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Seminarian speaks out for gay rights

Published: Sat, June 4, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Does God love homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people?

Is it time for the 21st- century church — particularly the black church — to do away with its traditional teaching that homosexuality is a sin?

Youngstown native TJ Williams, a seminary student, attempts to answer those questions and others in an opinion piece he has written for several newspapers.

Homosexuality and same-sex marriage issues again have made recent headlines. Last month, the Tennessee Senate put forth a bill to prevent the topic of homosexuality from being taught in public schools from kindergarten to eighth grade.

On the other side of the spectrum, last month’s Gallup poll shows that for the first time in Gallup’s tracking of the issue, a majority of Americans — 53 percent — believe same-sex marriage should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.

President Barck Obama has declared June as national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.

Equality Ohio, a Columbus-based organization that is an advocate for equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, is sponsoring several gay-pride events throughout the state, including one June 12 at the B&O Banquet Center & Park at 530 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown.

Williams returned from a session in mid-May where he joined with hundreds of clergy with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., to tell their stories to federal legislators. The HRC also works for gay, lesbian and transgender equal rights.

Williams, who is gay and just shy of 40 (his birthday is June 13), is a minister in training at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is studying for his master’s of divinity degree at New York Theological Seminary. He is a member of the Riverside Church in New York and a former member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus.

Williams, a singer, is a son of the late Cora Thomas, who was a Pentecostal evangelist in Youngstown.

I first wrote a column about him in 2002. His mission then was to educate faith communities, especially in the black- American church, on issues related to homosexuals and to provide positive avenues to help those afflicted with AIDS and HIV.

He hasn’t deviated much from that mission.

Here is his piece:

“In recent years, I have committed myself to the work of justice that speaks loudly and boldly to proclaim that God is on the side of the oppressed. As a seminarian and an African-American faith leader, I continue to hear progressive clergy speak out against sexism, poverty and economic injustice. But so many stop short of naming homophobia as an injustice.

“When I think of the children who have killed themselves after being bullied by taunts of being gay, I weep. The silence of faith leaders who support gay people privately contributes to this loss. And of course, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people and their families have become used to hearing they are not loved by God. Homophobia does violence to the well-being of our children and families — whether we are gay or straight, transgender or gender conforming. No apology after the fact can bring back a child’s life. We must speak out to stop the losses and the harm.

“There is a word of hope — there is a word of honesty to be shared. Our stories are changing history. Anti-bullying legislation, employment protection and immigration changes are all on the table so that all people can live their lives in peace, regardless of who they love or who they are. Our stories — our truth telling — is making a difference.

“I submit that the message of Scripture is good news for the oppressed. Hearing the stories of gay and lesbian youth and families is hearing [about] liberation and freedom. It is also my story as an African-American man studying to be a pastor. The gospel infused into our African-American stories created black theology and the black church because we heard the stories of those crying out for justice and understood that God walked with us.

“Gay and lesbian folks have always been part of the black church. Whether in the choir, the pulpit or the pews, we have been there. Today, we long for words of hope and honesty from our gospel singers, our preachers and our neighbors. But, too often, homophobia is heard in the pulpit, and people take the message of bad news for gay and transgender people into their jobs, schools and neighborhoods. Without a word of encouragement, we are left with the discouraging message that gay and transgender lives and stories are to be ignored at best and condemned at worst.

“The stories about God in the Bible tell us that God is with us and that we do not have to be afraid to be prophetic. Being a prophet is simply a matter of speaking the truth. The truth is, that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people are created by God and loved by God. And God has already honored gay rights. Therefore, it’s time for church to catch up with God. We [gay people] have always been part of the church and all faith traditions. It’s time to tell our stories. It’s time to tell the truth.”

Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly column. Contact him at ebrown@vindy.com.

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