Paper fans fluttered and tambourines jingled during the opening hymns of Inner Light Ministries’ Sunday service. July heat had crept into the small, wood-paneled sanctuary early, and the pews were packed.
The church was celebrating its 19th anniversary and honoring its founder, Bishop Rainey Cheeks, who has entered his 30th year in ministry.
Inner Light embodies the vibrance of the Southern black church, but its congregation remains at the fringes of the Christian tradition. It was among the first predominantly African American ministries in the District to welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), as well as those struggling with AIDS.
A stiff clerical collar peeked from beneath Cheeks’s long, gray dreadlocks as he rose to the pulpit during the anniversary service. His black robes were adorned with colorful African trim. As Cheeks moved toward the altar, one parishioner welcomed him in a loud voice for all to hear as, “a man with angels at his head and at his feet.”
A District native, Cheeks, 60, is black, openly gay and has been living with AIDS for decades.
“For years, I’ve dealt with ministers who want to dump guilt on people” who are gay, he said. “I ask them, ‘Really?’ If you have the ability to send me to hell, let me see you walk on water — what’s holding you back?”
He describes Inner Light as a church “that tries to be what heaven looks like — a little bit of everybody.” The ministry operates independently and serves about 100 parishioners. Nearly two-thirds of them are gay or lesbian. Many, including three members of Cheeks’s ministerial staff, are HIV-positive.
At a time when there is increasing attention on the stubbornly high HIV infection rate in the African American community — with many pointing to the lack of action by many influential black churches — Cheeks is notable for using his pulpit to educate parishioners on the need to get tested for HIV. He is a vocal counterpoint to the ministers who, from the altar, condemn homosexuality.
“In the end, I tell these ministers, ‘If your God isn’t big enough to make someone gay or lesbian, let me introduce you to mine — mine is,’ ” he said.
“Thirty years ago, we didn’t talk about gay people at all,” even though churches benefited from their services and donations, the Rev. Christine Wiley said during her guest sermon at the service honoring Cheeks. “Black folk acted like the LGBT community was invisible.”
She recalls, too, that the black church was a place of deep stigma for people who were HIV-positive in the ’80s and ’90s.
“And then comes along Rainey who says we don’t have to hide, we don’t need to be afraid. We can beat them at their own game,” she said.
For Cheeks, the game is affirming all worshipers — black or white, gay or straight, HIV-positive or -negative. His approach inspired Wiley and many of her colleagues to begin doing the same.
“You need to understand that almost every affirming ministry in this city owes Inner Light Ministries something,” Wiley said.
As part of the effort to leave behind the shame parishioners feel at other churches, Cheeks is integrating HIV testing and education into the work of his ministry, even providing testing after some Sunday services.
“With the issue of HIV, once you can get people to get rid of guilt, you can get them to change their behavior,” Cheeks said. “You can’t just do it by handing out a condom and a flyer.”
The key, he continued, is to “think outside of the box” and find creative ways to do HIV testing in the neighborhood — a project being spearheaded by another Inner Light staff member, the Rev. Darryl Moch. Each month, the Inner Light staff members team up with local AIDS support groups to provide testing at the church. Recently, the ministry held a slam poetry night for young parishioners to share their thoughts about AIDS — and provided free testing throughout the show. The church plans to use a similar approach during an Inner Light “Artist Night” later this year.
Moch also has begun a support group to help newly HIV-positive people from the neighborhood learn about the disease, talk about safe sex with their partners and share their status with their families.
Cheeks had led an AIDS ministry long before he founded Inner Light.
At the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in the District in the 1980s, Cheeks was a young manager at the ClubHouse disco in Columbia Heights — one of the District’s most popular dance clubs and a haven for black, gay youth. Driven in part by the death of his longtime partner in 1984 and his HIV diagnosis in 1985, he began “Us Helping Us,” a support group for black, gay, HIV-positive men. The group remains in operation, serving thousands in the District each year.
“Rainey didn’t run ‘The Church of the Clubhouse,’ but he might as well have,” Moch said. “The black, gay, positive community needed somewhere to gather and be who they were, as they still do. It’s ministry.”
Inner Light, quartered in a modest brick rowhouse on Q Street SE in Anacostia, is nestled on the border of Wards 7 and 8 — predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods where HIV/AIDS remains at epidemic levels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cheeks attributes the high rate of HIV infection around his church to deep-set poverty that has persisted in Wards 7 and 8. Many young people he helps, he said, are figuring out where their next meal will come from — a struggle that makes accessing treatment for HIV/AIDS fall to the wayside.
He believes the disease will only be eradicated in the District with more political involvement. “We have this Congress fighting over crazy things, and you just want to grab them and say, ‘Get out of that tower, come into the neighborhood and see what’s really happening,’ ” he said.
“Will it defeat us?” he asked about the disease that had caused the deaths of so many. “Or will it allow us to embrace each other despite it?”
Cheeks is one of several District residents featured in a documentary by Northern Virginia filmmakers Art Jones and Pam Bailey. The film, “13 Percent,” addresses the continuing rise in HIV infection among African American populations across the United States and, specifically, in the District.