The Black church may have created a role that warrants reconsideration.
I want to pose a challenge to all of our readers. I’ll give $100 to the first person that can find the phrase First Lady or First Gentleman in Scripture as it pertains to the Church. If my wife knew I made this promise, she’d probably have me sleeping on the couch tonight. But I’m just that confident it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a First Lady or First Gentleman when it comes to the Word of God. They are fabricated, idealistic titles that have invaded Black church culture. I’ve written previously about my disgust with the term on A&E’s show “The Sisterhood”, which closely followed the lives of a group of women who deemed themselves First Ladies. But this week, I think it turned into some righteous indignation (which is a good thing, I think). It’s table turning time.
But let me start with a brief history lesson. The African American pastor has, as long as I can remember, always held a distinguished position in the Black community. In my hometown, you can talk about Black teachers, Black politicians, and other Black public figures. But you bet no dare “put your mouth” on the man of God. There’s that “Touch not mine anointed…” (see Psalm 105:15) thing going on there (a passage of Scripture that’s butchered from a contextual standpoint, by the way). The Black pastor enjoys certain privilege in the Black community. He has a nice parking space at the church, drives a nice vehicle (used to be a Cadillac), and gets fed well.
Enter the first lady. Because of the royal treatment of the black pastor, many of their wives benefit from fact that they are married to the shepherd of the church. Over the years, in the Black church, she has come to be known as the First Lady. As with any title, there are certain privileges that accompany the role of First Lady. Reserved seating is a no brainer. In some instances, she sits in the pulpit with her husband, while in other instances she is front and center in the pews. Depending on your context, an oversized hat may be involved. In that setting, nobody, I mean nobody, wears a hat larger than the church’s First Lady. That’s disrespectful. Regardless of context, certain things are expected of a First Lady. She’s to be supportive, highly visible, elegant, a prayer warrior, and, where children are involved, a great mother. That list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of how Black culture has carved out a clearly defined role for preacher’s wives.
Yesterday I saw something related to the First Lady concept appear in my Facebook Timeline (because Facebook Timelines are basically our news sources these days). I checked out this picture of a pastor celebrating his third anniversary with his spouse. Honestly, my first thought was, “Is this real?” So I did what any sensible, intelligent person would have done. I googled the church. Sure enough, the church existed and the Pastor and his spouse just celebrated their third anniversary. The wording on the original flyer is what got my attention. The pastor’s spouse was referred to as the “1st Gentleman” of the church.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this pastor has a partner in a same-sex relationship. As such, that partner has embraced the role traditionally seen in the Black church in the context of heterosexual marriages—The First Gentleman. And this is not an anomalous occurrence. There are other First Ladies and Gentlemen out there in same-sex marriages helping lead churches. Look, I’m not here to argue the merits of same-sex marriages. That screams red herring and will distract from the main point I’m making here. Well maybe I will say a few words. First, there’s no scriptural support for same-sex marriages and, as a minister, I wouldn’t officiate a wedding involving one. As “radically inclusive” as we make Jesus out to be, Scripture is very clear about this issue. The fact that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriages in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean He condones the behavior. There are no specific teachings from Jesus or “red letter” passages on bestiality, pedophilia, or polygamy either. And no, I’m not making a direct comparison between those activities and same-sex marriages. I’m just saying that absence of teaching doesn’t mean that Jesus would condone certain human behavior. Trust me, this is huge and is something the Black church has to process and deal with in the coming years. According to a site dedicated to the community, there’s at least 7,100 documented gay-affirming churches. Some of them are led by pastors who themselves are in same-sex relationships. So there’s an active subculture in the Christian faith that has adopted the practices of the Black church. Among those practices is the adoption of our church leadership structure—including First Ladies (and now First Gentlemen).
But when folks adopt practices that are flawed in the first instance, I think the best approach here is the address those practices in their original context. So the main point I want to make here is that the Black church can’t keep hijacking cultural practices and slapping them in the church setting without seriously considering if we’re missing the mark. Can we eulogize the terms First Lady/First Gentlemen already? Like, for real, for real. Yes, 1 John address the “elect lady“. But scholars can’t even agree if the author is addressing a female leader in the church or the church as a body (Scripture often uses feminine terms to describe the church). Either way, there’s NO WAY we should use this text to excuse our canonization of First Ladies or First Gentlemen when it comes to church practice. Part of the reason we have so many problems in the black church is because we covout titles. That’s the antithesis of the Gospel message. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ himself took on the form of a servant. Paul, himself, hated titles (see Philippians 3). James, Jesus’ own brother (who could have plugged that fact in his letter), calls himself a term most Christians wore as a badge of honor in the first century—a servant. Does the New Testament address bishops, elders, deacons, and other leaders? Of course it does. But are we faithful to Scripture when we create our own structures, slapping titles on folks that don’t exhibit the accompanying fruit (oops, did I just say that)? Maybe, we should be less worried about titles and degrees and more concerned about worship on our knees. Many in the black community joked about worship-like atmosphere in the white smoke announcement of the Pope this week, but in reality we go to churches and worship our leadership weekly—including the First Lady and First Gentleman. The harsh reality is that if we don’t seriously think about making changes our places of worship will become museums with artifacts rather than places of transformation and change. And that’s a scary thought.
A LONG TRAIL OF RUFFLED FEATHERS: In March, New York University students demonstrated against the Chick-fil-A company and the donations it gives to conservative organizations opposed to gay marriage. (Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom)
What in the world? What’s going on when in the home of the free a person can’t be brave enough to express their opinion without someone calling for a chicken boycott?
Personally, I don’t like chicken much anyway. I think it’s because my wife cooks it with just about every meal. But, before I talk myself out of supper, let me quickly add that she cooks chicken very well — much better than Chick-fil-A. Still, many people around the country still give Chick-fil-A a first-place ribbon when it comes to fast fowl.
Chick-fil-A’s owners are known for espousing strong Christian values (you can’t get the stuff on Sundays), but now that the company’s COO, Dan Cathy, has restated his well-known opinion regarding same-sex marriage, folks want to chop the company’s gizzards?
People suddenly have something against good fast food chicken (if there is such a thing). No apparent qualms with greasy spoons KFC, or Church’s Chicken, or Bojangles or even Popeye’s. All because some rigid people (and politicians who are often on the lookout for a situation to pimp for votes) believe that Cathy has offended a certain American minority group — the LGBT community.
The black community, which has a long history with and reverence for the proper use of boycotts, ought to be pecking mad about this.
Black folks know all too well about chicken and stereotyping. Still, black folks haven’t cried boycott over being branded lovers of watermelon and “finger lickin’ good” chicken made by “de good ole” antebellum KFC colonel. Black folks didn’t cry boycott over the blatant marketing ploy of gospel singer Kirk Franklin praisin’ and dancin’ for Church’s Chicken or some of Church’s other questionable ads. And do I even have to mention Bojangles Chicken ‘n’ Biscuits? More recently, we blasted hip-hop soul icon Mary J. Blige but then quickly forgave her for singing on a table about Burger King’s new Crispy Chicken Wrap. No BK boycott. And Lord knows if we haven’t yet called for an all-out boycott over Popeye’s “Annie the Chicken Queen,” (some have dubbed her a modern-day mammy), then no one should be calling for one against Chick-fil-A’s stance in favor of traditional marriage.
Besides, perhaps a sign that you’ve grown up as a minority group in America is when your feathers are no longer ruffled by every perceived slight.
Americans, including some members of the LGBT community, who have not joined in the boycott cackling, are displaying common sense. They understand that freedom of speech is a sacred right. Shutting down one person’s free speech (even when we don’t like what they say or believe) puts ALL of us at risk. It also stifles much needed honest dialogue that could lead to understanding, mutual respect and coexistence. The politicians claiming they will block Chick-fil-A from opening stores in their cities know that they are selling wolf tickets with extra sauce. They have no legal basis to do so and their cities would be sued, costing taxpayers millions. Besides, people need jobs and cities need tax revenue.
A boycott is a serious weapon that should be reserved for challenging Constitutional offenses like employment, healthcare, or voter discrimination. Or hate crimes where people were beaten, gunned down, or hung from trees. Or when a child of God feels so bullied and humiliated that he commits suicide.
Cathy’s comments are far away from this coop.
His public relations team mishandled the news and social media onslaught his comments triggered (a fake Facebook account to cover your tracks against the Muppets? C’mon now, people). The error was compounded by the sad sudden death of Don Perry, Chick-fil-A’s longtime vice president of public relations.
Cathy simply offered his personal Bible-based opinion that marriage should be between a man and woman. As long as Chick-fil-A does not discriminate against gays and lesbians in anyway, there’s nothing legally wrong with a businessman sharing his opinion. (A wise business move? Well, that’s another story).
If Chick-fil-A ever does in fact discriminate, the company should be condemned because it would not only be in violation of federal law but in betrayal of the Christian Beatitudes it espouses. In that case, I would be the first to say “no thanks” if my wife ever suggested we hit the Chick-fil-A drive-thru for dinner.
In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
NOT FEELING LUCKY: A gay activist used a clever Internet campaign to create a new meaning for GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's name on Google. Has the culture war gone digital? (Photo by Mike Segar/Newscom)
Since vaulting to a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has become headline news in short order. And so, too, has his so-called “Google problem.”
For the uninitiated, Santorum’s name was dragged through the virtual mud after a series of controversial statements regarding homosexuality drew the ire of sex columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. In an effort to retaliate against Rick Santorum for linking homosexuality with polygamy, bestiality, and moral relativism, Savage polled his readers to find the most offensive definition possible with which to associate with the word “santorum,” settling on a byproduct of anal sex. He then launched an Internet campaign, complete with its own website, designed to point search engines to this definition when users searched for the name Santorum.
(Relax, people. The link was to Wikipedia.)
Because this happened awhile back, few people knew about this outside of Santorum’s campaign staff, his small-but-loyal following, and liberal bloggers who intentionally linked to Dan Savage’s website in order to embarrass the then-U.S.-senator. But since his Iowa resurgence, in an effort to play catch-up, political reporters and pundits have been delicately referring to this as Santorum’s “Google problem.”
But the problem has very little to do with Google. And in the big picture, it has little to do with Rick Santorum directly, although his feud with Savage vaulted his name into the internet spotlight. See, Google’s search algorithms direct users to what they’re looking for based on a complex set of criteria, which includes how many and how often people link to a particular website. The way that Dan Savage and his supporters were able to defame Rick Santorum is by intentionally manipulating that process, a term sometimes referred to as “Google bombing.”
But Rick Santorum’s problem is really not with Google, which is why his attempt to get Google to remove the offending search result, rather than proving his fighting mettle, mostly showed his ignorance regarding how the search engine, and by extension the Internet in general, works.
Instead of a Google problem, what Rick Santorum has is a meaning problem. And unfortunately, so do many other Christians in politics.
Words have meanings
See, the crux of the clash between conservative and liberal activists is often in the meanings or connotations of words. For Santorum and other Christians who believe that God’s standard for marriage and sexuality is for one man and one woman, the word “homosexual” or “gay” is shorthand for “deviant.” As in, “if you deviate from our standard, then you’re wrong.”
For Dan Savage and many of his ilk, I think that what’s so offensive is not simply the idea that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, but that this sin in particular is so vile and morally objectionable that people who engage in it deserve whatever dehumanizing rhetoric is flung in their direction. That’s what they get, I’m sure they imagine Christians saying, for choosing that lifestyle.
Unfortunately, because of the decades-long conflation in American churches of Christian doctrine with Republican politics, many left-leaning, non-religious Americans have adopted distorted definition of Christianity. For them, the word “Christian” is an adjective akin to “hypocritical” or “judgmental.”
Many postmodern, Gen-X and/or Millennial Americans have similar cultural leanings, even if they grew up in Christian households. I have a friend who is a Christian, the child of a Presbyterian pastor. In his household, growing up, the term “conservative” was usually a slur, and to this day any reference to The 700 Club brings up a slight wave of nausea.
By itself, this barely qualifies as news, as it’s been covered ad nauseam by younger, hipper Christians trying to ditch the stench of stuffy cultural superiority.
But in this situation, it does explain a lot.
The gay civil rights movement
For starters, it explains why so many gay activists have borrowed the tactics, imagery, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
A galvanizing force in the Black community, the African American church has been, for decades and even centuries, the focal point of political activism for Blacks in America. And it’s easy to forget this now, but there were plenty of White people in the late ’60s who denounced Dr. King and the civil rights movement as rabble-rousing nonsense. So entrenched were these Whites in their typical Christian Baby Boomer upbringing, with an idea of Christianity as American as baseball and apple pie, that they failed to see the civil rights struggle as a biblical issue. It was countercultural, so for them it was wrong.
By contrast, many liberal White people voluntarily joined the struggle — especially those whose parents grew up in that time and for whom it became de rigeur to adopt many of the cultural artifacts of the Black church experience without actually believing in God, Jesus, or salvation. It’s like they got swept up in the passion of the struggle and came along for the ride, sort of.
(For a pop culture example, imagine Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties in their twenties, singing “Kum Ba Ya” during a protest.)
So when these liberal White folks (or others close to them) struggle with their own sexuality, then later come out of the closet and choose to adopt publicly gay identities, it makes sense that they would generalize the Christian response to homosexuality as just another example of people in the church rejecting anything countercultural. It’s logical. They did it to the Blacks, now they’re doing it to us.
Understandably, many socially conservative Blacks are uncomfortable and even resentful when queer activists link their struggle to the civil rights struggles for African Americans, if for no other reason than because Black folks hardly ever had the luxury of staying in the closet for political or business reasons. But despite being socially conservative, most churchgoing Blacks are still an overwhelmingly Democrat voting bloc, which means that popular African American politicians usually have to work a delicate balance between having a positive voting record on gay rights but not being too outspoken on the issue.
(This is one of the reasons why President Obama, regarding gay rights, tends to let his subordinates do the talking.)
So the questions abound: How can we accurately represent Christ and the church for those who don’t believe? Is there or should there be a theologically orthodox, African American Christian response to the civil rights movement? And what does any of this have to do with Rick Santorum?
For these and other answers … stay tuned for Part 2.
Rev. Sam Andreades
The big news out of New York last weekend was the legalization of gay marriage, but The Village Church in Greenwich Village is under threat of eviction from the public school where it meets and a New York Times op-ed writer says it should be because its ministry to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction doesn’t represent the community. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to the church’s senior pastor, Sam A. Andreades, about the church and it’s unique position as the only Exodus International affiliate church in New York City. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Urban Faith: The Village Church was mentioned in a recent New York Times op-ed about a legal battle over churches renting space from city schools. What is the legal challenge that you’re facing?
Rev. Sam Andreades: One church, the Bronx Household of Faith, represented by the Alliance Defence Fund, has been in a legal battle with the New York City Department of Education over whether public schools should be allowed to rent space to churches on Sundays. This effects the 60 or 70 churches that rent public school space in New York. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a closely-related issue (in favor of religious freedom) a few years ago, the New York Second Circuit Court ruled against the churches. Since an appeal has been filed, the ruling does not take effect immediately, but the future of churches meeting in schools is uncertain.
The reason [Katherine Stewart] mentioned The Village Church by name is because she said we were running this [Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor] and that she didn’t think we were representative of the Village. That’s what I responded to [in an article on the church website] and said, “No.”
Has Stewart contacted you since then?
No. We sent our piece to The New York Times, but for whatever reason they declined to publish a response.
The two main ministries listed on your church website are the Mercy Network and the Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor (GAME). Did you start both of those?
Mercy was here as part of the church since the beginning. It’s been going through different iterations over the years and it’s done some really neat things. We’re looking for more to do.
GAME was something I decided we needed to do. It took a few years of praying about it for the right leadership to come along, because I would go into the gay bars and I would go to some of the transvestite parties in the Village, but I kind of lacked credibility because it’s not really my issue. I could get to know folks and see how we could help, but I realized it really needed [a leader] for whom this is an issue, but who is following Christ while having same-sex desires. … We have a great lay leader with the ministry now. I don’t give out his name because, for the group, confidentiality is very important.
If somebody wants to come to the group, we meet with them first and see if we can be of help to them. The people who come to the group, many of them aren’t in The Village Church. They come from other churches. We realized after we started it that this is actually a gift to other churches in New York, because …people come here and they have a place to be open about it, and not necessarily have this known about in their congregation.
Is it a pretty active ministry?
We get one or two inquiries a week, I would say, from people who are interested. Some of those decide not to be involved and some of them get involved. So we’ve had a fluctuating size of ten or twelve on a weekly basis. For a while we had a women’s GAME group, but that is taking a hiatus right now.
Is that because of disinterest or not having a leader?
It seemed to come naturally to a close in terms of interest and leadership. We’re certainly trying to address women who inquire, but we’re seeing if there will be enough interest in the fall to have a group for women.
How is the church’s relationship with the local gay community?
I think part of the reason nobody has picketed or protested is because we’re kind of under the radar. We’re not a very big organization. We have this support group and people who want to come come. We’re not big enough to cause a lot of discomfort.
The Village Church is the only church in New York City listed as an Exodus International affiliate. What is your relationship to the organization?
There’s a level of connection where you become an official Exodus ministry. We’re kind of waiting to see how we do. We might do that in the future, but as of this moment we’re just part of their church network and then GAME is a ministry of our church.
Is Greenwich Village as diverse as people assume it to be?
Racially it’s not as diverse, but that’s changing as the immigrant population is making its way into the core. … We have a lot of racial diversity in the visitors, but it’s still very white and very affluent. Diversity of viewpoints, that’s a different thing. Diversity of worldviews, that we have.
It’s got its layers. There’s a layer of older population that have made their lives here and many of them have rent-controlled or rent-subsidized apartments and they’re going away slowly. That’s one layer. You have New York University, which has made its home here and is gobbling up various parts of the Village, so it’s a kind of university situation as well. And then you have people who choose to live here if they can … because it’s more bohemian [than the upper east side or the upper west side]. You get people who may be in different occupations, but they don’t fit in the grid. Their views can be anything. The Village sort of attracts the eclectic and the unconventional. For a lot of the couples here, one of them is an artist and the other one works on Wall Street or works in the financial district, because to get a place here, somebody has to be making money.
And the gay community has a presence as well?
Yeah, the center of things has kind of moved into Chelsea, which is the neighborhood to the north, but it’s still the Village.
How did you come to pastor in Greenwich Village?
I’ve always had a non-conformist streak. My wife and I actually met in the Village and I went to school here for a master’s degree. I used to be a street musician; I would play at different places around the Village. A lot of threads of our lives come together in the Village. It was always very important to me to see Christianity applied and the culture engaged as part of the emphasis of my own faith. The Village seemed like a great place to conduct Christ’s revolution as we say, because Jesus was the ultimate non-conformist, so it just made a lot of sense. … The Village Church was planted here out of Redeemer Presbyterian 16 years ago by another pastor. … I’m the third pastor, but I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years.
What is your goal as an urban minister?
What I want to do is what we say is our vision, which is to bring about Christ’s revolution to exemplify in the Village urban eternal life, meaning to see the life of Christ manifest in people in a place where history is going. History is going towards a city, right. So, we want the see the life of Christ manifest in city people.
What are the unique challenges to accomplishing that goal?
Any revolution is an engagement in the midst of resistance. Not everybody wants to see that happen, so it’s helping to overcome that resistance by moral suasion that I think is our big challenge.
Another big challenge that’s more prosaic is building community because New York City, especially Greenwich Village, is a stopping place for many people on their way somewhere else. … It’s very difficult to build community for people to come and stay, and say, “Yeah, we want to see this vision happen here,” and be able to commit to that for more than a few years. We have a high turn over. That’s part of what my wife and I are trying to do, is show people that you can raise your kids in the city and they turn out okay. It’s actually glorious.