The church has traditionally informed, influenced and guided the day-to-day lives of many African Americans. "The black church is not just a place of spirituality and enlightenment, but a place of empowerment for African Americans," says David Neale, founder of Black Lavender Resources, a consulting firm specializing in diversity within the LGBTQ community.
Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, of Inner Light Ministries in Washington, D.C., agrees. "Spirituality is almost impossible to separate from black life," says Cheeks. "The church is a stabilizing force and a place to connect not just to God but to community, as well."
Yet some in those churches have been unwelcoming to people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity.
"The black church, the oldest institution and pillar of the black community, has historically dictated the community's stance on homosexuality — either you don't talk about it, or you condemn it," says journalist and blogger Lynn d Johnson. It is daunting to come out only to face the fear and misunderstanding of society in general, but many LGBTQ African Americans must face that same ignorance within the very institution that has for so many been the centerpiece of their community. Although no largely African-American denomination has issued a public statement outlining its position on homosexuality, the stances of individual churches and ministers are revealed on Sundays.
"The motto of the black church seems to be 'don't name it, don't claim it,'" says Mandy Carter, a founder of the progressive organization Southerners on New Ground. This informal church dictum has led many LGBTQ African Americans to find and create other places to exercise their spirituality.
As Cheeks, the bishop, put it, "I would rather sit in a tree and talk to God than go to a church that doesn't affirm me as a gay man." Bishop Cheeks has made an active effort to ensure that his church, Inner Light Ministries, is a diverse and inclusive church for GLBT worshippers.
Some gay-affirming churches, such as the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, are ethnically and racially inclusive. But over the past few decades, new churches also have been established specifically to welcome and affirm LGBTQ people of color, such as the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, which was founded in 1985 by the Rev. Carl Bean and other gay and lesbian African Americans. The church now has 17 locations across the country.
Some long-established black churches also have made progress toward being more welcoming.
In April 2000, the Union United Methodist Church in Boston voted to become the nation's first black Methodist church to officially welcome and include gay and lesbian worshippers.
The year 2000 also saw the founding of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, which engages people in the subject of heterosexism and homophobia in Christianity and the United Methodist Church. "We are accomplices through our silence on these issues," says the Rev. Gil Caldwell, who sits on its advisory board. "We must connect the struggles, as different as they are."
Individual pastors also are making a difference.
"I hope I'm doing some sharing of faith that recognizes all human beings as God's creation," says Rev. Timothy McDonald III, the founding pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. "The pastor sets the tone. If the pastor is scared, homophobic and sends out negative signals about gays and lesbians, it's going to spread throughout the congregation."
As more churches open their doors to LGBTQ parishioners and more leaders publicly recognize those of different sexual orientations and gender identities, fewer LGBTQ African Americans will be forced to choose between their identities and their faiths.