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Same-Sex Marriage Divides Two African-American Churches

Posted: May 24, 2012

The entrances of Greater St. John Church of God In Christ and St. Martin's Episcopal Church face each other across a common plaza with a flowing water fountain, surrounded by metal benches in a quiet alcove on Chicago's West Side.

Parishioners of each church see and pass each other on their way to Sunday service. The two pastors have waved at each other and exchanged the most cursory greetings.

Other than their collective belief in God, the ministers of these two mostly African-American congregations symbolize the division within the black community regarding same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama's support of it. It is a division some fear will be exploited in November's presidential election to Obama's detriment.

Although some in the media have portrayed the African-American church as monolithic and overwhelmingly against Obama's position, the issue and the debate surrounding it are extremely complicated.

Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, is against sex-same marriage as a moral issue. “The gay lifestyle is not something I would choose,” Brooks said. But he also is critical of black pastors who are opposed to gay marriage and yet have gay men and women sing in their church choirs and play in their church bands.

St. Martin's Episcopal is a ‘'welcoming congregation," which is code for homosexual men and women being welcome at its Sunday's services, said Rev. Christopher E. Griffin, the church's vicar, who also is gay. On a recent Sunday, St. Martin's, which has 75 members, 32 of whom are active, welcomed its mostly black, gay male parishioners, who prayed, sang, listened devoutly to Griffin's sermon and took communion.

"We welcome and affirm African- American gay and lesbian (LGBT) people and the unique contributions they bring to the church,” says St. Martin's Church bulletin.

Rev. Griffin said he is encouraged by the President Obama's support of same-sex marriage. “The President recognizes that families and households are changing and that transformation is possible," he said. "Same-sex marriage provides gay people with more options to live fuller lives."

Dr. Fragier Funches, Greater St. John's pastor, who also thinks highly of President Obama, said he is not sure if any of Greater St. John's parishioners are gay.

“I am encouraged by Obama being the first black president, but I will have to pray very hard before deciding whether I will vote for him in November,” he said one Sunday afternoon after church services had ended for the day.

While Rev. Griffin is accepting of President Obama's support of gay marriage. Pastor Funches sees gay marriage as incompatible with biblical teaching, which he says presents a moral issue for church.

He read a communiqué from the Church of God in Christ, his church's parent organization, which is based in Memphis, Tenn. The 7 million-member organization announced its opposition to civil unions and to President Obama's support of same-sex marriage, asserting that the practice redefines marriage.

“Same-sex marriage opposes God's definition of marriage, which is between a man and a woman,” Dr. Funches said. “Men and women marry for procreation. The Bible said men should not lie with men and women should not lie with women. It is a sin and I have to treat it as a sin.”

Dr. Funches admits, however, that gay marriage also has become a social issue protected by civil rights laws.

“We can't stop it [gay marriage],” he said. “We are involved in an unfolding drama, and we have to decide which side to be on.”

The drama continued to unfold on Saturday, May 19, when the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP), the nation's largest and oldest civil-rights organization passed a resolution supporting marriage equality or same-sex marriage.

Because ministers like Dr. Funches are critical of President Obama's support of same-sex marriages, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), an organization for black gay, lesbian and transgendered people based in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 17, launched a national campaign to lessen concerns that same-sex marriage could reduce black voter turnout in November.

The initiative, which is called The NoWedge2012.com, focuses on educating voters about the strategy of organizations such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a Washington, D.C.-based group that is against legalization of same sex marriage. The black justice coalition charged that NOM would use marriage equality to divide the black community, NBJC said in a statement.

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