I am a freedom fighter, writer, minister, scholar, and survivor of child sexual abuse. I am also the founder of Children of Combahee, a newfound project through the Just Beginnings Collaborative that mobilizes against child sexual abuse in Black church communities using womanist pastoral and theological methods.
My work is necessary because black churches are sites of influence and significance in the lives of many black communities and statistically we know that 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys are sexually abused (even though I dare say the rates are much higher).
Unfortunately, in many Black churches, it is common for homophobic sermons to be preached. These sermons are preached even as messages condemning rape and sexual violence are nearly nonexistent. For many survivors, some who identify as queer and transgender, the Black church can be both a space of refuge from sexual violation and a space of incessant dehumanization.
Within traditional Black church spaces, patriarchy and masculinity in conversation with white supremacy shape the discourse regarding sexual violence…
At best the church is home and a place to be one with kin, and at its worst the church is the place where women, survivors, and LGBTQ individuals are placed on examination tables without their consent to be debated and objectified as discussion topics. Many survivor-activists have pushed Black churches to think about their complicity in the rape and sexual assault of countless LGBTQ and cisgender heterosexual women, men, and children. Yet, the Black church continues to turn a blind eye to the reality of racial-sexual violence.
The church must respond to the epidemic of child sexual abuse. It must also lay down weapons of patriarchy, and pick up tools of love, justice and accountability.
Monica Coleman notes the following in her book The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence: “Every congregation contains victims of sexual violence. Every church with women, men, boys, girls, or the elderly contains victims of sexual violence. Whether an individual confides in the church leaders, family or friends, or chooses to remain silent, there is no church void of the people whose lives are changed by experiences of sexual violence. Because every church contains persons affected by sexual violence, the church must respond. Because sexual violence affects every aspect of our communities, including our religious and spiritual lives, the church must respond. Because silence is a response of tolerance, the church must respond.”
As I have asked previously, if the church is filled with so many survivors of sexual violence, why then does the church lack urgency and conviction in the fight to eradicate the unholy and perverse reality of sexual abuse even as it is quick to condemn queer and trans folks?
Within traditional Black church spaces, patriarchy and masculinity in conversation with white supremacy shape the discourse regarding sexual violence, women’s rights, and the acceptance or rejection of queer and transgender individuals.
Black cisgender, straight women are the most populous members of Black churches. Yet, while they may be less in number, straight, cisgender Black men occupy the most conjectural space as patriarchs who uphold their dominance through flawed, masculinist theological truths. The words of the Apostle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 11:3, are, “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” These kinds of scriptures are often used to support patriarchy in the church and male leadership is promoted over that of women, children, and LGBTQ individuals.
Patriarchal, hyper-masculine attitudes within the Black church assume that leaders should be straight Black men. These Black men must be strong and have little to no expressed feminine energy. They must disparage those who are not cisgender, heterosexual and/or straight-presenting Black men. One pastor’s questionable leadership of a Black megachurch in Baltimore, Maryland—a man who shall remain nameless—epitomizes these dangerous attitudes. In 2014, this pastor defamed queer Black men from the pulpit by calling them “sanctified sissies.”
…why then does the church lack urgency and conviction in the fight to eradicate the unholy and perverse reality of sexual abuse…
These heterosexist attitudes marginalize queer Black men and women in the church without end. They also provide cover for sexual violence. This is why a well-known Black pastor in Atlanta could be accused of sexually abusing boys and still manage to garner the support of his entire congregation who allegedly helped pay for an out-of-court settlement that silenced the pastor’s accusers.
Without question, this violence should not be tolerated. The church must respond to the epidemic of child sexual abuse. It must also lay down weapons of patriarchy, and pick up tools of love, justice and accountability.
The Gospel calls us to protect and work on the behalf of “the least of these.” As Christians, we must stand on the side of survivors of sexual violence, on the side of children and women, and on the side of LGBTQ individuals. If we do not, then I believe that the words of Jeremiah the prophet (in Jeremiah 23:1) will continue to ring true: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the LORD.”
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University, where he is also pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. He is also the founder of Children of Combahee. Follow him on Twitter @_BrothaG.