All God's Children (Except Some)

Rev. Tommie Watkins knocked on the church door but no one answered

Not to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, apparently. At least not if they want to serve God while acknowledging their homosexuality. “The church position is clear,” Bishop Adams asserts. “If a person is openly practicing homosexuality, we are unlikely to ordain them, because [homosexuality] is not consistent with creation; it's not consistent with Scripture and the church.” While Adams could not identify a Scriptural passage specifically condemning homosexuality, he is confident the church board of examiners' decision to deny ordination to Watkins stands on firm moral ground. “In my opinion the homosexual lifestyle is not the same type of issue as racial discrimination,” he says. “It is not the same, and I do not accept putting the two together.”

Not all AME church officials support Bishop Adams's hard line against gays and lesbians; Rev. Marilyn Usher, an elder at Miami's Greater Bethel, is one who doesn't. She is working to nurture acceptance within the Overtown church, which is 104 years old, and believes Watkins's rejection at the Melbourne conference was the result of ignorance and a sort of “old-boys network” that rules the church's nineteen districts in the United States and Africa. “I don't think it's the church,” Usher explains. “It's the people who are the head of the church now. There are many people who are less threatened by gays and lesbians who say it's time to deal with the issue. It's a guy thing. [AME leaders] just don't understand.”

According to black scholar Marvin Dunn, the “guy thing” can be traced to the roots of black American culture and poses a huge obstacle to the acceptance of black gays and lesbians in their community. Dunn is a professor of psychology at Florida International University and author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. Homosexuality, he says, is not easily discussed, much less accepted, in black America. It is widely perceived as a symbol of weakness that dates from the days of slavery, when black men were stripped of their ability to protect their families. Which may help explain what Dunn describes as a great need among black men to establish and maintain their masculinity. Anything less is viewed as an embarrassment. “[AME's] excluding openly gay clergy is more than the old-boys network trying to protect power,” Dunn asserts. “Their own sense of maleness, masculinity, and history is wound up in this. That's why there is more resistance to homosexuality in the black church than in the white -- the psychodynamics involved are greater.”

Rev. Tommie Watkins hoped to bring change to one of America's oldest black churches
Steve Satterwhite
Rev. Tommie Watkins hoped to bring change to one of America's oldest black churches

Dunn's analysis resonates with another member of Miami's religious community. Bishop S.F. Irons-Mahee, a friend of Tommie Watkins and founder of the Fellowship Tabernacle Church in Miami, established her church in 1997 in response to the oppressively homophobic Southern Baptist Pentecostal Church of her youth. An openly lesbian African American, Irons-Mahee's own congregation is a veritable rainbow of humanity: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender from all races, denominations, and ethnicities. “My contention will always be if the places we need to be spiritually fed and nurtured do not exist, then we need to build them,” she says. “[AME's] findings do more than devastate the individual; they annihilate the hope and drive of progressive-thinking people in the church. They told the denomination: “Don't you dare to be innovative, don't dare to change the tide, there's no room here for progressive thought.' And the message wasn't just for Tommie. It was for the entire [AME] congregation.”

Watkins heard that message, but vows it will not turn him away from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the ministry to which he devotes himself. “More likely than not, I will remain [at Greater Bethel], and eventually the church will have to deal with it,” he predicts. “If I reapply and go through [the ordination] process again, they will face the issue again. And I don't think I will be the only one. There are other gays and lesbians who were [ordained]. I'm hoping they'll start coming out.”

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets