For members of the Community of Hope AME Church in Hillcrest Heights, Md., having former members of a black gay street gang participate in the Sunday morning service was no big deal. And that’s why it really was a big deal.
“You have done so many things to help us,” said Travon Warren, 23, who had started the gay gang, called Check It, in 2005. Organized for self-defense against attacks from homophobic bullies, Check It members went on to achieve notoriety in 2010 and 2011 for their ferocious flash mob fights in and around the Gallery Place Metro station in downtown D.C.
Sometimes, they needed little, if any, provocation for the knives to come out.
But the brawling was taking a heavy toll. Some members were seriously injured or killed. Others were arrested and jailed, where they were sometimes subjected to abuse by other inmates.
Check It members would have to change. Or die. In a spiritual sense, they did both.
“You don’t hear anything about Check It anymore,” Warren told the congregation. “Thanks to your help, we are no longer on the streets. Many of us now have jobs, or we have gone back to school.”
Community of Hope is a predominantly black Protestant church. For the most part, black Protestants, like most white evangelicals, strongly disapprove of homosexuality. The pulpit of such a church would be the last place you’d expect to find someone like Warren.
But what sets the Community of Hope church apart is an invitation by the Rev. Tony Lee, the senior pastor, to come as you are and join the fight for social justice.
That message has resonated powerfully with scores of young black people, especially millennials — those born after, say, 1981. Throughout the country, that group — millennials black and white—has been the driving force behind a sharp change in attitude toward homosexuals.
According to a Pew Research Center poll taken last year, for instance, millennials’ support of same-sex marriage jumped from 51 percent in 2003 to 70 percent in 2013. By comparison, support by the Generation Xers — those born between 1965 and 1980 — was not as strong, up from 41 percent in 2003 to 49 percent last year. And the support of baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — has been even softer, going from 33 percent in 2003 to 38 percent last year.
On Monday, the Supreme Court made a much-celebrated decision not to oppose same-sex marriage. For black gay and lesbian youths, however, success in the courts matters less than the everyday embrace of family, peers and employers. There is still much work to be done in that regard.
At the Community of Hope church, the young black gay men were warmly embraced — along with other former gang members from the Anacostia Choppa City Crew. Lee invited a trio of those former gang members to perform a song they’d written. In it, they urged other young people to “put their hands up and guns down,” to stay out of the street and focus on school. “Stop the violence and the killing. Put your hands up and your guns down so we can stand up.”
Millennials in the congregation were the first to jump from their seats to sing along and dance to the music.
For more than a year, Lee had let the young gay men use the church as a sanctuary, a safe place where they could talk about their dreams and meet people who were willing to help them. Some of the good Samaritans were seated among the congregation.
“Thank you, Chief Groomes,” Warren said, referring to Assistant D.C. Police Chief Diane Groomes, who heads the department’s patrol division. “Instead of locking us up, you got to know us and understand us.”
Warren expressed appreciation for the support given by the Far Southeast Family Collaborative, the Jack Kemp Foundation and Martha’s Outfitters, a clothing store run by Martha’s Table in Southeast Washington where the young men sell the T-shirts they have designed.
And he gave a special thanks to Ronald Moten, founder of a gang intervention organization called Peaceoholics. The group no longer exists, but Moten continues working with young people in the city who want to make a positive change in their lives.
“Ron Moten helped us through this whole journey,” Warren told the congregation. “A lot of people don’t see all of the hard work he does, but I see it. And he does much of it for free. A lot of people don’t notice it, but I do.”
Lee knew that his congregation wouldn’t mind having the gay youths showcased during the service. But he’d asked for their approval anyway, as if to hear them affirm aloud the church doctrine that all are truly welcomed.
In doing God’s work, he said, sexual orientation was beside the point. And that was the point.
“If they are in a gang, we are working with them,” Lee said. “Gay, lesbian, transgender, they are in the right place. Is that all right?”
Hundreds of churchgoers nodded and declared, “Amen.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/courtlandmilloy.