Groups Of Black Clergy Rally To Support Gay Marriage

More than 100 clergy — mostly African-American — from throughout the Washington, D.C., region, rallied this week in support of same-sex marriage. The Rev. Dennis Wiley, who hosted the pro-gay marriage gathering, explains his decision to lend support and tells of his efforts, met with challenges, to convince fellow black clergy to do the same.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for our regular Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. We've been talking quite a bit about the debate over same-sex marriage, especially the racial fault lines that some feel have emerged in the wake of that California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. It seems that African-Americans were more likely than whites to oppose same-sex marriage in that vote.

And here in Washington, D.C., where the city council last month voted to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere, the more vocal opponents have been an African-American city councilman and former mayor, and a group of African-American clergy.

But this week, a group of more than 100 clergy, many of them also African-American, gathered to rally in support of same-sex marriage in the District. The group is called D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality. Joining me here in our Washington, D.C., studio to talk about all this is Pastor Dennis Wiley. He's the pastor of the predominately black Covenant Baptist Church, which hosted the rally. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

The Reverend DENNIS WILEY (Covenant Baptist Church): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, it's one thing to support something from the pulpit; it's another to sort of organize in what some might argue is a political fashion. So what made you decide to take this step, to make a group and organize around this, and hold a rally?

The Rev. WILEY: Well, let me make it clear, first of all, that Rob Hardies -actually the pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church - took the lead in bringing this group together. But we were very excited about the opportunity to come together, especially as a black Baptist Church that has taken the position that we've taken on this issue because it can get very lonely because there are not a great deal of other churches, black churches, especially black Baptist churches or mainline, denominational black churches that take the position that we do.

So we are very excited about having some company in looking at the other side of this issue and getting out the message that to be Christian doesn't simply mean that you have to be on the side of being against gay marriage, but you can also be a Christian or a religious person and be for gay marriage.

MARTIN: We had a former mayor and currently councilman, Marion Barry, on the program a week or so ago. He was the only member of the council to vote against recognizing gay marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions and recognizing them here in D.C. When we asked him why, and he - one of the reasons his vote was considered surprising is that he is considered an early and outspoken supporter of the same-sex community. But he said he was drawing a line at marriage because that's what his constituents believe, that he is voting in line with his constituents, and that is his responsibility.

So I wanted to ask you about that. Do you think that that's true? Do you think that there is a consensus among African-Americans, for whatever reason, in opposition?

The Rev. WILEY: No, I don't. No, I don't. I think that we make some presumptions based on our history, and I think that we have a lot of work to do in the African-American community, and clearly there are some who are entrenched on either side of the issue. But I think there is a vast middle ground where people are honestly struggling with this issue.

If you think about it, we all have gay people in our families, in the workplace. We have them in our churches, and they are very much involved. The critical issue is whether or not we are going to endorse their being able to fully be who they are, openly and without apology. And one of the things that we indicate is that… Well first of all, getting back to Ward 8, where Barry is the councilperson - although he said that, about a week or so after he made that comment, the Ward 8 Democrats met and voted to endorse same-sex marriage.

MARTIN: I understand what you're coming from. That's a political question. I'm asking you also, I think, from the theological and spiritual perspective. We've had one of the more prominent voices in this discussion on the program also, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., and he was - who is also African-American - and he's explaining why he opposes gay marriage. Here is that clip.

Bishop HARRY JACKSON, JR. (Hope Christian Church): We have to be biblically faithful, let me say that again, and if the truth is not in the word, how do you know you are Christian? How do you know you really believe God's word? It seems like to me that you have decided you're going to interpret those Scriptures the way you want to, and you are going to live it the way you want to.

Orthodox Christianity, being born again, all those kinds of things, come out of a reverence for what thus sayeth the Scriptures, not twisting it to fit the cultural needs of the day.

MARTIN: What do you think of that?

The Rev. WILEY: It's interesting how that argument sounds very much like the argument that is now targeted toward nominee Sotomayor. There are certain persons who interpret the Constitution as being a very rigid document that was written, and that we must interpret it putting ourselves in the shoes of those who wrote it, and that there is some kind of purer meaning there that we have to get back to.

Others see it as a more fluid document. That means that not only was it written in a context, but it is also interpreted in a context, that we do not come to these documents, whether it's the Constitution or the Bible, with pure objectivity. We come out of our own experience, out of our own culture, etc. So the Bible is interpreted through those same eyes.

MARTIN: I want to ask you, finally, in just the minute and a half that we have left that - you and your wife, Christine(ph), co-pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, your father was pastor of the church before you, long history at this house of worship that when you, a couple of years ago, began holding marriage unions for same-sex couples in your church, that there was support, but you also lost members. I just wanted to ask what this experience has been like, to take a position that is at odds with many in your congregation, and…

The Rev. WILEY: Yes, it has been very - it's been very painful. But number one, my wife and I believe that we are called to be not only pastoral but also prophetic, and that means that we speak or attempt to speak for God. And sometimes, what God informs us to do is not always comfortable. And so it's difficult to lose members, but Martin Luther King said one time, and it's a quote that I really love, he said that we - our conscience asks the question, is it safe? Expediency? Is it politic, vanity? Is it popular? What conscience asks, is it right?

And we take our position not because it is popular, expedient or safe but because we believe it's right.

MARTIN: Pastor Dennis Wiley. He and his wife, Christine Wiley, are co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio. Pastor Wiley, thank you so much for joining us.

The Rev. WILEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Remember at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. We value your response to the stories we cover. This week, you can hear our selection of listeners' most-thoughtful comments in our letters segment, BackTalk. That's on our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org, and coming up, the Barbershop guys' take on the week's headlines from late-night comics to presidential politics to the NBA finals. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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