Mending the Wounds of A Bruised Body: An Ecclesial Framework of Healing for LGBTQI individuals in th
A talk from the Soul Wounds Conference in Stanford University on June 5th, 2015.
While I am examining the experience of LGBTQAI individuals within Black Church spaces, I understand that there are certain people who may not self-identity with these terms but experience marginalization because they operated outside the norms of society. To include these folks, I will use the term “queered bodies”. Part of the violence that happens within church communities is with the assumption of queerness or non—normative bodies. Queered bodies can include LGBTQAI folks as well as gender non-conforming individuals, single women who are un-partnered and/or sexually positive, folks who don’t prescribe to patriarchal norms of performance, etc.
In addition, I want to talk about my use of the Black Church. Historically, the Black Church serves as the nexus of social environments for African Americans, providing physical and spiritual support within the community. Over ¾ of African Americans report that spirituality is important to them and across generations, African Americans attend churches at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Although the Black church is not a monolithic community or experience, there is a common theological orientation for those who are Black Church. I must admit that there are spaces where Black people congregate whose theological framework does not reflect the traditional hermeneutic of justice and liberation. These churches have assimilated into the mainstream American Christian complex.
This complex has proven itself to be in trouble based off of the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey, which shows an overall decrease in participation in organized religion, especially mainline Protestant churches. This decline is contributed to many things and this presentation is highlight one of the complaints placed by millennial who are exiting the Church at a higher rate.
Therefore, we hold in tension that the Black Church was not a voluntary enterprise. The formation of the Black Church as a separate but equal institution was rooted in the slaveholding Christianity that exists within the American Christian complex. The expulsion and denial of Black bodies within religious spaces forced the development of African American denominations like the National and American Baptists, the AME Church, etc. For children of the Black Church, the Church served as a site of regulation in the community. It taught us how to act, what to be, and the potential of who we can become. The Black Church, in its inception, was a site of healing, healing from systematic dehumanization, trauma, and injustice. And as a daughter of the Black Church, I sought the church to be a place of healing and refuge from multiple sites of oppression and discrimination.
While there were times where the Church failed to live up to my expectations of safety, I still can point back to fond memories of celebrations and affirmation. Built in the foundation of this institution were messages of hope and healing from oppression, the proclamation of a God who liberates and empowers people to live in the fullness of the Divine image of God. It is this foundation that has empowered generations to use the Church as a site for liberation in the midst of slavery and the Jim Crow Era. The God of liberation has been pointed to disrupt gender discrimination and provide resistance for those who have traditionally been denied in the pulpit. Simply put, the Black Church, in its inception, was the site for the spirit to pour out on all flesh.
However, the memories and stories of resistance often get cleaned up and scrubbed in the waters of respectability, leaving queered bodies (which included black women, queer or gender non-conforming bodies, and sexually fluid individuals) left in exile. Either through the action of silence in the pews or in the explicit and implicit expulsion from Black church space.
While the experience of queered bodies in Black Church spaces are not unilateral, it is important to note that there are countless stories of folks who have suffered trauma at the hands of people who profess and confess a God of freedom.
In 2014 during the National convention for the COGIC denomination, Andrew Caldwell became a YouTube celebrity after an altar call for a healing and deliverance service. Looking at delegates from the entire COGIC denomination, Caldwell said that he was being delivered from the spirit of homosexuality. He declared that he would love women and not present himself outside of the traditional masculine performance. After this declaration, people proceed to dance and the pastor continues to encourage other participants to come down and pray for their own healing. The social media and blogosphere was abuzz and many participants of the Black Church began to ask this question about healing and the spectacle of sexuality within Black Church spaces.
So how can the Black Church foster sites of healing in the face of ill-equipped conversations regarding sex, sexuality, and gender performance?
Womanist theologian KBD writes in Sexuality and the Black Church: “Though the Black community is influenced by the same Victorian and Puritanical morality that has made sexuality – especially as it has been so singularly equated with genitalia – a very difficult topic of discussion for most Americans, the reticence that surrounds sexual discourse in the Black community goes beyond the awkwardness that surrounds such discussions in the wider American society.” As a Church, we run away from sexuality given how society has placed sexual performance onto us. In our silence or rejection of sexuality, we have placed shame on the body and have taught people to run away from sexuality. To become disembodied people, solely focusing on the soul and the personal piety.
Therefore, the path of healing is a recovering project. It is taking the tools of the past, the tradition of the Christian faith, and reclaiming the original mission and vision of the Black Church and to be Church for all bodies that are marginalized. Queered bodies exist within Black church spaces and people can point to several individuals who either serve in silence or have left because of their experience. For those who remain, the violence is creating a disembodied experience in which they are so focused on the sanctification of their soul that they do not ever bring what concerns their bodies or their lives to the community, which is what the life of the Church is about.
Therefore the path of healing is a journey of reintegration. Using the components of trauma-informed care and the tenets of Christian worship: Proclamation, Confession, and Celebration, we can begin to heal from the disembodiment and erasure of queered bodies within Black Church spaces. So why point it back to worship tenets?
Carrying the weight of oppression can cause make one become detached from communities and themselves. In spiritualized abuse or trauma, the phenomenon is to divorce the body from the soul, hoping for the soul to be redeemed even if the body could never. For those who possess queered bodies, they are the full embodiment of fleshly or carnal desires. They are not living in the politics of respectability cloaked under the weightiness of a body.
This body/flesh dichotomy is not a new methodology. However, as more forms of performance become co-opted in the normative framing of Christianity, bodies who transgress the boundaries between a proper body and profane flesh become increasingly marginalized and violated.
Where do queer bodies go to seek rest? Much like Baby Suggs’s sermon in the clearing of Beloved, the pathway toward healing is to remember to love one’s flesh. In order for the Church to begin the path of healing, it must return to the proclamation that “The Word became Flesh and lived among them”. This Word made flesh would be what KBD would call “a wild, sensuous, trickster Jesus”, a Jesus who exists outside the boundaries of respectability. It would point to a Holy Spirit, who in Acts 2 poured out on all Flesh, who was uncontrollable and drew together people who would not exist together. Therefore, we must begin to proclaim that God is a God that inhabits and cares for flesh, not just respectable bodies. When we proclaim a God who loves flesh, then we acknowledge that there is no one who operates outside of the care and love of God. Proclaiming a God of Flesh can open the door for those who have been demonized for being fleshly to claim space in Church spaces and begin the process of empowerment in such spaces.
After the proclamation of a God of flesh, we, as a Church, must enter the art of confession. While Protestants tend to believe that confession is a private enterprise, there is room for communal confession. In this action of confession, we must confess as a Church how we have been shortsighted. As a church, we have to confess that we have lost sight of our own flesh, that we have demonized the image of God by putting parameters on the Divine mystery of God. It must be stated that Confession is not for the queered bodies and is not for self-indulgent righteousness. In this framework, confession is the communal process of declaring our error in the limitation of God’s image. It is also the confession that we resist the triune life of life together. Confession prompts the action for justice for queered bodies. The work of reconciliation can only come through the art of reparation, repairing the wounds of community.
Once the work of justice begins in the community, then the final step of celebration can begin. Celebration is the full inclusion and encouragement of queered bodies to participate in the life of the Church without silence or fear. It should be noted that celebration takes time to achieve. It requires all parties to dare to be in relationship with each other. It requires queered bodies to remain in these spaces and share their stories and it requires these Church spaces to hear the narrative and offer support, love, and repentance. Celebration requires the dispossession of the arbiters of respectability and places the power in the hands of those who have been traumatized to share their own stories, to cast the vision towards the in-breaking of the kingdom.
As a daughter of the Black Church, I see the potential for liberation and celebration of queered bodies. While I know there are communities of faith in the Black Church that have begun this work of healing, but they are often marginalized and denied access. It is my hope that queered bodies are not forced out of the communities they love. This framework is for communities that have not begun this work of reconciliation who have the capacity to give spaced to queered bodies, even if it hasn’t in the past. This framework is not a new methodology. It is a tool that African American Christians have used throughout history in the face of oppression. Mending the wounds of Christ’s body requires us to look at oppression of queered bodies, especially in the Black Church.