By Bert Montgomery
Richard “Dick” Brogan was a personal friend and one of my heroes. Dick was a white Mississippi Baptist minister who worked tirelessly to build relationships between whites and blacks during segregation and even up until he passed away last year.
Not so long ago Dick was followed, harassed, threatened and derided because he not only dared speak against segregation, but he dared to act as if in Christ there really was no black or white. Shortly before he died, Dick, a veteran of the civil-rights movement, said that gay rights is today’s gospel movement. I believe he was right.
Consider the role of black churches in leading the civil-rights movement, and the role of white churches resisting it. Though Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers found liberation and hope in the Bible, some white preachers remained silent while many others openly preached segregation and racial inequality as biblically sound.
With a clear conscience, white church deacons and Sunday school teachers witnessed (and some participated in) lynchings, cross burnings, bombings and mob violence against marchers and sit-in participants. Stories abound in Mississippi of deacons at white churches armed with guns protecting the dignity of worship for the white folks within. They were, after all, defending “the way God intended things to be.” After all, black people were tolerated just fine as long as “they stayed in their place.”
A Baptist Broadman Commentary from 1970 reminds us that “The people of God are called to renewal in each successive era of their existence.” In the 1950s and 1960s Baptist preachers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Dick Brogan followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit and called the people of God to renewal in a new era of their existence. Through them, God was transforming the religious life of his people, often meeting the greatest resistance through the “guardians” of the truth and the faith.
Jesus pleaded with the religious establishment of his day to “open the life of Israel to the power of the work of the Holy Spirit.” The larger religious community’s response to Jesus was his crucifixion. And so King, Brogan and others made the same plea. The response to them were death threats, violence, exile and, for King, assassination.
Now we are in the midst of another renewal, a new set of leaders pleading with the guardians of the Christian establishment to open the life of the church to the power of the Holy Spirit already at work. Some of the same words are being exchanged and variations of the same expressions of hatred are emerging in response.
A growing number of “gay churches” and welcoming and affirming groups are pleading with the larger Christian community to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit among the gay and lesbian community. And, many of the long-standing institutionalized “straight churches” are actively resisting the work of God among those whom the “religious guardians” insist are not worthy.
“They want their children to go to school with our children! They want to live in the neighborhood we live in! They want the same rights we have!”
“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” straight Christians smugly joke. “It’s the natural order of things.”
And with clear consciences, good church-goers will openly bully, harass and tease their gay neighbors, trying to get the gays back in the closet, to “keep them in their place.”
Despite what almost every single church sign says, openly LGBT people are NOT welcomed in most churches across the South and across America. There may not be deacons armed with guns to keep them out, but Sunday school lessons, book studies and sermons tell them to stay either in the closet or out of the church.
When bullying leads to suicide, at best the church at large sits in silence. At worst, it leads the attack. Many Baptist pastors are pressured to stay quiet on the issue, while others verbally terrorize LGBT people sitting quietly in their pews, living quietly in their families, and working quietly in their communities.
Sometimes I am asked why I continue to write and speak about being a gay-friendly Baptist minister. Then a fellow Baptist pastor answers for me by making national news acting like a 1950s Southern governor justifying racial segregation.
And like Dick Brogan, deep in my heart, I do believe that blacks, whites, gays and straights will walk hand-in-hand some day.