‘Greenleaf’ portrayal of black church sexuality all too familiar

(RNS) Why is the African-American church seemingly so challenged when it comes to dealing with the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity in our congregations?


(RNS) I watched a recent episode of “Greenleaf,” the popular nighttime soap opera produced by secular saint Oprah Winfrey about a prominent African-American family and the megachurch it runs.

What occurred to me as I turned off the panel discussion that followed is that I am sick and tired of the eighth-grade-level conversation we keep having in the African-American church community when it comes to understanding, appreciating and dealing with the diversity of human sexuality.

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I know many of us think of our churches as gracious and welcoming spaces living out the commandments to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and … love your neighbor as yourself.”

In reality, however, many feel that in our houses of worship, what is really being said sounds more like: “Love only your straight, heteronormative neighbor as yourself and exclude or ignore everyone else.”

That message is tiring and life-draining for all of us who do not fit into neat little boxes of identity or orientation. Why is the African-American church seemingly so challenged when it comes to dealing with the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity in our congregations?

It seems as if African-American churches hold on to a Victorian Age understanding of human sexuality. Everything is to appear chaste, repressed and held secret.

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“Greenleaf” cast member Rick Fox stated on the recent after-show discussion that in his church growing up, “there was no display of public affection by anybody.” How telling is that? Fox said this in response to the drama surrounding the married, male couple on the show. The two characters were fond of PDA (public displays of affection) in the fictional Memphis megachurch. One of the men just also happens to be the church’s choir director.

This romantic relationship caused not only a tsunami of shade and side eyes, but it also started to have a negative impact on the church’s anniversary pledges. Nearly a third of the members of the deacon board withhold their pledges because of the presence of the affectionate couple. The first lady of the church, who really wields the power behind the scenes, decides that the gays have to go, and she fires the choir director, stating that “it was purely a financial decision.”

Rick Fox as Darius Nash and Merle Dandridge as Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf in a scene from “Greenleaf.” Photo courtesy of OWN

TV shows like “Greenleaf” can help spur conversations that seem too difficult to have in real life, but it is high time we stop letting TV shows and movies lead where our churches, community forums and schools can play a major role. We cannot leave it up to entertainers and barbershop and beauty parlor gossip.

One of the most stunning subthemes of “Greenleaf” is not the stereotypical gay choir director firing, or even the handsome questioning husband who is trying to figure out if he is gay or not (Hello, “Greenleaf” writers, the character could very well be bisexual).

The real “oh, snap!” matter is the veiled yet disturbing incestuous relationship between the prim and proper first lady and her dying father. Seeing that made my jaw drop.

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Then there’s the uncle, who was jailed and later released in a deal after accusations he had raped his niece and other young girls. When do we ever talk about such matters as a regular part of our programs and services in church? Maybe if we would stop pretending that rape and incest is not happening in our community we could finally have adult conversations about our sexuality. If we could find the spiritual courage to put down our Victorian-era Bible lessons and take on an approach to ministry that includes our diverse sexualities, African-American churches could be true incubators for social justice again. Perhaps if we did we would not feel like we were in crisis mode trying to find abducted or missing girls and boys around the nation.

A scene from the show Greenleaf on OWN. Photo courtesy of OWN

We could literally save the lives of countless homeless LGBT youth who have been thrown out into the streets like trash by their own families. We could prevent the deaths of trans women of color and be a living antidote for the stubbornly high rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in our community, rates that are largely driven by church-sanctioned stigma around sex.

Jesus said we, his disciples, had just as much if not more power to heal the sick and afflicted, but how can we heal those who do not know or even love?

Some of us are bisexual, too. There are more than just “straight and gay” people in the world, and the church needs to know and understand that. Why is talking about “all of that” important? Because we live and we are children of God, just like everybody else.

If we take the Zulu term of Ubuntu to heart, there is a “universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” If any part of the connection between us remains broken and abused, we all suffer and remain broken and abused.

Let’s get to work, church, because all of our lives are at stake.

(F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and senior affiliate chaplain at New York University working with the Student Christian Movement. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06)

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