Exhibit explores African American church’s relationship to LGBTQ community

The exhibit Seeing the Future of the African American Church in the Rainbow, currently on display at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur hosted by its Center for Lifelong Learning, invites visitors to study its portrait photos “to attempt to feel what their subjects…have felt as Christians who have been mistreated by the church they love and serve.” The 13 images are of Black “LGBTQ pastors, lay leaders, and queer allies.”

Ralph Basui Watkins, Columbia Theological Seminary’s Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth, who created the exhibit, calls himself “the scholar with a camera.” The project, developed during a recent sabbatical, “grew out of his commitment to invite the African American church to conversations leading to liberation and radical inclusion,” the exhibit description states.

“The images in this work are of bishops, pastors, clergy, and lay leaders who demand you look at them in the eyes. See them in the church. They sit in these spaces, alone, yet the light of God shines on them. These images are portraits of dignity in the hues that call attention to their humanity and the fact that lesbians, gays, transgender, queer, and queer allies are created in the image of God,” the artist statement reads in part.

“Creating this body of work with my LGBTQ siblings was a life changing experience,” Watkins said in the announcement of the exhibit. “To hear the stories, look into the eyes of those who sat for portraits, hear them tell the stories on film will forever change you.”

The exhibit, in the lobby outside the campus’ Harrington Center Chapel, includes—in addition to the portraits—paintings, quotes, and other displays. The full project includes videos of those in the portraits and others discussing the often-controversial issue of acceptance of LGBTQ people in traditional Black churches.

According to studies done by the Pew Research organization, fewer than 50 percent of Black American church goers support same-sex marriage.

“At the very core of the Gospel is the liberation of all who are oppressed,” the artist statement notes. “The work is founded on a commitment to freeing the African American church of heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia. It calls for the African American church to affirm and celebrate that all of God’s people are created in the image of God, that all people have the God-given right to be included in the life of the church as their authentic selves. This work challenges the mainline traditional African American church to look, hear, and engage in an active conversation that leads to liberation and radical inclusion. The African American church is challenged to live up to its claim of being a liberative church that fights on the side of the oppressed.”

“To be cut off from the Black church is really being cut off from the Black community, the Black family, because ‘ain’t no place else’ can you, just by virtue of being Black be somebody,” says Irene Monore in one of the videos. “You’re a child of God, you’re someone with dignity, you’re someone who holds promise of a new world, of God’s kingdom will be done. To be cut off from the Black church is to be cut off from your lifeline.”

Sonya Williams, another of the people featured in the exhibit, in a video that is part of the project, noted that the word “whosoever” is frequently part of Jesus’ message. “When Jesus said in John 3:16—that verse we love to quote—‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish…’ it helps me understand that everyone breathing is a ‘whosoever.’”

Another of the clergy featured in the exhibit, Troy Sanders, said he hopes to see the Black church “lean into” this issue, noting that Black churches have “a deep and long history of being the last to change.”

“There is a cure for what ails us as a people and that is for us to talk to each other. We have got to start talking about the ways in which we hurt each other and the ways in which we hurt each other also through silence, because nobody can unload the pain or the shame or the guilt by not speaking,” states project participant Marion Riggs.

The exhibit will remain open to the public through Dec. 15, 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The exhibit is housed on the second floor of the Harrington Center on the seminary campus, in the lobby adjacent to the chapel. Parking is free. Columbia Theological Seminary is located at 701 South Columbia Drive in Decatur. To view more of the project, including related videos, visit www.futureofblackchurch.org/.

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