Saving Souls, Saving Lives

In the black church, treating the spirit doesn't always mix well with treating AIDS

Rev. Marilyn Hardy sinks into her couch with an exhausted sigh on a recent Friday. She has just returned home after what seems like a week of endless meetings and emergencies. Exhaustion is nothing new to the spirited minister who has the unenviable task of solving life-and-death dilemmas as the hands-on leader of an ambitious AIDS program at Overtown's Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But Hardy's spirit is especially taxed today by some difficult personal decisions. She is leaving the program she has thrown her heart into, walking away from the church that has provided her with strength and motivation over the past nine years.

Hardy found herself caught in a crossfire between Greater Bethel's pastor, Rev. John F. White, and its former openly gay minister, Tommie Watkins, that has drained her zeal and made her reconsider her place.

Until recently Hardy served as executive director of Greater Bethel's AIDS Ministry, the first church-based effort in Miami to confront AIDS in the black community. Hardy single-handedly secured funding and oversaw a variety of AIDS programs, including counseling services, referrals, and housing. She managed a staff of seven and a $400,000 budget.

She won't be diminished: Reverend Hardy believes all souls have a place in the church
Steve Satterwhite
She won't be diminished: Reverend Hardy believes all souls have a place in the church

That was the easy part. The ministerial maverick's hard work lay in persuading community leaders and black pastors, many of whom view AIDS as God's wrath against gays and drug addicts, to open their minds and deal with the disease realistically and effectively.

In June of last year, Hardy hired Tommie Watkins to be the program director of the AIDS Ministry. A month earlier she and Watkins had established a twice-monthly religious service for gays and lesbians and their families that they called the Ministry of Reconciliation. It was the first service of its kind among more than 1000 AME Church congregations worldwide.

Reverend White, once a supporter of the project, closed the fledgling ministry in May and fired Watkins in August. He also demoted Hardy, Watkins's mentor and ally, from her position as executive director of the AIDS Ministry, leaving her dejected. "It's difficult, but [leaving Greater Bethel] is a reality I must face," Hardy says. "I don't need to be here to be diminished or feel diminished. I grew this ministry. I feel that it's mine."

If Hardy is feeling diminished, Tommie Watkins is feeling eliminated, a dramatic reversal of the warm welcome he says he received from Reverend White when he began volunteering at the church almost two years ago. Watkins had been teaching math at the Catholic Christopher Columbus High School and volunteering at Hardy's AIDS Ministry on a part-time basis. When school administrators learned of his homosexuality and his work at Greater Bethel, they refused to renew his teaching contract. (Watkins filed a complaint against Columbus High under Miami-Dade County's Human Rights Ordinance only to discover that religious institutions are exempt from the law.) Watkins joined Greater Bethel's AIDS Ministry full-time soon after.

According to Watkins, Reverend White not only welcomed him to Greater Bethel, he allowed the openly gay young man to minister from the pulpit during Sunday services and supported his efforts to seek formal ordination from the church. To the 26-year-old Watkins, it was a dream come true. "It was remarkably affirming," he recalls. "I always thought there had to be a church where I could go and be accepted. After coming out and standing for what I believe is right, finding Greater Bethel was to me God's confirmation of my actions, and His telling me this is the place where I could minister and use all my talents. I could be Tommie -- all of me -- and help people as I am. That's all I ever wanted to do."

But the honeymoon did not last. Watkins's presence bothered many of the elders in the upper tiers of the AME Church throughout Florida. The AME Board of Examiners, a regional cadre of elders, last year rejected without comment his bid for ordination despite his having completed the required coursework to become a deacon.

Watkins sought from AME elders an explanation for his rejection. Reverend White, he says, initially encouraged those efforts. But the reverend's support abruptly ended this past May. During a meeting in White's office, Watkins admits he raised his voice as he argued that he deserved an answer from the church hierarchy.

That's when Marilyn Hardy stepped into White's office. "I walked in and said, “Tommie, be quiet. You're getting ready to cut your own throat,'" Hardy recounts. "That's when [Reverend White] said, “Yes, you are cutting your throat. As a matter of fact, I'm cutting the Ministry [of Reconciliation] right now.'" And with that White killed the unique church service. He also eliminated Watkins's $33,000 position with the AIDS Ministry after Hardy refused to fire him.

Greater Bethel Church officials who spoke anonymously for this article say Reverend White was concerned that Watkins was too outspoken and that he may have been using the church to advance himself as a gay leader. "The Ministry of Reconciliation became about one particular person, not about the community," a church elder contends. "We were being used."

But Watkins and Hardy believe White's rebuke arises from the pastor's quest to be named an AME bishop. "I don't know what to make of it except I believe it's the politics of the church," Hardy says. "In order for Reverend White to be in the good graces of the hierarchy of the church, he needs to acquiesce to their way of thinking. So while he may not mind us having a gay ministry, he has decided that because the bishops have made the ruling that there is no ordination of openly gay people in the church, he would cut our program."

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