When you identify as a Christian, and you do it within the context of the Black Church, there is often an assumption that your thinking and reflection follow a very conservative and narrow understanding of who God is, and how God operates with God’s people.
This perception does not acknowledge however, that the Black Church is diverse and her people are not monolithic.
I did not have the privilege of growing up in the Black church, but experienced the multicultural Protestant Chapel on Air Force bases across the country, and in Europe. The chaplains were Lutheran and Episcopalian, Greek Orthodox, Methodist, and Reformed. We got very excited when a Baptist chaplain served the chapel, as there was something about the preaching that was exciting and made the gospel message come alive.
Coming up in this environment I learned that God loved everyone, and especially that God loved me.
Silence has often been a comfort zone for Christians, yet taking no position, or having no vocal opinion, is often interpreted as a countersignature for discrimination and intolerance.Of course, neither racism nor homosexuality were ever discussed as I attended the Protestant chapel, even though both existed in the military and in society at large. As far as I knew, I had never met an openly gay person until I was in my mid 20’s working as a registered nurse.
I was aware that my father–an Air Force chief master sergeant working in the personnel department at a time when they put people out if they were gay–was not accepting of LGBT practices. My mother, a first generation British-born Black woman living in London, gave me what I now call her “holy scripture,” which I have never forgotten. “Christine, never think you are better than anyone else. Whores and funny men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.” She let me know it was okay to befriend and love people whom society rejects.
I perceive this “scripture” from my mother as a gift that has sustained me through life. It always helped me check myself regarding my own classism and prejudice, and allowed me to cross the cultures, honoring the differentness in all of God’s people.
While in seminary and employed by the community mental health system, I found myself encountering people from all walks of life including people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. As a therapist, I met with marginalized people every day; men and women who were struggling with childhood abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and also suicidal ideation due to the effects of marginalization including discrimination surrounding their sexual orientation and gender identities. While they dealt with the extreme prejudice of heterosexism, the resulting internalized oppression, and historical trauma, they were faced with only silence.
Together for the past 29 years, my husband, Dr. Dennis W. Wiley and I have co-pastored a congregation of inclusion that understands that God loves all people. My husband’s steadfast and solid acceptance and celebration of gay and lesbian people has been the biggest influence in my life.
When progressive pastors publicly affirm civil rights for LGBT people but will not affirm LGBT people in their own congregations, they may move public policies forward but do so at the expense of spiritual and religious rights. They are thus able to appear progressive publicly without risking the loss of conservative-Christian members—a way to “have their cake and eat it too.”
For us, it took courage and stamina to endure the stigma.
- Many churches no longer asked us to preach and wanted nothing to do with us.
- LGBT rights organizations who had at first praised us, then shunned us because we had become stigmatized.
- We lost members, and other church leaders said, “I don’t want what happened to the Wiley’s to happen to me.”
- And there were the denominational leaders who tried to throw us out.
Still, my husband and co-pastor reminded me that we were to count the cost, but not run away from it.
Finally I ask myself the question: Based on all these experiences, was it worth it? After teaching and preaching equality and love for 30 years, and becoming officially open and affirming of LGBT and all people in 2004, and our congregation changing significantly, was it worth it?
I have to give a resounding yes! I give a yes to the joy and authentic relationship:
- New friends all over the nation, through the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, who prayed for us and encouraged us when we were going through difficulty and our people were in pain;
- A new relationship with the congregation of the Washington National Cathedral, with whom we shared Bible studies, broke bread, and prayed together;
- A new connection with The United Church of Christ whose theology was more in line with what we believed.
I say yes, it was worth it, because people were being changed from the inside out. People in our congregation were being transformed and thinking differently.
- They understood that the ways in which they had thought had more to do with what they were taught, and the culture, than what God was saying to us.
- People have learned to go deeper than church tradition.
- Four churches have been birthed by ministers from Covenant Church who are openly gay or lesbian;
- Individuals have come out of the closet; and
- We know, that we know, that we know, we are in God’s will.
I say yes, it was worth it, because the command to love became real for us. We are clear that the radical love and inclusivity of Jesus resides in the DNA of this church. The focus has been on justice for all, with ministries that expand to the disenfranchised in our community, including returning citizens, impoverished families, children and youth, senior citizens, the mentally and physically challenged, and any who are treated less than God would have them.
Now as we prepare to hand over the torch for the next chapter of Covenant’s history, the legacy of inclusion will go forward, and it will be worth everything to ensure God’s continued love manifested in God’s church.
Yes, it is definitely worth it.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to preach good tidings unto those who are cast down; to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those that are bound.
–Jubilee Bible, 2000
Reverend Dr. Christine Y. Wiley pastors Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, DC along with her husband, Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Wiley. A significant leader for justice in the Washington DC community, she is recognized as an astute practitioner, preacher and prophetic witness as she consults and ministers with church, community, and government organizations. A graduate of Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, she received the Doctor of Ministry degree in Pastoral Psychotherapy. In 2013, she received the MSW degree from Howard University in 2013 and has been a licensed therapist for a number of years. Rev. Wiley has authored many articles regarding counseling and therapy, including a chapter entitled “Psychotherapy with members of African American Churches and Spiritual Traditions” in Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Traditions. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Howard University School of Social Work, the mother of three adult children and four beautiful grandchildren.