When I was fourteen, a school friend accompanied me to an evening service at my church. I won’t mention the denomination, but it was then, and still is, the largest Pentecostal Black church in the UK.
I watched her veer from sheer fright when “the spirit broke out” to complete amazement when the choir sang or the musicians jammed. Coming from a family of atheists and agnostics, this experience made the Black church especially exciting and appealing to her. “You’re so lucky to be a part of such an exciting church…” she chirped on the way home and incessantly every day for three months.
My father was an assistant pastor in our church. My siblings and I had never known anything different. The church was our life. Our life was our church. My parents made sure we could never forget it. There were the fervent fire and brimstone preaching, and the speaking in tongues. There was the rebuking of demons that occasionally had the audacity to walk in on one of my father’s sermons. Then came the prophesying, the healing, and the back benching of disobedient saints. The stringent rules and the making up of testimonies followed. These all served to publicly demonstrate to the congregation that my father’s sanctification was still very much intact. In turn, this ensured that he was never back-benched.
Never swim in the same pool as the opposite sex. Girls never wearing make-up, trousers, or jewellery. The constant reminders that we were born of the flesh and, therefore, into sin and could never be worthy. All these preachings were his absurd rules that seemed very natural to me at the time. My attendance at prayer meetings, building programs, Sunday services and annual conventions, consisted of studying music and making up cruel pseudonyms for elderly church members. Children can be cruel. And for a while, the fusion of Afro-Caribbean and African-American spirituals seemed to make all the rules, dogmas and absurd assertions worthwhile.
This was the late 1970’s pushing into the early eighties. I was a first-generation British-born Black man of Jamaican parents who were intent on never diluting the ‘word of God.’ Up until this point in my adolescence, I cannot recall ever-hearing sermons pertaining to sexuality. It was only over time that I became bored, aggravated, and paranoid by what I was now hearing, and had no doubt heard throughout my life.
“God made Adam and Eve. He never make Adam and Steve. It is an abomination onto the word of God; the mark of the Devil; a lie.”
This kind of rhetoric would reverberate, dictate, and gradually haunt me to this day. For all of my apparent ignorance, I could neither deny nor ignore what my eyes, hormones, and libido were telling me. I WAS A HOMOSEXUAL.
I masked my shame well. Much to my parent’s satisfaction. I threw myself into extra curriculum activities in both church and school. My A-Level grades gave me ample choices for higher education. I chose The University of London and majored in Computer Science. ‘I flew the nest’ when my parents secured accommodation for me with a pastor in South London. He was from the same denomination as our family. University years flew by not in a blur of copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, or orgies, but with the church, study, and sleep. My constant prayers, fasting, and repentance did little or nothing to eradicate my shame. So grew my depression and self-loathing.
Upon graduating, I secured a job with a well-known software developer for whom I still work. Another two years rapidly passed, as did my life, or rather lack of it. I decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and nervously ventured to the West End one night. There, I got hopelessly drunk and ended up in ‘Heaven’ (hmmm). This is still very much all of a blur to me, except my elation, surprise and disgust at seeing other Black gay men. I was not alone in my illness, deviation, possession, and disloyalty to God. Misery loves company. It would not be long before I found my way onto the Black gay circuit. In 1987, this primarily consisted of The Market Tavern (mixed – Black and white), Benjy’s on the Old Kent Road (mixed – Black and white), and many Black late-night house parties around London almost every weekend.
I saw countless men that I knew from the Gospel fraternity of our church. I had long since left religion behind with its piety, prejudice, and hypocrisy. However, many of these ‘brothers’ were still actively involved. I knew that my eventual ‘outing’ was inevitable. In that, I had no doubt. But from my own church-brethren – that was a shock. Most of them, I know, have perfected the art of leading double lives. Being pleased on Saturday night by a man, and pleasing God in church on Sunday, made everyone happy. Or were they, are they, will they ever be truly happy?
I have seen church folks lay hands on a young Black man in an attempt to exorcise the demon of homosexuality. This, just three days after he had been discharged from The Maudsley Hospital for mental illness. Barely lucid, and on a cocktail of Lithium, Imipramine, Amitriptyline, and Nortriptyline: do you think that our black church members managed to convince him that he was possessed? Or do you think that these bright, highly intelligent, well-educated people could see that they were only contributing to his illness? Two further nervous breakdowns ensued, as did two more exorcisms. He’s dead now.
If the Black church were to remove every homosexual from its ranks there would be no more choir, half the pastors would vanish, and some of the sisters would not be getting sexed as regularly as they do currently. I know HIV-positive men in the church who refuse to wear a condom because it might suggest – what exactly? The Black church’s selective criminalisation of one sin over another is not only against its own doctrines, but it is also wicked. How many more of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and children do we have to bury (or ostracise) before we see?
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