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Rev. Al Sharpton urged participants in a two-day forum in Atlanta to ‘turn up the heat’ on anti-gay clergy in black churches. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)
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By Dyana Bagby
JAN. 27, 2006
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Sharpton chides black churches over homophobia, gay marriage
Former presidential candidate keynotes Atlanta symposium

Former presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton fired up a crowd of some 150 people gathered at a forum in Atlanta Jan. 20, urging them to "turn up the heat" in black churches to combat clergy who preach anti-gay messages from their pulpits.

"We must have this dialogue in the black church," Sharpton said. "The black church must not be refuge for those who want to scapegoat and use violence on any community, including the gay and lesbian community."

Sharpton was a keynote speaker at the National Black Justice Coalition’s summit on homophobia in the black church held at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, Jan. 20-21. He recently made a public call to challenge anti-gay sentiments among notable black clergy leaders.

"Martin Luther King said there are two types of leadership — there are those who are thermometers, who measure the temperature in the room, and those who are thermostats who change the temperature," Sharpton told the applauding crowd.

"I come to tell you to be thermostats. Turn up the heat in the black church. Make these people sweat," he said.

Sharpton said his participation in the summit, as well as his desire to urge the black church to address homophobia, came from having a lesbian sister as well as his friendship with Bayard Rustin, a gay man who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington that culminated with King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Sharpton also criticized some black churches that he said were manipulated by traditionally white religious conservative organizations to support efforts in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage in exchange for faith-based grants under President George W. Bush’s administration. Sharpton criticized those moves as creating a wedge issue to boost votes for Bush’s re-election.

The summit also featured Dr. Yvette Flunder, a lesbian and senior pastor of the United Church of Christ’s City of Refuge Church in San Francisco. Flunder, in a passionate Jan. 21 speech that brought participants to their feet, also denounced some black pastors, especially those of mega-churches, who decided to take a vocal stance against same-sex marriage during the 2004 election.

"Some people question why is it so easy to polarize the African-American church around same-gender loving issues and issues of marriage? Denominations that had never written a position paper about anything — until someone [before the 2004 elections] came in and gave them some technical assistance and offered them some change," she said to much applause.

"… I believe they used the oppression of our unresolved prejudices to divide us," Flunder added.

Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of the event’s host church, First Iconium Baptist Church in East Atlanta, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.

"We believe it is time we should be talking about sexuality in the context of the church," McDonald said.

Rev. Kenneth Samuel, pastor of the gay-friendly Victory Church in Stone Mountain, told the story of a gay friend he had as a teen who committed suicide after not finding support at church. Samuel built a 5,000-member church in metro Atlanta, but once he began speaking out against homophobia, Samuel said he lost nearly half of his membership.

Earl Plante, director of development for the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington, D.C., said the NBJC’s first-time meeting made history.

"When I did come out, I had to do a lot of soul searching to reconcile my gay identity with the church that certainly wasn’t inclusive, or welcoming, of who I am. … This discussion will go a long way in helping our young people," said Plante, who attended the summit.

Black ministers who have spoken out against homosexuality and gay marriage, including Bishop Eddie Long of Lithonia, Ga., and Rev. Willie Wilson of Washington, D.C., were invited to the event but did not respond to NBJC’s requests, according to organizers.

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