‘The worst things one could be called was a nigger or a sissy’

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Newsmaker Interview

Since same-sex marriage catapulted sexuality back into the forefront of America’s culture wars last year, African American clergy have often served as the public face for the religious right’s anti-gay movement. Millions More Movement march organizer Rev. Willie Wilson’s homophobic sermon last week was just the most recent – and now high-profile – example.

But as some Black ministers ally with political forces that have long been associated with not only anti-gay but anti-Black agendas as well, other Black faith leaders are working to foster inclusiveness in the church. Rev. Alvin O. Jackson is a prime example. As a nationally-celebrated leader in the Disciples of Christ, he has moved from running his own ex-gay ministry to counseling other Black pastors on how to embrace and support their gay congregants.

Jackson’s advocacy for diversity cuts all ways: He recently stepped down as pastor to Washington, D.C.’s famed National City Christian Church because white gay congregants – among others – objected to changes the church faced as more people of color, of all sexualities, became members (largely attracted by Jackson). Last week, as the controversy surrounding Wilson and the Millions More Movement grew, Jackson spoke with BlackAIDS.org editor Kai Wright about his personal journey from fear to acceptance.

BlackAIDS.org: Let’s just start from the beginning. How did you start talking about these issues?

Rev. Jackson: Well, you know, I grew up in the Delta of Mississippi, and in a very small rural community there – conservative, pretty much everything is in black and white. The two worst things that one could be called was a nigger or a sissy, and I think I spent a lot of my life trying to prove I was neither. And although I knew people who were gay growing up, it was just considered abnormal. Even after going through college and seminary, for years I preached sermons about homosexuality being a sin.

I guess it was probably about my 10th year in ministry in Memphis [Miss.], at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, that I met a young man who was involved in music and who came to me for counseling, to share with me his struggle with homosexuality. And I counseled with him, prayed with him. He wanted to come out of homosexuality. He was out of the Church of God and Christ and just really struggled with it. So we went through all kinds of counseling sessions with psychiatrists, with the psychologists and we even started an ex-gay ministry in Memphis for people who wanted to move out of that. And it just became clear to me, from my relationship with him and with others who were struggling, that it was not a choice for them. That this was basically who people were, this was the essence of who they were.

And so it was really through my relationship with this young man who was struggling, and with others whom I became acquainted with, that I started rethinking my position and really going back and doing some work with biblical scholars looking at scriptural text and really coming to the conclusion that my interpretation of those texts were off as well.

What was your thought at that time? How did you think about the ex-gay ministries that you started? Did you feel like you were doing good?

I thought it helped. But I was pretty directly involved with the group myself. And just going to those sessions each week with those basically young men who were involved, it was clear to me that this wasn’t something that was gonna change, and that the church needed to find a way to embrace those folks. I mean, we were really adding on to their frustration and struggle rather than helping them.

I mean, it was over several years that I got there. And I felt good about it when we started the ex-gay ministry — that we were really doing something. It was well-intended but misdirected.

You say it became clear to you that this wasn’t a choice and the church needed another solution. What exactly was it that made you see that?

Well, people would stop for a while, and would go through periods of really feeling good. They were coming to the Bible study sessions and coming to the counseling sessions and really feeling that they had gotten a handle on it. But then they found themselves back into the same place again. And, you know, it just seemed as if we were beating people further down rather than really helping them.

So what happened at the moment that you decided that was the case? What happened then?

That was really the last two years of my ministry in Memphis. Then, in 1998, I came to National City. So when I came to National City I was still struggling with this whole idea. And my biggest hesitation in accepting the call to come to National City was my wondering whether I could really be a faithful pastor to the gay community there. And it was a different context, of course, in Washington and at National City — people were much further along than in Memphis. But it was my relationship with that community, and just being in conversation and relationship with folks, that really kind of moved me another few steps, to the point that I could just say I’ve got to very openly embrace this community and the church is really missing a tremendous opportunity if we don’t.

I became a part of the task force of the denomination. Our denomination was struggling with this, and began a discernment process. And we developed a study guide for churches who wanted to work through this and understand this issue better. And so for two years I was a part of that discernment process, and that helped me along a great deal in terms of getting a better handle on what was going on.

And when you say you were concerned coming to National City, do you mean because there was a large gay community within the church or because D.C. has such a large gay community?

Because there was a large gay community in the church. I was still evolving in terms of my understanding there. And so I knew coming to the church that there was an expectation from the gay community that I would be pretty vocal and pretty supportive of that community, and I was really not there when I first came. And it took me a while.

I owned up to it when I walked in the door. I said, “I’m open but I’m not sure how open I can be at this point. You need to kind of work with me on that.” People were very patient. And I guess three years after I came there we started performing same-sex marriages and being pretty open and pretty vocal in terms of advocating for that community.

And in terms of HIV, both in Memphis and at National City, did that play a role in your thinking?

Yes. In Memphis, even with the ex-gay ministry and all of that, we got involved. Pernessa Seale [of the organization Balm in Gilead] was involved in a national HIV program — this would have been in the late 80s in Memphis — and we became involved. I was on that task force. We started getting other churches signed up to do an HIV/AIDS awareness kind of thing each year, and it became a fairly large thing – 40 or 50 churches in Memphis became involved, African American congregations. And they’re still going with that program there.

So HIV you didn’t find difficult?

No, not at all. It was very clear to me that that was a problem and the church needed to address it. Early on in my ministry at Mississippi Boulevard, I preached a sermon that I called “Behind Closed Doors.” After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Disciples and they didn’t believe that it was really Jesus, particularly Thomas. It was when he opened his clothing and showed his wounds that they believed. And the point of the sermon was that we’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable and be open and to deal with the areas where we’re wounded. And it is only when we do that that we find healing and wholeness. And for me the whole issue of HIV/AIDS was an area that we could not afford to play around with in the black community. We had to be open about that and to deal with it, because too many of our young people were dying, too many folks were dying.

But how did you reconcile that with your thoughts about homosexuality? Too many young folks were dying, and many of them were gay men. That’s why it’s striking that that wasn’t difficult for you.

I mean, theologically, I guess when I started I was still at the point of thinking this was a choice, this was a lifestyle that they could change. But that didn’t prevent me from dealing with the problem we had before us. So even though I hadn’t worked through the whole thing theologically at that point, the whole HIV/AIDS crisis was growing in the community and that was there and we had to deal with it.

The story you tell is a remarkably brave one: that you could be open with yourself and where you were at, even as you go into a new church and so forth. I can imagine someone hearing this story and thinking, “I can’t do that.” What helped you along? What gave you the bravery?

I grew up in the Delta of Mississippi kind of as a nerd. I’m tall, so people see me and say, “Oh you play basketball.” I never played basketball. I was tall and clumsy! And so I was kind of never an insider growing up. Kids teased me and made fun of me because I wore thick glasses and had big ears that stuck out. So I think that even when I viewed homosexuality as a sin, and something that was abnormal, I’ve always had empathy for people who were marginalized and ridiculed.

So it was fairly easy for me — even though I didn’t really understand everything intellectually, theologically — emotionally it was easy for me to make that move, to stand with people who were in the margins, because I had experienced that as a child growing up. And, you know, growing up in the 50s and 60s in the Delta of Mississippi as an African American, I certainly knew what it meant to be in the margins.

And when you minister to folks who are saying, “I’m not comfortable with this,” what do you say to them? What is your advice?

I try not to be overbearing about it. I try not to preach to people about it, because people don’t change that way. People have to have an experience themselves. They have to be willing to get beyond themselves, because the key for me was being in relationship with people who were different from me, and being able to see a part of their journey. So that’s not going to happen until people are willing to do a little stretching and get beyond themselves.

I have many colleagues around the country who are really opposed and think I have completely lost my mind. But I remain friends with them, and when the opportunity comes up to talk about this I talk about it and share how I got where I am with it. And in some instances I know that I really can’t have this conversation with some folks, they’re just not even open to having this conversation. And so I don’t push.

So it’s about meeting people where they’re at.

It’s about meeting people where they are, right. I think that’s the key. I just look at our churches – you know, I’m out of the African American tradition and I love the African American church, but I see our churches and we’ve got our music ministries full of people who are struggling with their sexual identity and the leadership of our churches are just in complete denial about that. We love the music, and we love the gifts that they bring. But we really deny a large part of who they are. And I think that’s a pretty serious sin.

A lot of folks say part of the problem with HIV is that Black gay men are so marginalized within our own community, and particularly within the church. Do you believe that’s true?

I think so. I think that there is a lot of caring and loving going on. But I don’t think we’re really going to get a hold of it until we can get real about it and not be so in denial about who folks really are, because people are pushed even further into the margins and into all kinds of strange ways of dealing with their sexuality. And if we could let people integrate that and just be a part of the community and be who they are, it would work much better. So I do think we contribute to that in our denial of where folks are.

It’s interesting. For years the pastor my church in Mississippi, where I grew up, is a man who is now in his mid-70s, who never married. He’s been single all of his life, and everyone knew that he is gay. But he’s not out, it’s never been acknowledged and of course I’ve never had any kind of discussion with him. He’s still serving the church he grew up in. But what kind of life is that to live? He’s been pastoring churches for 50 years. To live a life like that, and never be able to be open about who you are? And he’s a wonderful man, but I just know that has to be a miserable life. But there’s not room or space there for him to do anything else. I don’t know what would happen to him if he came out. He couldn’t. So he lives this life undercover.

What he would have to give up to have more, maybe the price is too high.

Yeah.

Kai Wright is editor of BlackAIDS.org.

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