On the book at issue in the recent Buzz Café cancellation, the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds has a particularly informed take. He is a gay black man who, as a pastor, has paid the price of coming out. This spring, he arrived as transitional pastor at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park. Three years ago, in Colorado, the congregation he grew up in dismissed him when he spoke up about his sexual orientation.
The condemnation of gayness in Cornelius Williams' book Transition: From Homosexual to Preacher concerns Reynolds. In his own struggle, "ex-gay" isn't an option. Reynolds says some religions that condemn gay people do so largely on the basis of a literal reading of the Bible. Similar methods of interpretation, he says, have even justified slavery and oppressing women's rights.
"These historical precedents, in my mind, are no different than the experiences lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have in our society today," he said. "We have become the 'great evil' of our society, and been denied civil and human rights not because of the Bible, but because of biblical interpretation and religious teachings based on fear and prejudice."
In a report published in 2005 by the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health, Elijah Ward wrote: "Both directly and indirectly, black churches have been identified as fostering homophobia ... Indeed, theologically driven homophobia, aided by black nationalist ideology, supports a strong and exaggerated sense of masculinity within black communities that, along with homophobia, takes a significant but generally unexamined psychic and social toll on people's lives."
Reynolds can testify to the accuracy of Ward's statement. In 2006, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, a congregation that grew from 125 members in 1992 to as many as 1,500 while under his leadership, voted to dismiss him as senior pastor after he came out at a congregational meeting.
Indeed, the term transitional is apt for Reynolds. He is not only serving as the interim minister for Pilgrim but he is also on his own journey, searching for a place where he can be true to both his calling as a preacher and identity as a gay black man.
"I think I've always known that I was going to be a preacher," said Reynolds, who gave his first sermon at Emmanuel at the age of 14. "I think I've always known that I was gay, but because of my home raising and my church background there was really no room for me to be a preacher and what society calls a gay."
On his path to becoming a pastor he tried to convince himself he was straight, even to the point of getting married.
"If being gay is being against God, I didn't want to be against God," he said. "So I repressed it in order to live out my calling and be who God had created me to be."
It was a question from his daughter, who asked why he and her mom slept in separate bedrooms, that forced Reynolds to finally address the issue of his sexual orientation.
"My marriage wasn't doing well," he said. "We were a good face for the people, but we weren't having a good marriage. What I was doing to my daughter and the damage I was doing to her mother led me to the point where I felt I needed to divorce."
During his divorce, Reynolds enrolled at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver where for the first time he found language that gave him faith he could be both gay and a Christian minister. At the same time, he had become the primary care giver to his gay younger brother, who died two years later from complications with HIV.
"Through that journey," he said, "one of the freeing things my brother gave me was that I should live my life as who I am. His freedom in life and death enabled me to come to some rationale about that."
While at Iliff, Reynolds discovered how resistant his church was to having a gay man be a minister of the gospel. On the night he came out, one of the deacons approached him and said, "Everyone in this church knows that you are gay, but I'm mad as hell that you told us."
A move, a rebirth
Leaving Emmanuel was painful for Reynolds, who had grown up in the congregation and formed many close ties there.
"I spent a couple years really grieving that," he said. "In 2006, I found myself in a place where I had lost everything that had meant anything to me. I lost my church family. I lost a lot of relationships."
He moved to Chicago in 2008 to begin work on a doctorate focusing on theology and sexuality at the Chicago Theological Seminary, hoping to teach at a seminary and become a pastor with a congregation upon graduation.
"After not knowing who I really was in the world, I found myself in the place of reinventing myself, of becoming brand new, a rebirth kind of thing."
Reynolds believes his rebirth has allowed him to find his voice as a "preacher/teacher/prophet/pastor" who speaks truth to power.
"By developing a better sexual understanding within the context of society will enable us to celebrate and recognize the fullness of humanity as well as our common need for intimate, loving relationships with people and with God," he said. "It will also enable the Christian community to begin to shape our sexual ethics and behavior in more affirmative, life-giving and creative ways."
He interviewed for the position at Pilgrim Congregational Church this spring and began his ministry there in May. He sees some parallels between himself and the congregation he now serves, saying that both are in a transition seeking language to more precisely define who they are.
A rebirth for Pilgrim too
Members said goodbye to their pastor, Jan Powell, in January and were involved in the process of finding a new one. In compliance with their denomination's guidelines and to facilitate their search for a new senior pastor, they formed a Visioning Task Force with the purpose of precisely articulating their direction for the congregation. However, they do not see the changes they are experiencing as being as radical as those of their interim pastor.
Ardith Hayes, who serves on the task force, said congregations tend to change gradually rather than reinvent themselves in a short time.
"Our identity has not changed," she said. "Vision and mission ... evolve as our context and our membership change and as we grow in understanding how best to live our faith. Inevitably, the culture around us changes - demographically, in religious expectations, in the socio-economic circumstances in which people find themselves."
"Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has borrowed the motto: Never put a period where God has placed a comma."
Joel Sheffel, who volunteers as a sound engineer for Pilgrim and has been a member for more than nine years, knows all about radical change. He actually changed religions when he was baptized as an adult. He agrees with Hayes that the change the congregation is going through should not be called a reinvention.
"It's not an old identity that needs to be let go of," he said, "but it's newer identities which need to be added to who Pilgrim is."
Sheffel said he joined the congregation because it was welcoming and accepting of diversity. He is currently focusing on improving Pilgrim's ministry to people with disabilities.
Candace Enockson, a council member, said that for most of Pilgrim's members Reynolds' sexual orientation was a non-issue.
"Pilgrim is a community of people who care about each other and who share a real desire to be inclusive," she said. "Our vision is to be intentional in that inclusivity. Who he is and what he preaches are what matter."
So far, both pastor and congregation believe this interim arrangement has been a good fit. Mary Altenbaumer, a member for almost five years, said, "I've had several people approach me and say, 'the search committee really did a good job!' "
Stuart Barnes-Jamieson added, "As the longest Pilgrim member on the Visioning Task Force, I feel like I have seen God at work in many exciting ways at Pilgrim in the past. I think what is ahead of us will be very different, but it too will be exciting and blessed by God!"