For the Rev. Terence Leathers, one scripture reigns above all others.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That verse, John 3:16, was the foundation of a recent sermon Leathers gave at his Clayton church, Mount Vernon Christian. For his message, titled “The Invitation,” the 51-year-old Leathers used the scripture to relate that the “whosoever” refers to everyone, including gay, lesbian and transgender people.
A straight, black man, Leathers admits he was a little nervous when he stood up before his congregation. But that changed quickly.
“You don’t want to be deemed as being a troublemaker,” Leathers said. “But when I started to speak and realized there were persons in the audience that needed to hear they were loved and also people in the audience who needed to hear they needed to love them, I just kept speaking.”
His sermon followed the release of a bold interview Leathers gave with Many Voices, a Washington-based black church movement for gay and transgender justice. Leathers is one of three straight black pastors – all from North Carolina – included in the second year of the group’s online video campaign.
The Rev. Cedric Harmon said he helped co-found Many Voices to change the narrative that all churches are homophobic. He said the group’s videos with straight and gay pastors raise messages of acceptance and love.
“People are talking and engaging in the conversation and sharing more openly that they have family or friends who are identified,” Harmon said. “That leads to acceptance; it’s not a hidden conversation.”
In the four- to seven-minute videos, the featured pastors tell different stories with a similar, resounding theme. They say the Bible calls on Christians to share God’s message with all people, not exclude those who have a different sexual orientation.
The Rev. Rodney Sadler Jr., a straight professor at Union Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, is also featured in this year’s campaign. Sadler said despite the black church’s ability to dig into issues of civil rights, it “was never really good with sex.” He said churches need to reexamine scriptures dealing with sexuality, not just for what’s on the surface but for the true, Biblical meaning.
“The Bible is not the end result of all that God has to say,” Sadler says in the video. “The Bible is just a collection of those things that those people in authority had to say at a particular point in time.
“That doesn’t undermine its authority. That doesn’t undermine its status as the Word of God,” Sadler adds. “But what it does say is that we do have to understand is that people put the Bible together for a reason.”
Feedback pours in
Since his video starting streaming, Leathers said, his inbox has filled with mostly positive feedback. Some have also called with encouraging words; others have not.
Leathers said his intent was not to endorse homosexuals’ lifestyle but rather their humanity, person hood and the right to be loved. He said he knows some of his peers won’t agree with that.
One of those peers is the Rev. Patrick L. Wooden of Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh. He says many pastors mistake that loving others means agreeing with their lifestyle. He said they think the only way to be compassionate is to abandon the Biblical position on homosexuality.
“I hold that these pastors are being arrogant and second-guessing God and thinking they know more than what God knows,” Wooden said.
Wooden, a strong proponent of the state amendment that banned same-sex marriage, said the most loving thing any pastor can do is preach the word of the Lord. The Bible, he said, clearly says that marriage is between one man and one woman.
“Many in the homosexual community have come up to me and said: ‘Pastor Wooden, please keep saying the things you say. We know we’re wrong and we know that when we are ready to change, we know a church we can attend where the pastor knows the truth,’” he said.
While a recent federal court ruling allowing same-sex marriage in North Carolina was good news to many gay and lesbian couples, the decision sparked a flurry of opposition from several pastors and church-based groups.
At a news conference just days after the marriage ruling, Wooden and others stood alongside Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, who said he backed Senate leader Phil Berger’s plan to exempt government workers from having to perform same-sex weddings. Magistrates in multiple counties have resigned since the change in the marriage law. Berger has said he will propose a way for government workers to refuse on religious grounds to marry same-sex couples.
Focus on N.C.
Last year, the Many Voices campaign featured gay and lesbian clergy. This year, the group is talking with straight pastors.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Sacred Souls Community Church in Charlotte said the conversation is much bigger than the black church. When it comes to the church and sexuality, not enough diverse narratives exist in any faith community, she said.
Rawls, featured by Many Voices in 2013, said in a phone interview that she is encouraged that pastors and the public in general are talking across lines of difference. She said lesbian, gay, transgender and queer children of God are gifts to the faith community, because they present opportunities to “see God bigger and respond with love.”
“That’s a big conversation, because what it demands is a loving response and a commitment to learning,” Rawls said.
Harmon, the co-founder of Many Voices, said the group made a conscious decision to focus its video campaign in North Carolina. They used grant money from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund to pay for the series, produced by Durham filmmaker Katina Parker.
“North Carolina presents a great opportunity,” Harmon said. “It has a substantial population of black and LGBT-identified folks within the Bible Belt with a strong commitment to faith.”