Every Monday, a few dozen African-American ministers meet at Trinidad Baptist Church in northeast Washington, D.C., to pray, eat and brainstorm about the big issues facing their churches.
These days, one item looms large: same-sex marriage. When asked whether there is any debate about homosexuality in this crowd, the Rev. Patrick Walker, pastor of New Macedonia Baptist Church in southeast D.C., turns to face his colleagues standing around the sanctuary.
"Anyone here for same-sex marriage?" he yells. The two dozen ministers are silent for a beat — and then break out in incredulous laughter.
While surveys show African-Americans are the most liberal group on issues of social justice, they are the most conservative on gay rights. They voted overwhelmingly in favor of a ban on gay marriage in California, and nationwide, 2 out of 3 blacks oppose same-sex marriage.
When the Washington, D.C., city council approved a bill recently that would recognize gay marriages from other states, the most vocal opposition came from the city's African-American churches.
Leading the opposition is Walker. His church, with 2,100 members, is growing quickly. He also heads the task force for black ministers fighting same-sex marriage in the city.
"Barring any action from the Congress or the courts, on July 6, the District of Columbia will recognize those same-sex marriages," he says, delivering the news to his fellow ministers and urging them to get their congregants to call their D.C. council members.
'Be Fruitful And Multiply'
Walker believes that recognizing same-sex marriages will be a tragedy and an affront to God.
"I believe the Bible is absolutely clear," he says. "God performed the first marriage when he sanctioned Adam and Eve."
Walker cites Sodom and Gomorrah and passages from the Bible calling homosexual acts an abomination. Nowhere, he says, does God sanction homosexual marriage.
"When you look at the way God designed the male and the female — 'Be fruitful and multiply' was the command," Walker says. "I'm sorry, but the homosexual cannot be fruitful and multiply."
Like many evangelicals, Walker reads the Bible as the literal word of God. And he sees in those pages a blueprint for a healthy family. It's not the only blueprint. Walker himself was raised by a single mother, and he appreciates the grandparents in his church who raise their grandkids.
"I'm not taking away from that," he says. "But I think God's perfect order for family is mom and dad."
And he believes gay marriage will be another blow to an inner-city institution that is already in trouble.
"When we are looking at the disproportionate number of single women in our churches and the decline of the African-American male, yes, I believe it takes away from the family," Walker says.
The Next Step For Civil Rights
But the Rev. Dennis Wiley, co-pastor of the 500-member, predominantly black Covenant Baptist Church, says it's unclear whether gay marriage would harm the African-American family.
"We have many problems within the African-American family," he says. "But how do we know whether or not gay marriage will add to the problem or add to the solution unless it happens?"
He notes that several of his gay congregants have adopted children — children who were overlooked by heterosexual couples — and that these families are "wholesome."
In 2007, Wiley and his co-pastor — his wife, Christine — held two same-sex blessings, prompting two-thirds of their congregation to leave. Since then, they've attracted new members who were looking for a gay-friendly black church. He believes the African-American church opposes homosexuality because it is trying to erase the "myth of the hypersexual African-American" slave by conforming to white society.
"You don't want to call a lot of attention to yourself," he says. "You don't want to engage in behavior that's considered deviant or aberrant, etc. You're trying to conform to what you think is the normative expectation that society places upon you. So, certainly, homosexuality is something considered to be out of the question."
Wiley acknowledges that there are a handful of biblical passages condemning homosexuality. But he says blacks don't take the Bible literally when it comes to racial issues.
"The Bible says, 'Slaves, be obedient to your master,' etc. Well, we don't hear black people saying, 'OK, we got to stick with that,' " Wiley says. "Yet when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, then people are running to the Bible."
For Wiley, who studied under liberation theologian James Cone, gay rights are simply the next step in the civil rights movement. Like blacks, he says, homosexuals did not choose this life.
"This is not something they woke up one day and said, 'I think I'll be homosexual today,' " he says. "These are people who — no matter how hard they might try — this is what their identity is."
Only Time Will Tell
But Walker calls the comparison "ludicrous."
"When I talk to most people of African descent, many of them are absolutely appalled by any comparison to the civil rights movement, simply because we cannot take off our blackness," Walker says.
Gay men and lesbians, he says, never sat at the back of a bus, or suffered Jim Crow segregation laws. And here's the dividing issue between the two ministers: Walker believes homosexuals choose to be gay — a lifestyle that is outside of God's plan and therefore a sin.
It's hard to imagine how Walker and Wiley will meet halfway on this issue. So they're both waiting. Wiley believes that eventually, gay marriage will become just as accepted as interracial marriage is today. Walker, too, believes time is on his side — that the time-tested, literal word of God will prevail in the end.