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Pride in the Pews encourages Black churches to welcome LGBTQ people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's been a lot of change in recent years when it comes to Christianity and homosexuality. Although it's still a contentious issue in some denominations, there's been an increase in the number of so-called welcoming churches, gay marriages performed in churches and openly gay pastors. One minister in Chicago wants to see Black churches in particular become more affirming of LGBTQ people. So he started a ministry called Pride in the Pews. From member station WBEZ, Adora Namigadde reports.

ADORA NAMIGADDE, BYLINE: Reverend Don Abram dresses his slight frame neatly with Navy chinos and a crisp button-up shirt. The 28-year-old grew up worshipping at a church he describes as...

DON ABRAM: A hand-clapping, toe-tapping Black church on the South Side of Chicago.

NAMIGADDE: He even started preaching at that church when he was 14. Then, he says, churches across the country invited him to speak and spread his message.

ABRAM: As folks saw that there was a young man who was really excited and on fire about God.

NAMIGADDE: But Abram says when he began openly identifying as queer, it all came to a screeching halt.

ABRAM: The church that loved me and that raised me and reared me nearly turned its back on me.

NAMIGADDE: He felt alone, isolated and depressed. There are 1.2 million adults who identify as Black and LGBTQ, according to the Williams Institute, a UCLA Law School think tank that focuses on gender and sexuality. It says 71% of those adults are religious. Many still seek a connection with the church, all the while grappling with its stance on homosexuality.

ABRAM: I had to go through the journey of reconciling my faith and my sexuality.

NAMIGADDE: Which he did when he attended Harvard Divinity School. And he launched Pride in the Pews in 2020.

ABRAM: Our ultimate goal is to invite the Black church back into the public square and into advocacy for all of those who are on the margins of society, including LGBTQ+ Christians.

NAMIGADDE: So for the last year, he's traveled the country, hosting Pride in the Pews workshops in states like Georgia, Texas and New York and recently in Illinois. Each workshop is a chance for Abram to ask people if their church not only welcomes queer folks but uplifts and affirms them.

ABRAM: We'll go ahead and jump in. Just opening up the floor to some questions.

NAMIGADDE: On a recent Saturday morning, Abram met with 10 people at Second Baptist Church in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago. He taped signs on the walls displaying a five-step scale he's developed. And he asked congregants to rank how welcoming the church is by standing next to a specific sign. The scale stretches from antagonizing queer communities to advocating for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can we be, like, kind of antiquarian on this, too?

(LAUGHTER)

NAMIGADDE: Most gathered under the laminated sign that says accepting. Anthony Agee, a member of the church, said he chose that sign because he thinks Second Baptist has not explicitly communicated with the congregation where it stands.

ANTHONY AGEE: There are members who are maybe accepting and, I think, would be affirming if that was explained to them. We never took the opportunity to say we are an affirming community.

NAMIGADDE: During the three-hour workshop, the group talked about ways to make their church more welcoming to queer people. Abrams says this type of work helps churches soberly identify where they stand. Pastor Eddie Journey, who invited Abram to Second Baptist, says this discussion about the LGBTQ community is a crucial one.

EDDIE JOURNEY: Churches that don't answer this question or have an answer for those individuals, I don't believe we'll exist in 20 years.

NAMIGADDE: For his part, Pastor Abram believes the ideal church isn't advocating one, although he knows his theology is controversial, even erroneous to many Christians. But to Abram, arguing theology is a waste of time. He wants to work with churches that are open to having this conversation, whether they're liberal or conservative.

ABRAM: We're interested in meeting you where you are so that LGBTQ+ folk don't experience as much harm, as much violence, as much theological sort of berating as they do now.

NAMIGADDE: Abraham says Pride in the Pews is part of his life's mission, something he'll continue in the hopes of making Black churches more welcoming to LGBTQ individuals looking for a place to worship. For NPR News, I'm Adora Namigadde in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adora Namigadde