By Dennis W. Wiley and Christine Y. Wiley
Sunday, December 20, 2009; B01
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.
About three months before that first union ceremony, we held a church meeting to present the two requests and to explain that we intended to honor them. We asked for the congregation's support and received an overwhelmingly positive response. However, as we drew closer to the first ceremony, the goodwill we thought we had witnessed on that evening slowly evaporated. The anger and dissension that had been bubbling erupted when that longtime church member confronted us at the end of the ceremony. She, and the scores of other members who left the congregation after the same-sex ceremonies began, painfully reminded us that although everyone in the black community does not think alike, the roots of homophobia run deep.
We are sometimes asked what accounts for the homophobia within the African American community. This question seems to assume that the community is disproportionately homophobic compared with other racial and ethnic groups. We are not aware of any credible study that has conclusively proved this assumption. However, our first-hand experience has convinced us that homophobia within the black church and the wider community is real. And the factors that have nurtured these beliefs over the years are complex.
When issues of gay rights and gay marriage come up, the first question many black people ask is, "What does the Bible have to say about it?" This seemingly innocent question doesn't acknowledge that when we approach the Bible, our perspective has been shaped by where we were born, by whom we were raised, what Grandma taught us, where we went to school and what our pastor preached in church -- usually conservative ideas on matters such as homosexuality. Therefore, we tend to interpret the Bible not objectively, but through the lens of our cultural and historical context.
The conservative strand of black religion is evident in what Harvard professor Peter Gomes calls "bibliolatry" -- the practice of worshiping the Bible rather than worshiping God. It is also found in a "literal" interpretation of the Bible that focuses more on the letter of the text than on its spirit, and concentrates on passages about domination, oppression, hierarchy, elitism and exclusion rather than on the major themes of love, justice, freedom, equality and inclusion that run throughout the Bible.
A more complicated element of black homophobia is the lingering influence of sexual stereotypes that originated during slavery. According to theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, the myth of "over-sexualized" black bodies portrayed black men as violent "bucks" who posed an ever-present threat to white women, and black women as "Jezebels" who seduced white men.
These stereotypes served to justify the whipping, lynching and castration of black men, and to excuse the sexual violation of black women by white men. They were just one element of what blacks had to struggle against to gain acceptance and respectability in white society, especially during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. On this matter, religion has often been a vehicle of suppression, accommodation and control. While the church was a refuge from the horrors of racism and played an empowering role in African American history, it also taught black people to repress behaviors -- especially sexual behaviors -- that might attract unwanted attention, appear uncouth or seem threatening to white people.
A final piece that shapes black attitudes toward same-sex marriage is the preoccupation with racism in the black community. This obsession, although justifiable, has led to a failure to appreciate how racism is inextricably connected to all other forms of oppression. Those who fail to see this connection may resent the comparison of gay rights with civil rights. But as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Last week, two black D.C. Council members voted against the same-sex marriage bill. But five black council members voted for it. Our black mayor signed it on Friday, and our black congressional representative has promised to defend it on Capitol Hill. Although the bill faces the possibility of intervention by Congress, something revolutionary is happening in this city to debunk the notion that the black community's homophobia is entrenched.
Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision. The couple for whom we performed the first union ceremony at our church are still together and doing well. And the man who aspired to the ministry was ordained a few weeks ago and is now a chaplain supervisor at a local hospital. Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions.
We will continue to stand at the altar in our community, telling all the couples who come before us: "Let it be known that you are joined together not only by your love for each other, and by our collective love for each of you, but by the love of God."
The Rev. Dennis W. Wiley and the Rev. Christine Y. Wiley are pastors of Covenant Baptist Church in Washington. They are co-chairs of the organization DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality.