Why two black D.C. pastors support gay marriage

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By Dennis W. Wiley and Christine Y. Wiley
Sunday, December 20, 2009

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago, we entered the sanctuary at Covenant Baptist Church and took our places in front of the altar, just as we had countless times before in our more than 20 years as partners in ministry. We had been united in holy matrimony ourselves in the same spot where we now stood to unite others.

As the couple walked down the aisle, we recalled the previous evening's rehearsal, when we commended all the participants for their courage and prayed that God would be in our midst at the ceremony. When we pronounced the couple "partners for life," we felt our prayers had been answered. It was the same feeling we had experienced so many times before when asking for God's blessing of the union of a man and a woman. Only this time, the union was of a man and a man.

Our church is the first and only traditional black church in the District of Columbia to perform same-sex unions. We conducted our first two union ceremonies, one gay and one lesbian, in the summer of 2007. The rapid political developments that followed in our nation and our city have made us optimistic that by the summer of 2010, same-sex nuptials will be not only blessed by churches such as ours, but also sanctioned by law in the District.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted to legalize same-sex marriage. This historic measure passed 11 to 2, with the two no votes cast by council members Yvette Alexander of Ward 7 and Marion Barry of Ward 8 -- the ward where our church sits. Both wards are east of the Anacostia River and have the highest percentages of black residents in the city. Both members said that the majority of their constituents, who live in the same communities where many of our parishioners live, do not support gay marriage.

We have seen the resistance that Alexander and Barry were talking about. We know it has deep cultural and historical roots. But we have also seen that this resistance is not stuck in concrete.

After that first ceremony in our church, we were pleased and relieved; many members and guests told us how beautiful the service had been. But not everyone who attended shared this feeling. After most of the guests left, one longtime parishioner approached us, shaking. In a voice filled with rage, she asked how we could desecrate the sanctuary with such an ungodly act. She vowed to no longer be a member of our church.

After leaving our congregation, she contacted denominational leaders and local newspapers, including The Washington Post, to complain about our "immoral" behavior. She also took us to court in an unsuccessful attempt to recoup two years of tithes because, in her opinion, we had misled her in presenting ourselves as a "real" Baptist church.

For us, the courage to perform same-sex unions is in keeping with the proudest traditions of our Baptist and congregational heritage. Within the Baptist tradition of freedom and autonomy, Covenant Baptist Church has a long history of progressive ministry emphasizing social justice, service to the community and inclusion.

Several years ago, our congregation unanimously adopted a vision statement that we recite together every Sunday morning as a reminder that "all are welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age or sexual orientation." In leading our congregation to adopt this vision, we knew that one day we would face the question of same-sex marriage. We did not know how we would respond when the moment came. We didn't arrive at the altar for that first same-sex union ceremony in 2007 because the couple asked us to perform their wedding. Instead, an openly gay man, enrolled at a local seminary, had sought our church's endorsement in his quest to become ordained. We treated him just as we would any aspiring minister who needed our guidance and support: We asked him about his personal life. He revealed that he was living with his partner, also a church member, but that they had not made a lifetime commitment to each other. We could not ask the church to license him if he was living with someone -- male or female -- in an uncommitted relationship. After about a year of counseling, he and his partner were clear that they wanted to be together for life. The ball was then back in our court.

This couple did not press us to perform a union ceremony, nor did we encourage them to have one. If they had been heterosexual, their decision to make a permanent commitment to each other would have probably resulted in marriage. Since this couple were homosexual, however, what were their options? Not only was same-sex marriage illegal in the District, it was also forbidden in most churches and faith communities.

Through Bible study, reflection on theology and history, and experience, we had come to believe that it was unjust to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to consecrate their relationships in the same way that we allow opposite-sex couples to. Before the ceremony in the church, each of us had performed a same-sex union ceremony elsewhere. But this was our home. The church had voted to become an inclusive congregation. How could we justify treating same-sex couples as second-class citizens?

We knew what was in our hearts. But if the ceremony was to be held at Covenant, we had to present this matter to the congregation. We believed that a traditional up-and-down vote could be too divisive. We chose instead to seek some form of consensus.

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