On Sunday morning I went to a church service for the first time in decades.
I was there as a community member to support Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist church in South Los Angeles. A few days before, I’d received an urgent plea from Teka-Lark Fleming, publisher of the local Morningside Park Chronicle newspaper, encouraging progressive black folk to show up at Zion Hill in support of Seth’s pro-LGBTQ stance.
After publishing a column entitled “The 10 Reasons I Love LGBTQ folk” in Fleming’s paper, Pickens came under fire from church officials. The controversy erupted on the heels of internal criticism he’d received for performing a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple last year.
Zion Hill is a vibrant mini-community within a predominantly African American and Latino community that has been ravaged by the economic depression. Each week, the church houses health and fitness classes, an AIDS ministry, financial literacy workshops, block clubs, support services for the disabled and a credit union.
Over the past three years, Pickens has even been a supporter of “interfaith” dialogue with my Black Skeptics Los Angeles organization, opening the church’s doors to our community forums on atheism, black secular humanist traditions and civil rights resistance. I’d first met Pickens when I was exploring the grounds of the church with my then toddler daughter. After greeting me and introducing himself, he’d asked if I belonged to any of the local congregations. When I told him I was an atheist, the first words out of his mouth were not, “Why?” but “I respect that.”
After the success of our atheism roundtables, I attempted to organize another community forum entitled “Confronting Homophobia in the Black Church” at Zion Hill with Pickens’ support. However, shortly before the date of the event, he called to say church officials were giving him static and that we’d have to cancel it.
Now, with the publication of his article in the Morningside Park Chronicle, church officials are demanding that he face a “tribunal” and respond to a laundry list of questions on homosexuality and biblical morality.
The controversy at Zion Hill is emblematic of a national climate in which traditional black churches are increasingly being challenged on their homophobic policies. Nonetheless, the rhetoric that homosexuality is a white European phenomenon artificially imposed on African descent peoples is still a recurring theme in some black churches. Recently the ATLAH church in Harlem made headlines for a viciously homophobic marquee sign equating homosexuality with whiteness. And terrorist anti-gay legislation in Uganda and Nigeria (sparked and endorsed in no small part by the anti-gay crusades of white American evangelicals) has heightened the stereotype that both African and African descent people are inherently more homophobic than other groups.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, “African Americans are more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to identify as gay and transgender.” But despite the growing support for marriage equality laws in the U.S., there is still little public policy focus on the intersectional issues LGBTQ communities of color face. Nationwide, same sex black and Latino families are more likely to be at or below the poverty line. Transgender people of color are disproportionately victimized by hate crime, and LGBTQ black and Latino youth have some of the highest suspension/expulsion and incarceration rates among all youth populations.
Although African American youth are only around 12% of the U.S. population, they comprise 26% of the foster care population. High rates of homelessness and foster care placement among African American LGBTQ youth are not just driven by homophobia and transphobia in schools, families and local communities but by the racialized impact of the economic depression. Due to the nexus of racist school-to-prison pipelining and hetero-normative standards of therapeutic care, black LGBTQ foster care youth are more likely to become incarcerated than are white LGBTQ foster care youth. Funneled in and out of juvenile facilities, adult prisons, group homes and homeless shelters, LGBTQ youth of color often have nowhere else to turn but progressive churches and faith-based organizations.
Given the dearth of secular nonprofits and social welfare institutions in our neighborhoods, churches with leaders like Pickens can be a lifeline for queer and transgender youth of color.
For many African American LGBT folk, faith is intimately tied to cultural identity—the social conservatism and heterosexism of mainstream black America notwithstanding. According to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, when compared with their white counterparts, African American LGBT folk are more likely “to attend religious services, to engage in prayer, and to self-identify with a religious affiliation.”
Straight, gay, bi and transgender African Americans live together in segregated communities where racism, white supremacy, and criminalization shape their shared lived experiences. And until humanist organizations step up to create community-based cultural and social welfare institutions, churches will continue to be a focal point for people of color.
As Teka-Lark Fleming (who identifies as non-religious) argues in the Morningside Park Chronicle,
In African-American history the church has been both a tool of oppression and a tool of liberation. The church is where we organize, because African-Americans have nowhere else to organize and that is something that can be traced all the way back to slavery. Even today the only place the African-American community who are adults can meet if they want to have a meeting in a predominantly African-American community is a church. Our Civil Rights history was born in the Baptist church, but our enslavement was also born in the Baptist church.
Pastor Pickens has been given until March 4th to respond to the church tribunal. Letters of support can be sent to his attention at Zion Hill Baptist Church, 7860 10th Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90043.