Sometime in the late hours of Saturday night the call will come in. Philbert (not his real name) — like many of his Christian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) buddies — waits anxiously for the call to tell him the time and place of the van pickup, and where it’ll drop he and his friends off to a safe and secluded place for Sunday worship. Last week’s worship service was in Montego Bay, just 50 miles from Negril’s Grand Lido, one of the flagship resorts in Jamaica, where Philbert works the night shift at the bar. This week Philbert hopes for a closer worshipping space, perhaps a safe space in Gales Valley, just 40 miles from work.
Every Sunday Philbert and his friends have to worship in a different space. The risk is too high if it’s found out they’re queer.
“My experience as a gay man living in Jamaica is one which is marked by periodic incidences of abuse, both verbal and physical. I have lost count of the number of times I have been verbally abused, called ‘battyman,’ ‘chi-chi,’ ‘sodomite,’ ‘dirty battybwoy,'” an unnamed gay man shares on the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-Flag) in 2003.
When Jamaica’s leading gay rights activist, Brian Williamson, was murdered in his home in June 2004, multiple knife wounds savagely mutilated his body. A Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed the crime, reporting a crowd gathered after the killing, rejoicing and saying, “Battyman [Jamaican slang for homosexual], he get killed!” Others celebrated Williamson’s murder, laughing, and calling out, “Let’s get them one at a time,” “That’s what you get for sin,” and “Let’s kill all of them.” Some sang, “Boom bye bye,” a line from renowned Jamaican reggae artist Buju Banton’s then popular anti-gay song about killing and burning gay men. (Banton has a long history of advocating the killing of LGBTQ people in his lyrics yet he was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 for his album “Rasta Got Soul”).
In 2005, a gay man was harassed at the beach, and a mob pursued him. To avoid the homophobic wrath of the mob he ran into the sea and drowned.
In 2007, a pastor’s church was attacked by an angry mob on Easter Sunday because people accused of being homosexuals were at a funeral service he performed earlier in the week.
And in November 2008, Rev. Richard Johnson, one of the leading Anglican priests on the island, was found nude and stabbed 25 times, in the rectory of St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Kingston, because he was thought to be gay.
Homophobia is so intense in Jamaica and is so unchallenged that people who speculate about who’s LGBTQ can easily plot to kill them and unabashedly announce their intent with impunity, because the police won’t protect Jamaica’s LGBTQ citizens from mob-led murders and violence; they instead incite the country’s homophobic frenzy by either being present and inactive during these assaults or by following and watching them all the time.
It’s 2010 and nothing has changed. So when the van arrives on Sunday morning before the island has risen, Philbert and friends stealthy pack into it and off they go.
Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) provides most of the vans, helping these underground Christians find sacred space. Sunshine Cathedral (MCC), in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has chartered a Sunshine Cathedral Mission Church in Jamaica. The mission Church is active in several cities in Jamaica and has monthly island-wide meetings at changing locations.
Jamaican LGBTQ Christians welcome MCC’s outreach ministry, but the church is viewed by many of the islanders as an abomination.
In a letter to the editor of the “Jamaica Observer” titled “Wilson’s homosexual theology ain’t right”, JM Fletcher of St. Andrew expressed his outrage:
“I note with interest an article written by an American lesbian preacher Nancy Wilson, who is bent on crusading and promoting her chosen lifestyle. My concern about homosexuals is that if allowed to run unchecked they move from their outward recruitment drive to deliberate thrust of their lifestyle on the rest of us. This can be seen in how they are moving into every segment of the community – even the church – to try to perpetuate their lifestyle.” Fletcher states.
“If Ms. Wilson is an American, why is she so desperate to start a foundation for homosexuality in other countries? She cares nothing for the culture of other nations? She might ask us soon to allow a man to marry a pig! Because from a Christian perspective, what would be the difference? Both are an abomination to God, yet homosexuality happens and bestiality too — if one is made legal, so should the other, and the homosexual church can allow for a man to marry a dog — if he finds the companionship of a dog preferable to that of humans… For the pastors claiming to be Christians who are approving of such churches, I repeat, they are not of God.”
The Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson is unquestionably a woman of God, and was the first pastor of MCC, Boston in the 70s. Rev. Wilson is now the Presiding Elder and Moderator of the Universal Fellowship of MCC, a global denomination with 300 churches in 28 countries. Founded by Troy Perry, an excommunicated gay Pentecostal minister, MCC is a radically inclusive church opened to all people, regardless of theological background, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, or ability, and is a leading force in the development of queer theology. (In the 80s MCC saved my life, welcoming me as a member of MCC, NYC.)
In April 2008, Cambridge City Councilor Ken Reeves, the son of Jamaican immigrants, traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, to join Wilson and Rev. Pat Bumgartner of MCC, NYC, in a demonstration denouncing violence against LGBTQ citizens on the island. And in June of that year Reeves put together the panel, “Jamaica: Yes, Problems — A Visit to Homophobia,” held at Christ Episcopal Church in Harvard Square, to seek out solutions.
But in a country with no federal hate crime bill, police enforcement, or church to protect LGBTQ Jamaicans, solutions can’t be found.
So in the meantime, Philbert and his friends wait anxiously for the call on Saturday night to be told where their sacred space will be. And when the van arrives on Sunday morning before the island has risen, Philbert and his friends stealthy pack into it and off they go.