All of a sudden, they are bigots and haters — they who stood tall against discrimination, who marched and sat in, who knew better than most the pain of being told they were less than others.
They are black men, successful ministers, leaders of their community. But with Maryland poised to become the eighth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, they hear people — politicians, activists, even members of their own congregations — telling them they are on the wrong side of history, and that’s not where they usually live.
Sometimes, the pastors say, the name-calling and the anger sting.
Nathaniel Thomas spent decades as an administrator in Howard University’s student affairs office, counseling young people not only about their course work but also about their personal quests for justice. He came to the ministry at the dawn of middle age, eager to help people, and especially fellow black men, discover in the word of God a path out of despair.
Over the past couple of years, as Thomas and dozens of other black clergymen in Prince George’s County have stood on the front line of the campaign against same-sex marriage, he has come to see the revolution at hand — in his view, a rebellion against religion and tradition — as an assault on the sustainability of the black family.
Which is why Thomas and his friend Reynold Carr, director of the Prince George’s Baptist Association, are gearing up for the next battle, a statewide ballot referendum in November to challenge the legalization of same-sex marriage, which the state House of Delegates approved last Friday. The state Senate passed a measure Thursday evening; Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said he will sign the bill. The pastors are not predicting victory in a referendum, but they think they stand a better chance among voters than politicians.
“This is a cultural war, a cultural shift, and those who are in rebellion have decided to portray us as bigots and prejudiced,” says Thomas, pastor of Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church, a trim, pale-brick building across from a storage facility on a dead-end road just inside the Beltway near Pennsylvania Avenue.
He knows that some gay activists are incredulous that black ministers could oppose a civil rights initiative. “ ‘How dare a black preacher take this position,’ they say, ‘because you’ve felt this pain,’ and I have,” he says. Over the decades, he has marched for voting and housing rights and fought for equal protection for blacks.
But Thomas and the 77 other Baptist ministers in the association do not see same-sex marriage as a civil rights matter. Rather, they say, it is a question of Scripture, of whether a country based on Judeo-Christian principles will honor what’s written in Romans or decide to make secular decisions about what’s right. In Maryland, as in California and New York, opinion polls have shown that although a majority of white voters support recognition of same-sex marriage, a majority of blacks oppose it, often on religious grounds.
Thomas, 61, says a couple of young women in his church told him that maybe it’s not so bad to allow two women to join together because, in many cases, men are not in the home.
His booming voice softens: “We do have a flat tire in our community when it comes to marriage and men in the household. But do we flatten the other three tires to move forward, or do we work on fixing the flat tire? Do we give up on the lack of strong black men leading our households and justify another change in our social structure?”
Thomas has seen sermons by a few fellow preachers railing against homosexuals, calling their behavior “disgusting” and egging on congregants who shout catcalls at the mention of gay sex.
Those are errant cries, he says, that fail to honor the Christian obligation to embrace those who commit acts the Bible calls sinful.
Not long ago, Thomas says, a young gay man came to him and said, “Look, I can’t help being how I am.” The minister embraced the man.
“We are all sinners,” Thomas says. “Christ never turned anyone away. People come to us all the time with issues, some with a stealing demon, some with urges and desires. But love doesn’t mean you go along to get along. I counsel them by showing them God’s word; some receive the word, and some reject it.”
Thomas’s friend Carr, who spent 22 years leading Kent Baptist Church in Landover before taking over the Pastors Association, steps into his office in a modest house on Princess Garden Parkway in Lanham and retrieves a black leather-bound Bible.
“Sin is rebellion against God and his standards,” Carr, 67, says in the soft, lilting island tones of his native Trinidad. He opens the book to Romans 1:27.