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The Black Church and Same-Sex Marriage

The election is behind us and President Obama in the White House for another four more years. But the issue of same-sex marriage lives on. It is a matter of church versus state, reverends contend.
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Sex is and will always be a hot topic and in today's news, not only who you love but who you want to marry, is at the center of social, political and religious debate. States like New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, along with Washington, D.C. say you can marry whomever and others are following (for instance, Maine, Maryland and Washington state.) But for the African American community, particularly the traditionally conservative Black Church, talking about same-sex marriage has provoked a heated debate among congregants and their pastors in the shadows of President Barack Obama's May endorsement of same-sex marriage.

For Rev. Jonathan B. Whitfield, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Hackensack, N.J., there was no time to waste in addressing the president's historic announcement. On Mother's Day, without a single written note and a firm, determined voice, Rev. Whitfield explained why he did not agree with the president's endorsement of same-sex marriage. He also stated that he had come to terms with the realization that he would not agree with the president on every issue. He urged the congregation to stand on the word of God but to remember that President Obama was not God. The more he spoke, the greater his inflection became and the firmer his words were delivered. But out of reverence for his position as an officer of the Air Force and therefore, as an employee of the Commander-in-Chief, he asked that the church recorder be turned off.

Following the service, Whitfield received positive feedback from his congregation. "Most seemed thankful for my insight on the subject. I believe at least one was not pleased," Whitfield recalled. He suspected that the woman who was displeased with his sermon was, as he put it, "a participant in the lifestyle."

A little over an hour out of the city in one of the newly constructed condominiums bordering the Asbury Park beach lives Rev. Gilbert Caldwell, 78, and his wife of 54 years, Grace. Caldwell, now a retired United Methodist minister after 45 years of preaching, shared the impressive history of his life, his years as a "foot soldier" taking part in the March on Washington and standing with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery and Selma. In the latter act of his life, his commitment to gay rights activism is what rejuvenates him.

On May 9, the president had Caldwell's full support. "I think he was there before he announced it," said Caldwell about the president's position on same-sex marriage. "Obama manifests what it is to be a person in constant evolution. We need that in our society. His own sense of reflection is in line with who he is." Caldwell said he did not believe the president succumbed to political pressure.

While the administration took bold actions such as repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell on Sept. 20, 2011 and opposing the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), the administration's real position on gay marriage remained elusive. The anti-gay marriage act may be on the brink of legislative extinction as the Supreme Court will hear arguments challenging Proposition 8 and DOMA (Windsor v. United States) in March. To date, 31 states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Whitfield, 47, is now in his 16th pastoral year at Trinity Baptist Church and in his 24th year in the ministry. He's a "PK": that is, a preacher's kid, following the footsteps of his late father, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Whitfield. In a sit-down interview, Whitfield spoke openly and candidly about same-sex marriage. His first experience with a same-sex couple involved his Aunt Bonnie, who had a relationship with another woman whom he considered another aunt. They lived together, just two blocks away from the Whitfields. They had two children through a surrogate and the Whitfield family did not ostracize them. "But it was weird because I knew it was wrong but yet okay, said Whitfield. "I guess that is the love of God. That may be wrong, but that person is okay."

Whitfield defined what he believed to be the crux of homosexuality. He said that he understood that a man can love a man and a woman can love a woman. "I think that's honest and it should be respected but it should not be taken out of its category. Whitfield said excitably, "It's called friendship!" It's the same relationship, he said, that David and Jonathan had in the Old Testament. "The Bible says 'and Jonathan loved David'; they were tight," Rev. Whitfield said. When same-gender relationships becomes sexual, he continued, the individuals are acting in a way that self-served their own lusts and curiosity.

Apart from same-sex marriage, Whitfield has taken a moderate stance on other social issues. With respect to abortion, he said he was pro-life but understood that there were extenuating circumstances that may lead a person to make a choice that is not popular. "Each case should be judged on its own merit," he reasoned. "It would be very difficult to tell a rape victim (female) to keep the baby."

When Rev. Caldwell is not pounding the paper with his thoughts and insights on gay rights, he spends time with his two sons and only grandchild, Ashley, whom he has enjoyed living nearby. He is the patriarch of a family with roots planted in the ministry. "I call myself a cradle Methodist," said Caldwell about being a member of ecclesiastic progeny. His father, G. Haven Caldwell, Sr., was a Methodist preacher. His maternal grandfather, James Asa Brown, was also a Methodist preacher from South Carolina.

Caldwell, a native of Greensboro, N.C., grew up the only boy out of four children in the segregated South. He described his family as conservative but not rigid. They did not drink and frowned upon divorce. During his era, homosexuality was not discussed. He recalled that on his father's side, there was a distant cousin who was a lesbian. But the family did not really talk about it. In his nuclear family, the topic has been discussed and Caldwell's wife and sons share his liberal stance.

The retired minister was not always a vocal advocate for gay rights. A turning point for his view about gay rights occurred around 1977 when author, activist, and white Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd revealed that he was gay. Caldwell had been an ardent reader and admirer of Boyd's work, especially his book, "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?" Boyd's revelation made Caldwell think about his own views with respect to gay rights. Caldwell had to ask himself some essential questions: "Do you burn his books? Do you claim you never 'knew' the man, just because of this revelation? Of course not."

As an activist for civil rights, Caldwell has been arrested four times in acts of civil disobedience. The two recent arrests took place in 2000 at the meeting of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Cleveland. Caldwell and others protested UMC's stance against gay marriage. "Marriage is a civil right that ought not be confused with marriage as a religious act," Caldwell wrote to Rangel. "My clergy colleagues who do not support same gender marriage do not have to conduct them!" In 2008, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed that marriage was to be defined only between a man and a woman. The next year, the denomination's Judicial Council ruled that no Methodist clergy could marry same-sex couples. Over his 45 years as a Methodist minister, Caldwell was never asked to marry a gay couple.

After his arrests in 2000, Caldwell and Marilyn Bennett, a white, lesbian author and activist, developed the Truth in Progress, a multi-media project focused on race, sexual orientation, and religion. The project pays homage to historic events and people of the civil rights and gay rights movements. Caldwell also co-founded United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, an extension of Reconciling Ministries Network. The organization's mission is for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons into church and society.

Although on different sides of the contentious gay marriage issue, Caldwell and Whitfield both lent their support to President Obama in November.

The election is behind us and President Obama in the White House for another four more years. But the issue of same-sex marriage lives on. It is a matter of church versus state, both reverends contend.

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