I remember the day I began to question the hell fire and brimstone sermons I had heard on Sunday mornings (and later preached) about LGBTQ people. I was watching members of Westboro Baptist Church on television as they were picketing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who had been brutally tortured and left for dead on October 6, 1998. Two men took turns pistol whipping Shepard on the head with a .357 Magnum revolver. Eighteen hours later, two bicyclists found a near frozen comatose Shepard, who they first thought was a scarecrow, tied spread-eagled to a roughhewn deer fence.
According to Losing Matthew Shepard by Beth Loffreda, “Matt was suffering from hypothermia, and there was severe trauma to the brain stem . . . one side of Matt's head had been beaten in several inches . . . the neurosurgeon was quite frankly surprised that he was still alive.” Shepard died six days later from his injuries.
On October 18, 1998, as mourners gathered in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for Shepard’s funeral, Westboro held a nearby protest with picket signs that read, "God Hates Fags!"
Anyone who considers her/himself a member of the faith community, yet believes that God approves of this heinous act because the victims were LGBTQ, has no understanding of the true meaning of Christianity.
I was shocked as I stood in the middle of my living room floor watching one hate-filled sign after another pass before my eyes. My mind briefly drifted back to the scene I witnessed days earlier when medical personnel carefully removed Shepard from the fence. His mother Judy Shepard was on site and witnessed the horrific scene. The compassion I felt for this stranger was overwhelming. I wanted to climb though the television and comfort her in her unimaginable mother's grief.
Now refocused on the hate-filled signs, I shouted at the television, "That was no fag, that was somebody's son!" For certain, Westboro won the day. The media focus and subsequent sensationalism helped catapult the religious hate group to international fame. I don't think, however, that Westboro ever imagined that their message would transform the life of a black Christian woman who saw through their hate, and her own.
Blacks have been falsely characterized as more homophobic than those of other communities. I do agree that we are arguably the most hypocritical on the subject because for most African Americans, our first encounter with gay people is at church. Whether Baptist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Holiness/Apostolic, African Methodist Episcopal. or non-denominational, the music ministry in numerous black churches is comprised of LGBTQ people. The best singers, musicians, and choir directors are most often also queer. Their presence as LGBTQ, however, is never openly acknowledged; but church members constantly whisper about those presumed to be queer, whether real or imagined.
Every Sunday, black preachers all across America sermonize about the sin of homosexuality and its consequence, hell; they preach to the straight members while proverbially (and in some cases literally) winking at the gay members.
Notwithstanding, the church’s anti-gay message and shameless exploitation of the talents of its queer members has been extremely hurtful. As gospel great Kirk Franklin recently stated in his apology to the LGBTQ community on behalf of the black church.
I want to apologize for all of the hurtful and painful things that have been said about people in the church that have been talented and gifted and musical, that we’ve used and we’ve embarrassed…and all this other horrible crap that we’ve done… We have not treated them like people. We’re talking about human beings, men and women that God has created… It is horrible that we have made it where the Bible is a homophobic manual…That’s not what the Bible is. I mean you want to talk about things that God gets at… pride and jealousy and envy and arrogance. But what we also see is God sending his son to save us all, because we were all…straight, gay or whatever, lost and in need of a savior, and there’s room at the cross for all of us.
Indeed, LGBTQ people are human beings who deserve the love, compassion, and respect that all of God's children deserve.
The dead and wounded in Orlando's Pulse nightclub were/are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and friends. Just as the song “You Were Loved,” sung by Whitney Houston attests, these victims “were loved by someone, touched by someone, held by someone, meant something to someone, loved somebody, touched somebody’s heart along the way.”
Early Sunday morning, loved ones gathered near Pulse nightclub crying, holding their heads and hearts, beating their chests and later the wall trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. As news of the mass shooting made national headlines, Westboro and others of the religious wrong called it an act of God.
This tragic episode, however, was no more an act of God than the massacres which occurred at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was the act of Omar Mateen, an American citizen who chose to commit mass murder at a LGBTQ nightclub he had frequented the past three years.
Anyone who considers her/himself a member of the faith community yet believes that God approves of this heinous act because the victims were LGBTQ, has no understanding of the true meaning of Christianity. As Florida Attorney Chuck Hobbs stated, “You are not a real Christian . . .You are a damned fool!” In other words, you need a come to Jesus moment!
Arica L. Coleman, Ph.D.