E. Dewey Smith, pastor of House of Hope in Atlanta, GA, has made waves over his comments concerning the treatment of gay people in churches. You can watch the video below.
This isn’t the first time that Smith has stepped into the stormy waters of sexuality in the Black church. He’s also made comments earlier in the summer, where he voiced his beliefs concerning marriage and admonished preachers for their hypocrisy concerning other issues. Last year, Smith retweeted openly gay Bishop Yvette Flunder, which raised eyebrows for many onlookers. Given the time span over which these events have taken place, it is safe to assume that Smith’s thoughts have been developing on this matter.
Smith should be commended for initiating this conversation in spaces where it normally does not take place. He also should be praised for wrestling with these issues in places that are historically antagonistic toward LGBT people. The discussion of full inclusion in Black Christian denominations often takes place in seminaries, divinity schools, and other liberal religious arenas. The people who need to hear the conversation most are usually not in attendance. Many Black Christians, gay or otherwise, are unaware that more progressive lines of thinking even exist. His comments pose a risk to his career and network that should not be ignored. Much of LGBT oppression in Black churches is upheld by an Old Boys’ Network, where people who are too divergent in their theology are shut out of lucrative ministry opportunities. Smith broke away from that mindset.
However, there is a rush to appoint Smith as a full-fledged ally to the LGBT cause. This is where caution needs to be exercised. He has yet to say that being gay or otherwise queer in not a sin. Smith does not say that being LGBT is a gift from God, or that it is blessing, or that people in the community are living out who God created them to be. What he does is highlight the hypocrisy of how gay people are treated based on how much the church body at large consumes from them. If anything, Smith is saying that being gay is no worse than any other sin, so it is wrong to treat gay people worse than everyone else. The unfortunately reality is that even a statement such as this is groundbreaking in many Black churches, but they do not signal a desire for full inclusion. Smith’s comments fall in line with many mainline denominations and churches: acknowledging the sacredness of all humanity but labeling homosexuality a sin.
There may be more that Smith has to say about inclusion that he has not yet said publicly. That is to be expected with a topic like this. It takes time and energy to unravel old thoughts and theology. Change does not happen overnight. He may arrive at a place in his journey where he is openly affirming. But his comments up to the present do not present an affirming message. Smith has not arrived there yet. Public support of marriage equality, which is now the law of the land, does not automatically make one affirming. What about ordaining gay clergy? What about the full access of areas of leadership for LGBT people? Would he marry a same-sex couple? These ideas could be coming down the pike, but until they come from his mouth, optimism should be tempered with caution.
There is something to be said for Smith’s words giving people hope in those spaces. We can never know how many people were touched, ministered to, and inspired to carry on. It is highly probable that one less suicide note was written and one fewer parent threw their child out of the house as a result of his comments. Smith’s words are likely the first time someone has ever heard anything approaching an affirming message from a Black preacher. That positive impact should not be diminished, but it does not need to be in order to acknowledge the areas where Smith’s comments still fall short. He is on a journey. He has gone further than many preachers in his position would dare. He has yet to fully affirm LGBT people. It is best to acknowledge the flowers that have bloomed along the way instead of forcing fruit to bear before its time.
NOTE: E. Dewey Smith has clarified his statements. He does not consider himself an ally and still considers same-sex marriage and homosexuality sin. Read his and his church’s words here.