For the average black Christian in the South, the choice of which church to attend on a Sunday morning may depend on membership or whether the mass choir or men's choir will be singing that Sunday. For Black LGBTQ people, the choice to enter a place of worship often and unfortunately comes down to a question of spiritual safety. Of the eight historically black Christian denominations, none are LGBTQ-affirming, according to Pride on the benchesa Chicago-based nonprofit organization and host of the State of the Black Church Symposium on February 2 at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Pride on the benchesfounded by Don Abram, aims to promote the holistic health and well-being of Black LGBTQ+ communities in the public square, from the pulpit and in the pews. The two-day event included a fireside chat with State Senator Shevrin Jones and State Representative Michele Rayner, two Florida legislators, as well as a queer journalist and Morehouse College alumnus. Gerren Keith Gaynor, and several religious leaders and LGBTQ allies.
A highlight of the program on the first day of the symposium was a conversation about inclusion in the Black Church and storytelling with queer actor Nicholas Ashe (“Queen Sugar”), moderated by the writer and theologian . Ciarra Jones. A viewing of the 2022 independent film “The Spirit that God has given us” by Black LGBTQ filmmaker Michael Donte, starring Ashe, was screened for the audience inside the Sisters' Chapel before the conversation began.
“The Spirit God Gave Us” is an intersectional story of queer faith and love through the lens of Malcolm (Ashe) and Shamont (Elijah Boothe), two young black men who volunteer as ushers for their church Baptist and face issues of societal reconciliation and religious expectations with an intense desire for connection and intimacy.
“We've seen church stories that are just ridiculously heavy and portray church in a certain way, but we wanted to show that church can be a refuge if we allow it to be,” Ashe said. “That there is a future where these two men can be married in this Baptist church. »
For Ashe, the projects he is attached to represent more than entertainment; this is an opportunity to educate and change the narrative about black queer people.
“I want to create work that makes you walk a little taller or makes you feel a little different,” Ashe said. “I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg of the work I'm looking to do as a creative. But if we're not changing hearts and minds with our stories, then what are we doing? I understand that it's part of our mission to create entertaining work, but at the same time, I want to tell stories that heal and give you a real sense of navigation after changing the channel or leaving the theater. I really believe in the power of storytelling,” he said.
It is almost impossible to separate an experience of faith, Christian or otherwise, from the black queer experience in the South. And despite conservative interpretations of Scripture, LGBTQ Christians like Ashe and Jones reject the idea that their homosexuality automatically separates them from God. Jones recounted a specific moment of certainty after coming out to his sister and grieving the thought of never becoming a preacher before his sister asked him a question that changed his perspective.
“Who said you have to divide yourself in two for God to love you? Who said that who you are right now cannot be received by God?
It was a transformative moment for Jones, with deep Baptist groans of approval echoing throughout the chapel. But it wouldn't be the last. Unbeknownst to Ashe, he had planted a seed in Atlanta a decade earlier that was about to bloom in real time as Jones opened the conversation to questions from the audience.
“I’m still here because of you,” said AJ Thomson, a gay actor based in Atlanta who saw Ashe star in “Choir boy” at the Alliance Theater in 2013 shortly after its release.
Thomson said his father bought tickets for the Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) coming-of-age play about a queer black student in preparation as a birthday present. In the end, he vividly remembers his father's question: “Is this what you're going through?” »
“It was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Thomson told Ashe. “I stayed in musical theater because I saw you, Nic Ashe; you have changed my life.”
If ever there was a perfect example of the power of black queer representation on stage and screen, the decades-long impact of Ashe's work and visibility on Thomson and countless others, it is this one.
“I can’t believe I’m breathing the same air in the same room with him twice in the same life,” Thomson said. “He really was that mustard seed (of faith). »
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