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

All God's Children (Except Some)

To be black and gay in America is difficult enough. But to be a gay black clergyman seeking official sanction from one of the spiritual cornerstones of African-American life is beyond difficult. As Rev. Tommie Watkins discovered recently, it's impossible -- at least for now.

Watkins preaches at the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he leads a gay and lesbian congregation he calls the Ministry of Reconciliation. He made his disappointing discovery October 3 in Melbourne, where he traveled in hopes the 213-year-old religious institution's South Florida chapter would ordain him as a deacon at its annual conference. If ordained Watkins would become the first openly gay member of the AME hierarchy.

He arrived at Melbourne's Greater Allen Chapel AME Church during a break in a heavy downpour. Inside the sanctuary elegantly dressed women cooled themselves with fans that advertised a local funeral home, while men in dark suits shook hands and joked with one another. As the air conditioning quietly succumbed to the heat and humidity rising from the crowd, elderly ladies wearing white gloves busily set up folding chairs in the narrow aisles and urged those sitting in the pews to make room for late arrivals.

All were gathered for the AME's Eleventh Episcopal District annual conference, at which hundreds of congregants, from Melbourne to Key West, would set policy, select new leaders, and chart a course for the coming year. Though few realized it, this year's conference held the possibility of marking a new era for the historic church, which was established in Philadelphia in 1787 by freed slaves who'd been prohibited from worshipping in white churches.

The supreme leader of Florida's six AME regions, Bishop John Hurst Adams, told the assembly to prepare for a socially progressive millennium. The church already had broken tradition earlier this year, when Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie was ordained as its first female bishop. “We're going to be sensitive to issues and calls of support before us,” Bishop Adams declared from a table in front of the altar. “Leadership is expanding the definition of what is possible where issues like justice, fairness, and opportunity are concerned.”

Behind a pulpit to the bishop's left, about fifteen church elders were gathered. One by one they approached a microphone and read the names and brief biographies of those who would lead the church into the 21st Century. New officers with titles such as licentiates, deacons, and elders were nominated for Bishop Adams's approval.

Squeezing into the last row of pews, Watkins sat expectantly. Two years of ecumenical study, which he completed this past summer, had qualified him for ordination as a deacon, and finally, almost two hours into the seemingly interminable roll call, his name was due to be announced. But the elders' alphabetical list jumped from “Thomas” to “Williams.” Watkins got up and quietly walked out of the church.

Bishop Adams's pronouncement that the AME Church was ready to break new ground evidently contained unspoken limits. Watkins and his gay and lesbian brethren, it seemed, stood outside those limits. Though crestfallen, Watkins claimed he wasn't really surprised. “This tells me it's just going to take some time,” he conceded shortly after the meeting. His personal struggle to forge a new path for the church would continue, though as this official rejection made obvious, it was not going to be easy. But then, doing the easy thing has not been the 25-year-old minister's style.

Since coming out of the closet three years ago, Watkins has waged several battles, publicly and privately, against homophobia. He was pressured to resign from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1997, when a fellow midshipman with whom he claims to have had a relationship accused him of sexual harassment. (Watkins has denied the harassment allegation.) He sued the navy this past June after the service sought to charge him nearly $90,000 in tuition for the three years Watkins attended the academy. (The navy seeks such reimbursement when a midshipman leaves the academy voluntarily or because of misconduct. Watkins claims he was unfairly forced to resign. His lawsuit is pending before a federal judge in Baltimore.)

Following his breach with the navy, Watkins finished his degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and then moved to Miami in 1998. The following year he began teaching mathematics at Christopher Columbus High, a private Catholic school. This past June Watkins filed a complaint under the county's human-rights ordinance after the school declined to renew his contract following publication of an article in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel describing his gay and lesbian ministry at Greater Bethel, located at 245 NW Eighth St. (After an investigation the county closed the case, because the human-rights ordinance does not apply to religious organizations.)

These public conflicts, however, do not compare with his most personal one. Watkins's parents, devout Southern Baptists from Birmingham, Alabama, have distanced themselves from their son since he revealed his sexuality. He hasn't spoken with them since he filed the lawsuit against the navy.

The family ostracism, he says today, has only strengthened his religious faith and motivated him to help others who are rebuffed because they are gay. His Ministry of Reconciliation strives to aid in healing the emotional wounds suffered by those whose sexual orientation has led to them being abandoned by church and family. “If certain people can't come to God's house and serve, where are they going to go?” Watkins asks.

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.”

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.”


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