day but a preacher by night.

"This is the great part of my story," the bishop says.

Nevertheless, the charge of homophobia was not long in coming.

Culture's 'free fall'

In Corning he founded a church, the Christian Hope Center, just outside town. The parishioners were mostly white, and that never changed.

"We really broke racial barriers for a black man pastoring white people in 1981," he says.

His wife says: "We just believed we should preach the message God would give us."

She says there were fewer than 20 blacks in a congregation that would grow to several hundred. "Irish Catholics and former Greek Orthodox," she says. "It was a very interesting experience."

Harry Jackson got attention for the successful church and was recruited in 1988 to come to Beltsville to take over, full-time, Hope Christian.

By 1998, he had become a bishop. (One becomes a bishop in the Pentecostal hierarchy by dint of establishing a reputation outside one's own church. Jackson now serves as an adviser to eight other churches up and down the Northeast corridor as well as advising churches in South Africa.)

In time he started writing books. They were about families and the woes of dysfunction. He'd turn his pen to black families, and his reception was favorable. "I've written seven books thus far," he says. (They're not widely available, but they're stacked in the lobby of his church in Beltsville on Sunday mornings. One is titled "In-Laws, Outlaws and the Functional Family.")

He started writing a column, "A Capital View," for Charisma, a Christian magazine. "The editors said, 'We'd like you to write about what you're seeing in politics and life.' "

The columns took off. There was fan mail, "and I liked that," he says. "I suddenly got speaking engagements to go around the country."

He wrote about abortion and same-sex marriage and the oft-quoted stats about black family breakups. "I began to research issues that Christians were upset about around the country."

And what struck a nerve, what got them up out of their seats, was the issue of same-sex marriage.

That was a big stick to start waving in the church air. And wave it he did.

"I believe that the Bible teaches that same-sex marriage is an oxymoron," he says. "If you redefine marriage, you have to redefine family. You'd have to redefine parenting. I'm looking at the extinction of marriage. And black culture is in a free fall."

With fame came backlash.

Someone slipped a note under his door at his apartment. "Bishop Jackson, 50% of the people in this building are gay!"

"I was in line someplace recently," Jackson says, "and a woman who obviously opposes what I'm doing looked at me and said, 'You better go back to Maryland.' "

His wife says: "We have been verbally abused by the best."

Some of his appearances unleashed vitriol, even threats.

At a Board of Elections hearing in June, some of Jackson's followers gave it back -- mini-tirades that seemed cruel and mean-spirited, that Jackson says he regrets.

Jackson allows that his church is hardly a one-note crusade. "In my church we have a gang-prevention group. We're concerned with all those things -- social ills. But the reason the gay marriage issue is so polarizing is that, from a theological construct, it is clear that gay marriage shouldn't be the order of the day."

Critics have accused Jackson of being a tool of the right wing, a preacher suddenly in love with the klieg lights and big auditoriums.

"I'm amazed at how many times I hear him on the radio or see him on TV," says Pastor Phil Munsey, of Irvine, Calif., who has participated in conferences with Jackson. "He's fighting for political ideas in the religious arena."

Bishop Wellington Boone, of Atlanta, chief prelate of the Fellowship of International Churches, has known Jackson for more than 20 years. "I think Bishop Jackson feels that a lot of blacks are not just culturally conscious, but culturally controlled."

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson says he disagrees with the principles espoused by Jackson. "It's an unfortunate reality," Mendelson says, "that one can't preach discrimination without inciting homophobia."

Sunday morning

It's a Sunday morning, and Bishop Jackson is in the pulpit. There's a couple of big television screens on the wall, with quotes from the Scripture printed on them. He's in a suit jacket and jeans, and he has a microphone attached to his ear. It's the new age of preaching, both serious and casual.

The bishop has a greenroom. He can sit there and relax; guests can relax there.

He comes upon the stage and gives a hand motion to the choir, and their voices rise up. He joins in. "What we do in a time of testing?" he says, offering his sermon.

"Being relevant," he says, "means you have to speak to the problems of today. Too often we analyze too long. We are not aggressive in deciding what positions we are going to take."

There is a chorus of "amens."

There are 300 people at the second of morning services. It is a big church, though not a mega-church. He's talking about contentious social issues without mentioning gay marriage or abortion. He says: "You can love individuals without condoning what they do."

Some choir members swoop around the front of the stage in angel-white dresses.

A security guard is positioned near the bishop, another in the hallway.

He's still on the football field.

Let the blows come.

"I think they'll try to pass a same-sex marriage bill in early December," he says of the D.C. Council.

He can't wait for winter.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company