“Compassion follows engagement. One of the reasons why we don’t have compassion for certain people is because we don’t engage and get to know them. Take time to talk to them and your heart will become compassionate.”-Pastor Jumaine Jones, The Bridge Church, Washington, D.C.
Like most people of my generation who were raised in church, I was raised to believe that homosexuality was deviant, a mental illness. In a word: ungodly. A sin to be punished by hell fire and damnation. Like most people, however, I winced at that view privately, but I agreed that Gays should not be married. I saw same sex marriage as an affront to God. But whenever I encountered gays/lesbians in the workplace, at the store, or in social settings, I found them to be like anyone else. Normal, hardworking, regular, good people.
The truth though, is that I was intentionally clueless and removed as to the challenges that many Gay people face in their day to day lives and most importantly with how they are treated by Christians. As a woman of color, I understand all too well what it is like to be stereotyped, and shunned. So, I was and am empathetic to the LGBT plight. But make no mistake, I was not a supporter of the LGBT community. One night, however in the summer of 2012, my privately held “faith” views, were “outed” on national TV by then MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson attacked me, Roland S. Martin, Pastor Jamal Bryant and others who opposed Gay marriage as “sexual rednecks”. The context of his rant was that President Obama decided to publicly change his long-held view that marriage was only between a man and a woman. The President cited his young daughters as the influence that helped him to “shift” his view. His shift was seen as a betrayal by many in the faith based community, including me.
I was likewise outraged that Michael (a long time colleague) would do such a thing. I knew that as a result, I was going to take a hit professionally. In response to Dyson’s attacks, MSNBC made him publicly apologize, and they offered me the opportunity to debate Dyson on the Ed Show. I accepted and the debate was heavily promoted, watched and tweeted about for days. I stood my ground as the devout Christian I try to be, as Dyson (an ordained minister) argued the LGBT point of view. We debated the Bible, God, and Gays. And after it was all said and done, I was public enemy number one with the LGBT community. I received the most vile tweets, death threats and posts (it happened again in 2015 when I commented on Bruce Jenner winning an ESPY award for coming out as transgender, yet still retaining his male anatomy. See: Journo Attacked on Twitter ). It was pretty intimidating. Worse, I began to lose corporate business and speaking opportunities (which had been plentiful before that). I had a target on my back because of my faith, and now my rights to free speech, and freedom of religious expression were being violated.
My experience had a chilling effect on other Christian professionals who feared the same backlash. A few true friends pulled me aside when I was denied access to their firms or corporations and told me, “I agree with you Sophia, but I cannot say that or I might lose my job.” I was being black balled by a group of Americans who demand tolerance, respect, and inclusion. I was being hurt in my business which focuses on diversity, women’s empowerment and training by a group of my fellow citizens who felt justified in silencing me, as they demand never to be silenced. The LGBT lobby is powerful. No-one dares go against them.
That is until very recently when one mentor and sponsor who was working on bringing me to his company: Walgreens, encountered some resistance to my visit because of my views. It had happened to me before. Yet, thanks to Steve Pemberton (outgoing Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion for Walgreens) I got a break. He discussed the issue internally and helped those concerned to see that my views on “same sex marriage” should not bar me from speaking about issues having nothing to do with the LGBT community. Thankfully, he took it a step further and set up a private meet and greet with me and the “Walgreens Pride” group during my visit to Walgreens University on November 7, 2017 to speak to the Women of Walgreens about “The Woman Code”.
Our meeting took place in a conference room at Walgreens Corporate HQ (See: image inset below) with a small group of executives, myself, and members of the “Pride” group. It was a really good conversation. Walgreens deserves great praise for engineering this kind of gathering. They are a leader in corporate America when it comes to diversity, inclusion and LGBT rights. I only wish we had recorded our talk to share as a best diversity business practice module. I gave everyone a copy of my new book, “E Pluribus One” and wrist bands saying “Make America One”.
The conversation was comfortable, honest, engaging and very powerful. I learned about each man or woman’s experiences growing up Gay or Lesbian, and how some were treated very badly by Christians. People who humiliated, demeaned and condemned them to hell. One woman’s testimony really hurt my heart. She was still scarred from events that took place as a teenager in her church community. She had to hide who she was. As a result, she still struggles with attending church to this day.
Likewise, I was able to explain my faith perspective. My life lens. And how although I may never change my position, I can be a good human. I can be a good neighbor. I can be a friend to the LGBT community and work with my brothers and sisters on things we do agree on—like liberty in America. Like freedom of speech, and yes, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2015, the freedom to marry. I do not have to agree with something to respect someone else’s rights. And to honor those rights. That is what makes America truly great.
The way forward is for us to engage one another. And have the courageous conversations that help us understand and begin to know one another.
I was truly blessed by my meeting with the Walgreens Pride group. And I am committed to working with other corporate groups to make our workplaces more tolerant, and respectful of all of us. Gay. Straight. Christian. Muslim. Black. White. Female. For my part, Christianity is not a word, it is a lifestyle. It is how we treat people. It’s how we show God’s love even when we do not agree with or understand another’s choices. If we can start there, we can truly have compassion for one another, and make this world a much better place.