By Sikivu Hutchinson, From Religion Dispatches
On Sunday morning I went to a church service for the first time in decades. I was there as a community member to support Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist church in South Los Angeles. A few days before, I’d received an urgent plea from Teka-Lark Fleming, publisher of the local Morningside Park Chronicle newspaper, encouraging progressive black folk to show up at Zion Hill in support of Seth’s pro-LGBTQ stance. After publishing a column entitled “The 10 Reasons I Love LGBTQ folk” in Fleming’s paper, Pickens came under fire from church officials. The controversy erupted on the heels of internal criticism he’d received for performing a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple last year.
Zion Hill is a vibrant mini-community within a predominantly African American and Latino community that has been ravaged by the economic depression. Each week, the church houses health and fitness classes, an AIDS ministry, financial literacy workshops, block clubs, support services for the disabled and a credit union. Over the past three years, Pickens has even been a supporter of “interfaith” dialogue with my Black Skeptics Los Angeles organization, opening the church’s doors to our community forums on atheism, black secular humanist traditions and civil rights resistance. I’d first met Pickens when I was exploring the grounds of the church with my then toddler daughter. After greeting me and introducing himself, he’d asked if I belonged to any of the local congregations. When I told him I was an atheist, the first words out of his mouth were not, “Why?” but “I respect that.”
After the success of our atheism roundtables, I attempted to organize another community forum entitled “Confronting Homophobia in the Black Church” at Zion Hill with Pickens’ support. However, shortly before the date of the event, he called to say church officials were giving him static and that we’d have to cancel it. Now, with the publication of his article in the Morningside Park Chronicle, church officials are demanding that he face a “tribunal” and respond to a laundry list of questions on homosexuality and biblical morality.
The controversy at Zion Hill is emblematic of a national climate in which traditional black churches are increasingly being challenged on their homophobic policies. Nonetheless, the rhetoric that homosexuality is a white European phenomenon artificially imposed on African descent peoples is still a recurring theme in some black churches. Recently the ATLAH church in Harlem made headlines for a viciously homophobic marquee sign equating homosexuality with whiteness. And terrorist anti-gay legislation in Uganda and Nigeria (sparked and endorsed in no small part by the anti-gay crusades of white American evangelicals) has heightened the stereotype that both African and African descent people are inherently more homophobic than other groups.