It's time for me to come out the closet.
The Christian closet, that is. I guess you could say I've been a member of the flock since before I had a say-so in the matter. My mother definitely wasn't pro-choice when it came to going to church on Sunday.
Even though it's still the faith I fall back on in a pinch, I've always been reluctant to claim the religion because too many current-day Christians make me cringe.
Needless to say, I was not in the house of the Lord two Sundays ago when the shit hit the church fan in black congregations all over Atlanta and the country.
Whether marriage is an issue of morality or legality in your (good) book, it's obvious that the motive behind Obama's pro same-sex marriage pronouncement was strictly political. Yet so many black pastors seem eager to play the pawn.
While some, in an attempt to recognize game, have pledged continued support even if they disagree, others have expressed outrage. Which is kinda funny when you think about it. The only thing gayer than two men getting married is all these preachers throwing hissy fits over the thought of two men getting married.
An anti-gay rights statement was issued by a coalition of conservative black pastors and bishops — including one who's probably just pissed that his last name is Gaylord. He should take that up with God instead of Barack.
Then there's the noted African Methodist Episcopal pastor Dr. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore, who penned a column that said black ministers felt "jilted" by Obama's sudden flip-flop on gay marriage. Bad choice of words, brother, bad choice of words.
Even Jay-Z and T.I. couldn't care less about gay people getting married in 2012. And everybody knows how historically homophobic hip-hop is (see Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats & Rhymes). The only cultural institution arguably more homophobic is the black church. Yet gay men practically run the black church - from the choir stand and sometimes even from the pulpit. That Obama's pronouncement stoked such a vocal, emotional response doesn't make ministers look strong. It makes them look fearful and, frankly, kinda soft.
Perhaps bible-thumping fundamentalists should start tweaking every suspect bible verse with a rap-inspired disclaimer: Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. No homo.
Indeed, it's a strange day in America when rappers take a more progressive stance on human rights issues than pastors. But in some ways it makes perfect sense. After all, Jesus was the first gangsta rapper, right? Think about it: He broke laws unrepentantly, traveled with a posse of down-ass apostles, and was quick to spit a hot verse in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
Since I'd missed out on all the excitement two weeks ago, I decided to go to church for the first time in a minute last week. But instead of going to the church I occasionally attend where the pastor is pretty progressive and probably would've issued a response more in line with T.I. than T.D. Jakes, I thought it would be fun to go to the one black church in Atlanta where gay marriage would be the last topic to come up in the pulpit — even if it was at the forefront of everyone else's minds.
That's right, I went to New Birth.
It was Bishop Eddie Long, after all, who led a local march of some 25,000 parishioners against same-sex marriage back in 2004, six years before his alleged gay, underage sex scandal broke. Two years later and he still hasn't said a mumbling word about it, though the young men with whom he settled out of court have had plenty to say, despite the hush money they received. Most pastors at the time stayed mum on the subject, though some, like Dr. Creflo Dollar, voiced support in subtle ways.
Part of me was also curious to see how much the church had changed since its heyday when it boasted 100 bazillion members. I wanted to see if Bishop Long still had the same effect on crowds that I remembered when I used to attend New Birth for a spell in the early 2000s. If you grew up in South Dekalb County like me, New Birth and Bishop Long were an inevitable reality. Either you knew somebody who was a member or you knew somebody who pretended to be a member because New Birth carried with it a certain cachet. I honestly can't remember why I stopped going. It's not like Bishop Long touched me or anything. The closest I ever got to him was looking at an oversized projection of his sanctified scowl on the big screen each Sunday while I sat in the balcony trying to get my life.
It was right after 9/11 and I was jobless after returning home from my first job out of college as a religion editor at a small-time newspaper in Waco, Texas. I was looking for security more than salvation, and everybody seemed prosperous at New Birth. Even the luxury rides in the parking lot were a wonder to behold.
In case you haven't heard, the megachurch isn't so mega now. The three packed-out Sunday services have been reduced to one sparsely attended 9 a.m. service. The parking lots on the 240-acre campus remain half-empty even at peak time. They don't even bother turning on the lights in the two-level wraparound balcony anymore.
Still, I'd forgotten how orgasmic the services at New Birth can be. Like a Funkadelic concert when George Clinton was in his prime: Flashing lights. Pulsating kick drums. Arena-rock guitars. And a choir that would make Jesus Christ himself catch the Holy Ghost.
Right before it was time for the Mothership to drop — and after the congregation had paid its tithes — we found out from Bishop Long's son, who was leading the service, that the Bishop was absent, preaching in Central America.
Still, the elephant in the room loomed large. It felt especially awkward during the announcements, when Long's son mentioned the church's upcoming Manhood Summer Intensive. Send us your boys, he said, and we'll make them young men. Or something to that effect. When the younger Long said his dad would be involved, it was hard to tell if that was a promise or a threat.
But the most interesting part of the service occurred before the stand-in minister for the day took the pulpit. In celebration of the church's Youth Day — and New Birth's 28th anniversary — there was a purity ceremony in which a bunch of reluctant-looking teens dressed in white stood before the congregation and vowed to keep their minds, and their bodies, "chaste and pure." Afterward, their parents, also decked out in all-white everything, slid rings on their fingers.
It was the gayest wedding I'd ever been to.