Embracing 'The Diversity Of God': Harlem Church Engages, Affirms Queer Members
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This month, we've been looking at organizations across the country that work in Black communities and are helping to shape Black history for the future. First Corinthian Baptist Church is one of the largest churches in Harlem. It has more than 10,000 members, and many are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. The church has been inclusive while also challenging anti-queer beliefs and practices that have long existed in the Baptist tradition.
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MICHAEL WALROND JR: So many who claim to be Christian have looked upon our brothers and sisters who have been seeking to live an authentic life, and we have used our own hypercritical, graceless moralism to judge. Somehow, the Christians could not handle the diversity of God.
SIMON: Michael Walrond Jr. is the senior pastor at the First Corinthian Baptist Church and joins us now. Pastor Mike, thanks so much for being with us.
WALROND: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be on with you today.
SIMON: Tell us, sir, about your community there and what you do to try to affirm queer people.
WALROND: I've been blessed for the past 17 years to serve as the senior pastor. Part of what drives us, what galvanizes us is our commitment not only to the teachings of Jesus, but really being shaped and guided by the underlying ethos of the Jesus movement, which is love. For me to be a follower of teachings of Jesus on some levels mean that I lead with love and I honor the nature of love. But I honor what I call the inherent dignity of all human beings.
SIMON: Do some people, many people come to your church after they've suffered indignity and even trauma?
WALROND: You know, one of the things that often goes unspoken and not talked about is the amount of religious trauma that many people suffer with, people who have found themselves coming to churches, coming to Christianity, looking for a way forward, a way to affirm themselves, a way to learn to abide in their own sense of humanity. And oftentimes, many Christians can be hypercritical and hyperjudgmental And in that doing, we end up damaging a lot of people who we deem as other or different. And in that way, I don't believe we honor the creativity and the imagination of God if we believe that God is the creator of all. And that means we honor God's creativity and imagination for diversity. And that diversity, I think, includes even sexual orientation.
And so I don't want to say we're the only ones, but I know we may be among the very few, if not the only church, that has opened up a mental health facility. We call it the HOPE Center, seeking to meet needs with therapy and also doing group therapy to really help people cope.
SIMON: In this country, historically, Black spiritual communities have often been in the forefront of civil rights struggles and the struggle for racial justice, but they have not always been sympathetic to Black queer people. Is that a fair way to put it?
WALROND: That is fair. I've often said, you know, you cannot think of any social justice movement - you certainly cannot think of the abolitionist movement, you can't think of modern civil rights movement without thinking about the place the Black church has had. The Black church was the one space going from slavery even up until now that was considered ours. It was a place that belonged to us.
But at the same time, there have been some blind spots that have sought to undermine some of our work. Those blind spots, if we're honest, have been connected to the way women are treated in the church, in many ways as second-class citizens, persons who can support the church with all their resources but in many churches are not honored in their leadership. So that's one blind spot.
And the other blind spot is with the queer community. And there are many who have been vehemently opposed to queer people and have used scripture to justify their attitude. They'll either pull something from the Old Testament or some of the writings of Paul, but never, never quote the teachings of Jesus. Jesus doesn't talk about it. But what Jesus does talk about is how we honor one another's humanity.
SIMON: Pastor Mike, I wonder what you hope First Corinthian's inclusiveness might help build for the future in your community and add to the story of Black history in this country.
WALROND: If churches in general, but our churches, African American congregations, are going to survive and thrive in the future, a future which we know now - some reports say about close to 50% of millennials make no claim to any kind of religious institution, but they do believe in God, and they are deeply spiritual. And I think if the churches are going to be relevant in the future, we have to be intentional about what that means. Being inclusive and affirming in many ways adds to the inclusivity.
I think about our congregation when I arrived there 17 years ago was a traditional Baptist church. And there's a tremendous story of a gentleman who came to the church. And he would be considered, you know, anti-gay. And he's been serving in the church for some years now. And last year, he came to me and said, Pastor, I want to share something with you. He said, when I started coming here, I was against people who were gay. I was against, he said, homosexuality. His daughter was queer. She was gay. And they did not have a good relationship because of his attitude towards her. And his daughter is now a transgender man. And he said to me on this occasion - he said, I want to thank you for the teachings. I want to thank you for this community. My son and I now have a relationship that my daughter and I never had.
SIMON: Michael Walrond Jr., senior pastor at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. Pastor Mike, thanks so much.
WALROND: Thank you for having me. My pleasure.
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