Black and Gay In the Church; Faith screening and discussion brings intracommunity issues to the forefront

By Olivia Olivia, PQ Monthly

This month nearly a hundred community members lined up at the First AME Zion Church on North Vancouver to watch a film that addresses a serious and sometimes ignored issue in the African American and Afro-diasporic communities – can one walk the line of faith and earn their place in the group, while being out? The film, Holler If You Hear Me, was created by Clay Cane for BET and has drawn thoughtful feedback and discussion since it first aired.

PFLAG Portland Black Chapter, the organization hosting the discussion, points out that this is an outgoing part of what they call their Faith Outreach program. Khalil Edwards, the chapter’s co-director, explained the background of that outreach.

The Faith Outreach program was really born out of the 2012 report, Lift Every Voice, which was a partnership with the Urban League of Portland. The groundbreaking report used data, stats, stories, research, and surveys to lift up the experiences and disparities facing Black LGBTQ Oregonians.

“In many ways the report told us what we already knew and reinforced with concrete data the challenges that Black LGBTQ families in Oregon are going through. One thing the report told us is that we are a people of strong faith and spirituality, but have had a complicated and often painful relationship with our black faith community that has not always fully embraced us,” he said.

Edwards went on to explain that the Faith Outreach program was launched in 2013 and aims to strengthen the Black Faith community and heal the relationship for Black LGBTQ families. “We started this journey with faith luncheons bringing together nearly 15 black faith leaders to engage in discussion around these issues,” he said. “So we were really excited to be able to bring Holler If You Hear Me for the first time to Portland.”

Reverend Harmon A. Johnson, leader of Many Voices, speaks to an audience on a panel with Pastor Steven Sawyer (left) and PFLAG Portland Black Chapter member Salome Chimuku. Photo credit: Olivia Olivia
Reverend Harmon A. Johnson, leader of Many Voices, speaks to an audience on a panel with Pastor Steven Sawyer (left) and PFLAG Portland Black Chapter member Salome Chimuku. Photo credit: Olivia Olivia

The Portland screening was followed by a discussion with some of the biggest names in Portland’s African American faith leadership along with guests from other parts of the country, notably Reverend Cedric A. Harmon, Executive Director of Many Voices, a nonprofit dedicated to issues of integrating Black LBGTQ acceptance in the church.

“It was a wonderful experience to have folks come down on a Saturday night to engage in conversation about issues of concern to the LBGTQ community, their family, and their friends,” said Harmon. He also said that this visit to Portland had been unique from other trips he’s made in recent years. “Sometimes you come in for a conference, but this visit has connected us to people in the community – people that knew about us and have supported Many Voices since we were founded many years ago, and I got to meet them for the first time. We have a national footprint all over the country but we are a very small organization, so this was incredible for us.”

Pastor Steven Sawyer, a faith leader who came to Portland down from Tacoma for the screening and panel discussion, says he is not new to the work and finds it fulfilling. “This trip was important because I think as we endeavor to do this work we have to be supportive of each other even across state lines. This film is groundbreaking – there isn’t another film like it discussing these intersecting issues.”

At the end of the night, the group listened to faith leaders and members like Salome Chimuku, Reverend Cecil Charles Prescod, Pastor Dwight Minnieweather Sr., along with the visiting guests, discuss bringing other community members into the folds and having the difficult discussions with family and friends. PFLAG Portland Black Chapter faith lead Maurice Evans moderated the discussion, carefully allowing time for the panelists to address each other and the audience on the sensitive and sometimes taboo subject.

Pastor George Whitfield of the First AME Zion Church hosted the event and let the community we all have a home in his congregation that is welcoming and accepting. “I’m here to say, on behalf of the faith, if anyone has ever wronged you, I’m sorry and I welcome you here.”

“This is the beginning of many conversations to come,” said Edwards. “We hope this means folks will carry these thoughts and questions into their life from here, and that we can support them doing so at PFLAG Portland Black Chapter.”