“ Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day”
Willie Nelson, Uncloudy Day
As a child, church was everything I knew. As a young introverted bookworm, son of a single mother and an incarcerated father, I came to call church home. In the church, I found sanctuary, solitude and importance. I remember being in the Sunday school class and often being commended for my memorization of Scripture and my enthusiasm for singing the common hymns. Of course, this was not a far-fetched idea, since my Sunday school teacher granny made sure that I was present every Sunday for Sunday school and every Wednesday for bible study. But, it didn’t take much for her to get me to church, for on Sunday, it was a weekly holiday. I looked forward to rising early in the morning on Sunday to attend Sunday school and worship service. The sound of the Hammond B3 organ enchanted me and the voices of the elders singing the old hymns transfixed me beyond verbal expression. I even felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to dance, often for the emotion of service enthralled me.
At a very young age, I decided to “join the church” and get baptized (although I did not get baptized until years later due to an intense fear of pools). After that, I became heavily involved in all facets of church life from the choir, usher board, church anniversary, pastor’s anniversary, and even Sunday school. In my early teens, I became a junior Sunday school teacher working with the young children in early elementary school.
As I came of age, I began to question the very practices and foundations of the church that I came to love, the Black church. I had a ton of questions: why can’t I touch the communion table, how is it possible for Jesus to raise from the dead, how did his blood wash our sins away? These questions often went unanswered. As a matter of fact, I was often told to shut up and don’t question God. As you can imagine, I learned to shut up, but my questions remained.
In my personal life, I was dealing with serious issues regarding my sexuality. Puberty had shown its face in my life and I began experiencing urges and feelings about men that I never thought of before. These questions remained silent for I knew that “God doesn’t like homosexuals”. Further, I knew that “sex before marriage is a sin” and therefore, my questions about it were destined to be shunned. So, I kept my feelings secret and explored the life of men who have sex with men, as secret as I could. On Sunday, I was a different person than the one during the week. I presented my best self to the church, for I was in leadership in youth ministry, youth church, youth choir and other church auxiliaries. I constantly reminded myself of what would happen if people found out about my life outside of church.
Unfortunately, I could not hide it as well as I thought for my peers and respected adults saw it in me. I began to be ridiculed for dressing too nice, exhibiting feminine tendencies, and not having a girlfriend. People started questioning my leadership roles in the church. One friend who was very close to me went as far as to stand up in front of the church and indirectly tease me for being a “fraud”. The pain that I began feeling in the church was unfamiliar. How could a place that I loved so much, that I gave my all to, subject me to pain and retribution?
I decided to leave. My excuse was that I felt stifled in the church where I was and I wanted to find a place that could use my talents. While that may have been part of it, I also needed space to wrestle with my identities. I needed space to figure out who I was, who I could be, and how did God see me. I desperately needed to find love for myself and deal with these “tendencies” that would not go away.
While in college, I began to explore my sexuality and self-identity deeper. I started to learn of language that could express how I was feeling and that there were others who had experienced the pain of dealing with one’s sexuality and being very present in the Black church. James Baldwin became a healing source for me as I identified with his mixed love and frustration for the Black church in relation to affirming who he was. Baldwin and I did not have the space necessary within the Black church to wrestle with the questions of our sexuality, safely. We did not have someone to turn to who could remind us of God’s ever-present love. We both were reminded in the Black church of our eternal damnation as a result of being attracted to and having sex with men.
Today, I struggle to find that space. Across the country, there is a slow increase of Black churches who are becoming more open and affirming to LGBT people and progressive to ideas of faith and spirituality, but the number is still very small. Black LGBT people are still trying to find a space within their beloved Black church, the same place where they came of age, as I. For many of us, there is a bond between our souls and the Black church that cannot be severed. While many of us have chosen to distance ourselves from institutional Black church spaces, the hymns, church mothers, worship style, and gospel music are still a part of our identity. But we cannot show up in many spaces, raw and unfiltered, with all of our “gay-ness” on display. We are still struggling to heal from the trauma experienced in the Black church at the hands of individuals we loved. We are still struggling to find our place at home.