It was the weekend before Thanksgiving. I’d just transplanted myself from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area a few months earlier. Living by myself in a new place, I didn’t have specific plans for the holiday . And honestly, I felt kind of lonely – especially since I didn’t know many people in the Bay Area, and I was very much immersed in the scary process of coming out to others. I mentioned the fact that I had no Thanksgiving plans to my upstairs neighbor (secretly hoping that she would extend an invitation to celebrate with her family). “You should go to Glide,” she said, referring to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. “It’s a rock-your-world experience.”
Not being a particularly religious person, going to church wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. But the “rock-your-world” comment intrigued me. So I called a grad school friend who was also an East Coast-transplant, and together we went to the Thanksgiving Celebration at Glide Memorial Church. And it was like no other church service I’d ever attended. The soloist who sang with the Glide Ensemble had a voice that was powerfully spirited and smooth as silk. The head pastor, Rev. Cecil Williams (the visionary founder of Glide), gave the most radical, cutting-edge, and empowering sermon I’d ever heard, naming the oppression of the people indigenous to the Americas and urging the congregation to reconsider how we understand Thanksgiving. The congregation was filled with people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender expressions, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds – from the very wealthy to the homeless. It was, in fact, a rock-your-world experience.
Sadly, many people in the LGBTQ community aren’t likely to feel the love so strongly within a church or religious environment. Compared to their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ people are less likely to attend church services regularly – which isn’t surprising, given the fact that going to church can be a very chilly experience for sexual and gender minorities. But some do attend church – and this is the population I’d like to focus on.
A new study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry revealed some interesting findings about LGB people and religiosity. For one thing, although the LGB participants reported a lower-than-average church attendance, they reported higher rates of spirituality than participants in general population samples. Notably, there were racial and ethnic differences as well: while White LGBs were extremely unlikely to report regular church attendance, LGBs who were Latino or Black were significantly more likely to attend religious services regularly, engage in prayer, and claim a religious affiliation.
In some ways, that last finding isn’t terribly surprising. Let’s focus specifically on church attendance among African-Americans. Black churches, historically, have provided cohesion and refuge to the African-American community. Given the segregationist practices prohibiting African-Americans from worshipping in the same churches as Whites, it makes sense that safe spiritual spaces for Blacks began to emerge. Slaves created “underground” churches where they could freely mix Christianity with African traditions – and where they could plan rebellions and other political actions. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Black churches served as centers of the communities – and as political outposts. Over time, some Black churches were outgrowths of existing Christian denominations, while others developed purely as African-American denominations. In many ways, the Black churches provided a refuge and a haven against the debilitating effects of racism – in a 2012 study published in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Jessica Graham and Lizabeth Roemer of the University of Massachusetts, Boston found that, for African-Americans, church attendance and church-based social support have significant effects in mitigating the stress of racist experiences. It’s not surprising, then, that African-Americans – including LGB African-Americans – are highly likely to attend church and have an active religious practice.
What’s also interesting – and disturbing – about the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry Study is that, in contrast to Graham and Roemer’s findings, LGB people of color who attend church regularly are very unlikely to experience it as a safe haven against oppression. Not only are LGB people of color more likely than their White counterparts to attend religious services, the churches they attend tend not to be LGBTQ-affirming – which, not surprisingly, is linked with higher levels of internalized homophobia among the attendees.
Of course, there are quite a few LGBTQ-affirming churches and spiritual centers that exist. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), for example, ministers and outreaches specifically to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Unity and other New Thought-based churches are typically LGBTQ-inclusive. Increasingly, more traditional Christian denominations are opening their doors to the LGBTQ community – for example, many United Methodist churches are becoming LGBTQ-inclusive “Reconciling Ministries.” If an LGBTQ person wants to find a spiritual community, there are more inclusive and welcoming spaces than ever before.
And yet, for whatever reason, the LGBTQ-inclusive churches haven’t quite gained the traction in the queer community that the Black churches have in the African-American community. However open and welcoming they may be, most LGBTQ people probably don’t consider “the church” to be the community’s safe haven or political organizing space. And, for queer people of color (African-Americans in particular, since we’re using this example), the choice of what church to attend may feel like an “either-or” decision: Do I attend a Black church, which helps buffer the effects of racism but might be quite homophobic, or do I go to an LGBTQ-inclusive church, which may be a haven from homophobia, but not necessarily from racism? Finding an open, accepting, inclusive space that’s fully and wholly accepting – not just accepting of one part of one’s identity – isn’t always so easy.
While Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday per se, the Thanksgiving I experienced two decades ago was a spiritual experience. People indigenous to the Americas suffered a violent genocide at the hands of the colonizers. African-Americans have been subjected to a long history of racism at the hands of landowning Whites (land, interestingly, that was taken from the indigenous tribes). Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterosexism continue to oppress LGBTQ people. And, as I reflect on the experiences of people whose basic human rights have been (and, in many cases, continue to be) stripped away, I’m reminded of how I felt when I first was introduced to the mission of Glide Memorial Church:
GLIDE’s mission is to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.
If that could be our human mission, in every church, in every spiritual space, in every secular space – imagine the possibilities. May I hold this possibility in my heart this Thanksgiving.