‘Holy Queer’ author seeks Black church inclusion beyond singing with choir

‘I focus on the Black church in my criticism because I love it,’ said the Rev. Karmen Michael Smith, author of ‘Holy Queer.’

“Holy Queer: The Coming Out of Christ” by the Rev. Karmen Michael Smith. Courtesy photos

(RNS) — The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith wants to clean house — specifically what he sees as the lack of full openness by the Black church to people like him.

The author of the new book “Holy Queer: The Coming Out of Christ” said he expects its title will attract attention, but he aims to create a better understanding of himself, a self-described queer Black man, and others like him who seek affirmation instead of rejection in Black church circles.

On Friday (Feb. 24), the day after the release of the book, Smith sounded similar themes as he co-hosted a symposium on “The State of the Black Church: Reconciling Communities and Reimagining Inclusion” at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He directs the seminary’s social justice center and leads its justice, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“The God that we serve doesn’t only bless one and let everybody else sit by and wonder why,” he said in opening remarks for the event co-hosted with Pride in the Pews, an organization that supports Black LGBTQ Christians. “And that same inclusive spirit is what we are seeking to have within the Black church and the Black community.”

In his critique of the Black church — its congregations and its denominations — Smith said in an interview that he hopes to link the story of Jesus leaving his tomb to a form of resurrection for both the Black community and the LGBTQ people in it who are “often talked to and talked about but rarely listened to.”

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“I wanted to put flesh on the experience of what it’s like to grow up in the Black church and be a part of this community that is marginalized and is a minority,” said Smith, 44, “but then you’re a minority within a minority.”

Smith, an ordained nondenominational Christian minister, talked with Religion News Service about his “holy queer” theology, how growing up in the Black church influenced him and whether he thinks Jesus is gay.

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith co-hosts a symposium on “The State of the Black Church: Reconciling Communities and Reimagining Inclusion” at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Video screen grab

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith co-hosts a symposium on “The State of the Black Church: Reconciling Communities and Reimagining Inclusion” at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Video screen grab

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You called your book “Holy Queer: The Coming Out of Christ.” Some would say that’s a provocative title. What are you trying to say with those words?

It is a provocative title, so I agree with you. I had called this book something else and woke up one day and I heard in my quiet time what I know to be the voice of God that said, “Call it ‘Holy Queer,’” and I actually jolted for a second. I was, like, wait, what? Then it came to me that this was like a coming out of Christ. And I get that people will immediately see that and either be intrigued or turned off. Yet, it is exactly what this book is about. It is about the divinity of those who identify as queer and how divine queerness is.

You seem to have a deep love for music but see that as where the Black church has often drawn the line with LGBTQ people, with you and other musicians being, as you said, “good enough to sing in the choir and sing solos that made churches ‘go up’ praising and shouting, but everything else about me was intolerable.” How did that dichotomy affect you then, and does it play a role in who you are today?

Yes, it affected me then because I feel like it taught me to compartmentalize. I wanted community and belonging like everybody else, so I was willing to partition myself to be included. And today it’s a trait that I have to unlearn as well. It’s an everyday practice of the very human desire to want community and belonging and to feel loved and seen and heard, and at the same time knowing your worth.

You note a range of theologians — including Black, white, feminist, womanist, Indigenous, Asian and queer — who have offered what you describe as liberating theologies but do not include you. How is your theology different?

It’s different because none of those people grew up in small-town Texas and went to Bethlehem Baptist Church or lived the distinct experience of being Black and marginalized and then also queer. There is no hierarchy on suffering, but it is a distinct experience.

Part of your book focuses on a verse in the Gospel of John that says, “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.” You interpret that as a source of comfort for LGBTQ people, but you also ask if this implies that Jesus is gay. How do you answer that question?

It’s not as simple an answer as “Is Jesus gay?” or “Is Jesus straight?” Christ is all and if Christ is all, then Christ is all things, so that is Black, that is queer, that is gay, that is straight, that is Indian. Christ is all things.

You also said, “God understands what it is to be a Black queer person … because God became a Black queer person in the form of Jesus.” So do you mean, based on what you just said, that this is an example of the inclusivity of God rather than you’re describing the sole way you view Jesus?

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith. Courtesy photo

Yes. To quote bell hooks: Queer, not as in who you are sleeping with — because that’s what people’s minds go to first, which can be a part of queerness — but queer as in, at odds with everything around you, as Jesus was at odds at the entire system around him.

Are there some congregations or some historically Black denominations that you consider welcoming and affirming of Black LGBTQ people?

Those are two separate things, by the way. To be inclusive means that yes, come into the congregation. To be affirming means that you have welcomed in and created a space where we see you, acknowledge you, there’s programming for you, there’s ministries for you. And there are some individual congregations around the country that do this. But as denominations, as whole organizations and bodies, there are zero. And it speaks volumes to know that, even as a marginalized community, there are still pastors and churches that feel the need to be subversive to the larger denomination that they are part of because they are following what they believe is a path of love for all.

You said denominational divisions have done a “grave injustice” to the Black community. What did you mean by that?

We’ve turned them into respectability clubs. It gives a sense of who does it right, who worships the right way. Those people can wear makeup and earrings. We don’t do that because that’s a Jezebel.

And so it continues to divide an already divided people historically, from the moment we were brought into places like Gorée Island in Senegal to be shipped up. It continues to divide and to divide into who gets to really own God, who knows the right one way of having God. And I think that’s detrimental to a community that was divided without even our permission.

You wrote that there is a “danger in making meaning of texts” or “over-dramatizing.” Is your approach, your “holy queer” theology, something that you pursue with some level of caution or some level of hesitation?

Yes and no. This was given to me divinely, I truly believe. But there is a cautiousness of not wanting to divide people but to bring people together. And, am I saying this correctly? Will people hear the message, the call for unity and love in what I’m writing, and it not be reduced to just some gay book?

Do you anticipate that non-Black people will read this?

Yes. Absolutely. It’s not at the exclusion of. I focus on the Black church in my criticism because I love it. But it’s also that what the Black church produces, the world emulates. I’m focusing on this specific community in which I live. But as my grandmother would say, I’m cleaning up my house first.

This coverage is presented with the support of the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

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