A Sacred Conversation: Should Religious Detroiters Accept Homosexuality?

By Crystal A. Proxmire

DETROIT -

When President Barack Obama spoke in support of same-gender marriage, it sent a bolt of lightening down the rift between those on both sides of the debate over equality. Some were drawn to the light. Inspired by his words, they were moved to be more accepting of their LGBT brothers and sisters. Others, however, felt torn between their president and their religiously held belief that gays should be condemned unless they change their behavior. Some have even used the issue of gay equality to campaign for a black Republican vote, blaming economic and social ills on a departure from "traditional values," and touting Republicans as the party of Godliness.

Because of this rift in the black religious community, the Ecumenical Theological seminary teamed up with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion to host a panel discussion and Q&A session called "A Sacred Conversation on Sexuality." Friday night's panel attracted over a hundred people with a range of positions on sexuality who were open to having a civil discussion. Dr. Pastor Christine Wiley of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington D.C. came to town to sit on the panel, as did Bishop Yvette Flunder of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco. They spoke on the panel along with conservative preachers Dr. Walter Schmidt of First English Lutheran Church of Grosse Pointe Woods and Paster Christopher Brooks of Evangel Ministries in Detroit.

The panel was moderated by Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit, who is also the president of the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP. Anthony was at the historic meeting when then the National NAACP voted to support LGBT marriage equality shortly after President Obama's announcement in May. "Once the mothership says we are going in that direction, that's the way we go," he said. "When the President made his declaration that he supports marriage equality...he was speaking as the President. It caused a lot of hell when he said that. I was at the National Board meeting that Saturday when they made that decision to support marriage equality. This has been an issue in the NAACP for some time. The NAACP is a civil rights organization. It's not a religious organization. As a civil rights organization it went in that direction. It cannot determine how churches behave. But yes, the Detroit Branch supports the National Branch."

While from a civil rights perspective equality makes sense, from a religious perspective it can be more of a challenge.

"The issue is not about God's love, it is about God's will. We are not free to change God's will based on human wants," said Schmidt. "The real issue is not orientation, it is behavior. We are all oriented toward sin...our lives and our world is bondage in sin. We are not free to set aside or end God's law. What's at stake is the question of authority in our lives. Will we follow God's will or what we want. What will be the authority, ourselves or God's law?"

Flunder said she approaches her ministry in the spirit of "The Book," but not with the literal words that were written by man and have been used throughout history to oppress disenfranchised groups. "The book is not kind to slavery. The book is not equal to women. The same ways in which people use the scripture to stand in the way of my rights as a woman, as an African American, were all defended by that text," Flunder said.

She went on to describe how emotionally damaging it is to force gays and lesbians into living "a secret life," questioning how they can be internally whole in the face of a broken connection with God over something they cannot change. She talked about condemnation being akin to abuse, saying that some LGBT people justify going to churches where they have to hide themselves. "[The conflicted people say] I love my pastor. They only condemn same gender couples once or twice a year, the rest of the time they are wonderful.' I compare it to spousal abuse. Theological abuse once or twice a year is still abuse," Flunder said.

Brooks defended those who teach the literal Word. "Preaching against any sin like homosexuality, pornography, pedophilia is not abusive. Isn't it good parenting to say to your child, 'I love you but what you are doing is wrong?'"

Later in the program Brooks went on to oppose the suggestion that LGBT people should seek out congregations that are loving and affirming towards same-gender loving people. "I would caution all of us to run away from a church because it does not say what we like," he said. "The thing about sin is the more times we do it, the more natural it feels. Any gospel that is devoid of repentance is not right. What happens when your idea of right and wrong is different than mine? We need a higher authority, and that authority is God."

Schmidt's response to those who leave to find a church where they are accepted was to say, "We need to say, 'go in peace. God bless you, and go.'"

Wiley said, "Christians are not monolithic," noting that there are many denominations and many interpretations of the Bible. Flunder later encouraged gays hiding in their churches to leave and seek spiritual support elsewhere. "Stop prostituting yourselves and giving yourselves and your skills to institutions that don't support you."

Brooks touted the all-around conservative nature of his faith, and blamed the woes of society on all who practice "immoral" living situations including sex outside of wedlock, abortion and adultery in addition to homosexuality. "All of these issues are family issues. It is impossible for a city like Detroit to even have a chance at prosperity when 70 percent of families are broken. We need to get back to Christian values, and if we fix the family all these other things will fall into place."

Referring to her daughters and longtime lesbian partner, Flunder took offense to Brooks' characterization of a family. "I have a family. It's a healthy family and a complete family. And my two daughters are straight, because same-gender love is not contagious."

She also told the crowd, "I am not here seeking affirmation. I know who I am and I know who called me."

While some strong judgments were made by both sides of the discussion, the overall mood of the discourse was civil. The president of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Marsha Foster Boyd, praised the dialogue. "The issue of the right of same sex unions, gays and lesbians and their place in the family of God are on the table. When those who hold differing views can build bridges of understanding we can gain clarity about what the issues are and what we can learn from each other."

Find out more about the Ecumenical Theological Seminary at http://www.etseminary.edu/. For more on the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion visit http://www.miroundtable.org/.

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