Formed in 1957 from a merging of three churches whose origins are between 300 to 400 years old, the United Church of Christ (UCC) is about as establishment as a national religious institution can be in the United States. So, whatever your personal take on Christianity, or religion in general, Darrell Goodwin’s ascension to the lofty height of Executive Conference Minister is a surprising and significant development.
How did this happen in a small ‘C’ conservative, overwhelmingly white church at a time of open cultural hostilities between many people of faith and others in American public life?
Perhaps a key to understanding Goodwin’s election is his self-declared status as a “translator … especially for people who grew up in fairly conservative and painful religious settings … into a welcoming, loving and accepting space.” Reverend Darrell Goodwin is also unhesitant in declaring the Black Lives Matter movement was a hugely influential factor in his attaining his new role, which he is due to start in January 2021.
His start date does not give the United Church of Christ much time to prepare for the dramatic changes he plans for the 600+ churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island for which he will “set the tone”. His mainly white flock will have to get used to the idea of his being a decidedly progressive voice. In a recent interview with blackgayblog.com, he explicitly references the UCC’s obligation to reach out to racially diverse audiences, African- Americans and LGBTQ communities in particular, and what he describes as “economic justice” and “social advocacy.”
How will the United Church of Christ respond to the challenge their radical departure from “cisgender, white, straight, older men” traditionally elected to this role presents? Given the scale of his welcome — a virtually unanimous vote in favour by 600-odd delegates, representing hundreds of congregations and tens of thousands of people — a schism among the faithful of any significance seems unlikely, at least in the short-term. But could this departure be an example of being careful of what you pray for?
Reverend Darrell Goodwin has already disclosed the hostility and even threats he’s received, months before he takes up his new role. He’s blocking around thirty people a day on social media. He is painfully aware that as a queer African-American, he’s an embodiment of the people white ‘Christian’ fundamentalists love to hate. His appointment is not only personally risky for him, but also for his family, colleagues, and perhaps even his congregants.
When he talks about the need to provide “brave spaces” for people of colour and queer people, where they feel no pressure or obligation to explain their oppressions, he could be talking about himself (and who knows — perhaps he is).
One of Goodwin’s most affecting reflections is that people who profess to share his faith reject his right to share in it himself. Evangelical Christians have long been outspoken in condemning queer relationships. If anything, this tendency has intensified over the last couple of decades, if not longer. He observes that racist hatred is more likely to be codified and condemned by the wider Christian demographic, while homophobia is quite widely regarded as scripturally justified.
“I don’t expect any member of a church will say the N-word to me, but I think that they’ll engage with me in ways that make me feel like the word is being used,” he says.
The second half of Darrell’s interview with our editor Paul Boakye is more personal and intimate than the first. Goodwin reflects on his journey from a committed heterosexual relationship to the liberation and transformation he realised in fully becoming himself. He is, after all, a person of faith, a theologian and a same-gender-loving Black man. His relationship with his paternal grandmother is particularly striking in this context, as he movingly describes a parallel journey she has made in coming to terms with, and then, embracing him.
Here is a story of adversity that avoids mawkishness or cliché. It’s a story of overcoming that avoids preaching, which is some achievement from a pastor! It’s also a tale of hope that avoids over-optimism or naïveté. Above all, it’s a story that emphatically demonstrates how much authenticity and determination can deliver, both personally and for the people we love and are lucky enough to be loved by in return.
Are You a Queer Person of Faith?
Watch the Rev. Darrell Goodwin Interview.
Reverend Goodwin’s swift rise within a collection of churches that were once a part of the Amistad trials in the foundation of the United States of America is far from over. Yet, somehow, we sense the potential for tragedy is very real, substantial and uncomfortably close. But all these things make his story worth telling and revisiting — something which we will do as this African-American queer, brave and bold faith leader continues what we can only hope is a long and successful journey, for him, his family, friends and followers.
Whatever your position on faith (and this writer is not in any way religious), one thing is certain: it isn’t going anywhere soon. Darrell Goodwin’s story is a much-needed demonstration that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There is still space for progressive engagement, in which all of us who believe in progressive agendas can profit from working together and supporting each other within.
- You may also enjoy Homosexuality in The Sanctified Black Church.