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A Way That With Tears Has Been Watered

The Life And Death And Life of Benjamin L. Reynolds

by Benjamin L. Reynolds

I am delighted and informed after reading the 2006 Body of Christ article referencing my departure from the city of Colorado Springs. This was my first time reading the piece, and it provided me a moment of pause and reflection, to which most of what will follow in this document is my thoughtful considerations about life after Colorado Springs, the Black church regarding sexuality, and hopes for our collective future as Black Americans.

As I reflect on my time in Colorado Springs, the privilege: burden and blessing of being, as Jesus, a prophet without honor in his hometown, my thoughts are imbued with many memories fond. Some are those memories that cause me to laugh. Sometimes, out loud! Others are memories that are not so fond, and have caused tears, but have been instructive in creating the space for me to take wings and fly to a place where I could find and own my voice.

The journey to this place, however, to use the words of James Baldwin, “…The anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain…” Occasionally, someone will inquire, “If you had the chance to go back, would you?” The answer to that is not only no, but hell no! I’ll be damn if I would ever go back to living any part of my life in a closet. Closets are for clothes and storage; and not for people. Besides, life is never meant to be lived backwards. All of our hopes and dreams are ahead of us. I am, indeed, grateful for the journey.

Of course, my point of entry to this age-old argument is quite

different than it was in 2006. As a PhD candidate in the area of Theology, Ethics and Human Science, with a primary academic interest at the intersection of masculinity, sexuality, spirituality and how these three areas are affected and effected by class; as well as my current position with the Chicago Theological Seminary as Director of the LGBTQ Religious Studies Center, I begin this conversation with an assumption that same-sex eroticism, homosexuality, transgenderism and so forth are not sinful or disordered. I am well aware of the position of some Black churches on this issue, but much of my work and research is within the above parameters.  When subjects are controversial, and laden with immense personal pain as this subject can be, productive conversations and community dialogue can be hijacked by devoting the discussion to the sinfulness or moral rectitude of non-heterosexual sex. What I recognize is that there are a number of persons who are Black, as well as Black churches across this country who share this same sentiment. In other words, the Black church or community is not monolithic on this issue.

While I am currently not serving in or attending a predominantly Black church; and basically have a love/hate relationship with the Black church as we have come to know it as an institution, I still hold the right and privilege to be critical of the Black church, because history cannot erase my past roles and significant contributions, nationally, but specifically in the Colorado Springs context, with “how to do church” and how church can influence our contemporary society. With that said, in a meeting earlier this week, I realized that there is a great deal about the Black church, with all of its faults, that I appreciate and I miss having this church as a part of my life. I do believe, however, that the Black church must stop allowing herself to be schizophrenic about sexuality. Whether one is same-sex or heterosexual is really a moot issue; the real issue is justice and respect for all of humanity—doing what is right.

I’m remembering when I was first called to the Spring’s church as Senior Pastor; women in that congregation could not wear pants in the building—at all! That was in 1992. If a female—woman or a girl—wore pants to work or school on any given day, and had plans on coming to church for an evening meeting, rehearsal, prayer, or service of worship, she had to go into a downstairs restroom (there were no restrooms other than the one in my office, as I recall, on the main level at the time) and change from her pants into a skirt or dress before entering the sanctuary. She was looked down for daunting the look of a male/man.

Additionally, in 1992, there were no female ministers, and women were not even allowed on the pulpit and not behind the sacred desk. I saw all of this as an injustice toward women, and humanity because it herald the men as patriarchal, when everyone knows that the Black church, and I would go as far as to say, the sharing of the gospel itself would not even exist if it were not for the contribution of the women. This makes the church phallocentric. In other words, we as a church are not necessarily worshiping God in Jesus Christ, but the male phallis. I conclude that a woman can preach, and women can be called to the role of a pastor within the church—period. In fact, I have been enriched from deep relationships with female ministers and pastors that have helped to stretch my theology. I also note that female enrollment in seminary is at its highest. This helps us to speculate about the direction that the church is moving. Black females are a major part of this data.

As a human rights issue and as a justice issue, the Holy Spirit led me to launch the campaign for women in ministry, probably around 1994-5. We began with a Bible Study, and a sermon series entitle, “The Reverend Sister,” which was designed to go for 6-weeks, with 6-sermon installments. By the time we had completed 3 of the 6 sermons, the congregation was ready to move in a positive direction on the issue of women in ministry. At that time, to conclude the matter, I invited The Rev. Dr. Lisa Tait, then from Atlanta, who came and co-facilitated the women in a weekend retreat, and preached to the congregation during the Sunday worship. Today there are women in that pulpit!

Having said all of that, within the context of Black preaching, it is imperative for us to begin to examine and expose the impact of phallocentric concepts that are present within our sacred rhetoric. It makes a world of difference when we hear sermons that are plagued with linguistic sexism, in which images of and references to women are seldom positive. When we have a failed sense of women it adds to the complexity of deconstructing the sexual politics of the Black church, and further complicates our understanding in the importance of the inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Most recently when Bishop Eddie Long makes his first appearance after the scandal broke last year, just like the politicians who have been involved in sex scandals did, he drags his wife, the woman, and uses her as a prop (she had nothing to say, and apparently nothing to feel by her expression-or lack of expression) to bring credibility to his statement. Women are used, oftentimes, in Black churches to keep the men vested in their patriarchal power. (I was so counting on the Black church to use the Long scandal as a way to talk openly and honestly about sexuality without bringing the "sin" language into the conversation.)

In this essay series' introduction the LGBT community is described as as having “an agenda to strip the church of its moral authority, purpose and effectiveness... [Editor's note: actually we said, "There does exist... within the diversity of the LGBT community, an agenda...] There is indeed, an agenda within the gay community that is virulently anti-Christian and anti-church.” Because I am a part of an LGBT movement as it relates to the universal church and my own concern with the Black church specifically, I would describe this as more of a movement that brings the church of Jesus Christ to a sense of accountability with regard to its original calling to be Christ-like: agents of transformation, portals of grace, love, compassion, and mercy.

It’s sad to say, but I am almost afraid to tell anyone that I am either minister or Christian, because it seems to place me in such a limited, conservative, un-Christ-like, inhospitable, unwelcoming box. That is what my coming out in 2006 was really about. I needed to be free to fly not only in terms of my sexual orientation; but my theology, my spirituality, and my practices of God in Christ Jesus. I seek to be the face of Christ in the [real] world, and not limited to the social construct called the Black church.

Additionally, the movement as it relates to the Black church is deeply concerned about the exclusion of its own LGBT who helped build this institution. Lest we forget, much of our Gospel music, which is the soul of the Black church, was created by the very gifted ones the Black church seeks to alienate and exile from the ranks.

By way of explanation, some have suggested that as a people we are “erotic-phobic;” fearful of eros with its sensual and sexual aspects. The Black community, regardless of our religious commitments, has prided itself on its acquaintance with the Bible. This Bible contains a book named Song of Songs/Solomon that is visually vivid in its descriptions of the human form and how spiritually sensual acknowledgement of the body can be. We are people who sing, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading the paths through the blood of the slaughtered.” How does our Black community, then, explain pretentions of an inauthentic sexual prudery when we know the history of the sexual mis-use during slavery of our fore mothers and sisters, and I believe our fore fathers and brothers, by slave masters?

History informs us that not only were Black men lynched from trees, as sang by Billie Holliday in “Strange Fruit,” but their genitals were often cut off depicting that peculiar juxtaposition of race and sex. Unless we can have healthy and productive discussions within our context, the Long and other sex scandals will continue to cut off the genitals of our African American same-sex brothers, which is exactly what has happened to the young four brothers in Atlanta. Sexuality is a gift from God, and our challenge is embedded in our ability to hope in and imagine responsible sexuality and sexual activity, regardless of the way it is expressed.

Benjamin L. Reynolds, MDiv
24 July 2011
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