In what may be a first for a predominately African-American church, the Union United Methodist Church in Boston officially opened its doors to gays and lesbians on Palm Sunday. The church's new policy appears to be part of a growing movement of African-American civil rights leaders and gay and lesbian Christians to join forces nationwide.
The Boston church announced it became a "reconciling and inclusive" congregation--a phrase that some churches have adopted to affirm that gay and lesbian worshipers are welcome as members and leaders. The churches faces possible sanctions from the denominations leaders.
"While in many of our white churches you'll find reconciling congregations throughout the various denominations, you will not find that in black churches," said the Rev. Irene Monroe, an African-American lesbian invited to deliver the Palm Sunday sermon to the Boston congregation.
Monroe, an ordained minister who is also a doctoral candidate at Harvard University's School of Divinity, said that she believes that the "black church's theology of liberation--that God is on the side of the oppressed--was never intended to include women and queers." She, however, intends to continue to urge that the theology expand to include her and others like her.
Monroe's critique is addressed to the African-American community for not being open to gays and lesbians. But gay and lesbian communities have similarly been criticized for not addressing issues of race.
However, Soulforce, a gay and lesbian interfaith and interracial organization based in San Francisco, seeks to engage both communities in its push for inclusive church policies. The group trains Christians to use the principles of nonviolent resistance taught by Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to stem anti-gay rhetoric and confront religious leaders.
Long-time organizers of the civil rights movement and Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, will lead Soulforce members in civil disobedience at the headquarters of the United Methodist Church in Cleveland on May 10, coinciding with the church's national meeting.
Currently, the policies of the Methodist Church toward gays and lesbians are often contradictory and not uniformly enforced, activists said.
The Methodist church acknowledges that each person has "the same sacred worth" regardless of sexual orientation, they said, yet it states that homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Its policies forbid the ordination of gays and same-sex union ceremonies.
Soulforce leaders, The Rev. Dr. James Lawson and the Rev. Dr. Robert Graetz, who stood beside King in civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, intend to be arrested in order to demonstrate solidarity between those who fight for racial justice and those who fight for gay and lesbian rights.
The General Conference is a two-week gathering of the church's lawmaking body held every four years to address policy matters, including those affecting gays and lesbians.
"We are using the May 10 event to say this debate over gays and lesbians must end," said the Rev. Mel White, a cofounder of Soulforce. He is impatient with the slow, church-by-church approach. "We are not going to be polite anymore," he warned. "If the Methodists don't turn around at this conference, we are starting a financial boycott--no more tithes, no more donations."
The National Council of Churches, which includes the Methodist church in its membership, has no policy on the status of homosexuals, although churches in a number of denominations have begun to articulate inclusive policies.
"Although our members have deep differences of opinion," said Sarah Vilankulu, a spokeswoman for the council, "they are unanimous in defending the civil rights of all persons."
Organizers such as Monroe and White hope to build on that stated commitment to civil rights. They point to a common ground from which African-American Christians and gay and lesbian Christians may work to change church policy.
"As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people entering the new millennium," she said, there is a "call for our prophetic voices in the same manner that the civil rights movement called for the prophetic voices of African Americans in the last millennium."
Monroe and White foresee increasing numbers of congregations addressing the related issues of racism, sexism and homophobia in a common goal of expanding their fellowship.
"This is signaling a new moment in the history of gay rights in churches,"said Monroe. "It transcends being a gay thing, a black thing, a Methodist thing."