Rev. John Vaughn, executive vice president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, came to Seattle on Sept. 26 to participate in a conversation with local black clergy about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. He visited the area ahead of the vote on Referendum 74, which, if approved, could legalize marriage equality in Washington. After the meeting, Vaughn, an ordained Baptist minister for more than 25 years, stopped by the Real Change office. We discussed inclusivity, the importance of personal stories in creating social change and how numerous black Christian leaders are on a journey as they seek to gain a deeper understanding of LGBT issues in black churches.
How do you make space for [black pastors] to talk about this journey?
They have to feel that they’re not penalized for whatever they say. We find that people are interested to explore what it means to be a Christian, to deal with the issues of people who are gay in their congregation. People are in a variety of different places: Some really are “hate the sin, love the sinner,” some are in an even more separatist place and some are really closer to being open and affirming. But I think the majority of conversations are with people in that middle space. So this is a first step in a conversation that people are really eager to have.
What made you want to facilitate these conversations?
There’s an organizational response and an individual response. So organizationally, at Auburn Seminary, we think there is a faith message in support of LGBT equality. But we’ve also found ourselves looking at how you move conflicted people of faith to
become supporters around LGBT issues. Oftentimes people of faith who have been supporters around LGBT issues will use political arguments versus talking [from] the convictions of their faith. We also felt it’s important to be in conversation with folks that don’t believe the same thing. That allows for one’s own growth, but also allows for the possibility of reaching folks who are further along on the journey than they might have thought. For us, it’s less about whether we’re shifting folks from “against” to “for,” to more about beginning to get people to speak on more authentic and deeper levels, so there’s possibilities for change, for insight.
Personally, I grew up in a very inclusive family. My stepfather was a Jamaican immigrant and Republican; my mother was a Southern Democrat. They welcomed a lot of people into our house. It was not unusual that my mother’s college professor friends would be hanging out, and father would go get the seasonal Jamaican apple or potato pickers in our house. And there were clearly folks that were lesbian and gay. That planted some really deep seeds for being open, to have the conversations with partners [you] might not necessarily have conversations with.
So I grew up in a black church, and I was a queer kid. And that was hard going. It really was. So how do you address those sorts of issues with the clergy members?
I think that as with anything, people need to hear the stories: What is it like for [LGBT] people within congregations? What’s the experience for folks? Where I think pastors really connect is in the pastoral engagement, where young people feel comfortable enough to tell their story in pastoral settings. But that isn’t every congregation.
But I feel like part of these conversations and part of this work is: How do we support pastors to continue to walk their commitment to the theology of love? What does that really mean, to be welcoming? And what are the pastoral opportunities there?
And this is why there are new expressions and new places for people to go. I don’t think this is something we shift overnight. I think it’s the importance of having pastors and laypeople — and I want to emphasize laypeople — hear the stories, [so] it doesn’t become “Oh, that’s them over there,” but “Oh, I know so and so [is gay], I know their mother, father.”
Do you think there is a different conversation that occurs with black churches than with a white church or a Latino church?
I think there’s a place where black pastors need to be talking to black pastors, Latino pastors need to be talking to Latino pastors and sometimes white pastors need to be talking to white pastors around this. Because there’s something about the particular cultural and theological expression, and the shared view and experience, that’s important, that helps provide a sense of safety. It’s not lost on me what, at times, makes these conversations work is that I’m a black man, a Baptist minister. That counts for something, and it provides [them] a willingness to say some things that they might not say in public.
One of the interesting things we’re finding, if you were talking about just civil unions, a number of pastors could actually go for that. But when you use the word “marriage,” which has these other theological constructs, then that’s a different thing, because of the way marriage has traditionally been articulated. But folks don’t necessarily have a chance to really talk about that. [And] it doesn’t make for good sound bites.
Do you think there’s a generational divide?
Absolutely. Look at the white, mainline denominations. Ten, 15 years ago, there were serious threats of division over LGBT issues. You thought there was no way there’d be civil unions, that people would be ordaining people who are out LGBT. But a good example is the Episcopal Church. There are younger priests and younger leaders. The younger generation is much more LGBT supportive. I think you’re going to start seeing it in other denominations. You see it in evangelical communities, white and black, that younger Christians are more open and tolerant than their parents around this issue.
What do people who aren’t in black churches do to support the journey and conversation?
Those conversations have to happen in their own communities too. I think the danger is when one begins to make this an issue of black congregations. This is an issue in America. It’s an issue in the world. That was the whole proposition in California [In the 2008 election, 52 percent of California voters approved Proposition 8, which mandated only “a marriage between a man and a woman” would be recognized by the state]: I think it did black people an injustice because it painted it as, “Oh, black people are against it, which is why it [passed].” That’s not really why.
Well, why did it?
Because there was a lot of great organizing out of very conservative communities, who really got out that vote and got their message across in a way that resonated with some folks. But it got racialized in terms of the analysis. [Some news analyses hypothesized that many black California voters, drawn to the polls because of Barack Obama’s candidacy, didn’t support marriage equality.]
So I think the question is: “How — whether white, Latino, Asian — do you facilitate conversations in your own communities?” so that people move beyond the rhetoric. And this is not just rhetoric on the right, but rhetoric on the left [and] how we stereotype each other. It’s really about getting to understand folks. It’s one of the pieces. The advocacy pieces are important; legislative change is important. But I think change is a top-down, bottom-up and a side-to-side proposition. So this is just one strategy that’s important, not just in the sense of a larger social change agenda, but how do we begin to knit back together this sense of community and civility and respect.
Not everybody is going to be an LGBT supporter. And that’s OK. But can you love people, respect people, can you provide a welcoming place to move away from marginalization of people that undercuts their sense of integrity and dignity? So it’s really about: Can we plant the seeds for how we can be together in new ways that transcend even the LGBT issue, to reclaim the common good, that sense that we have some relationship and responsibility for each other?
I got one word for you.
Amen. [Both laugh.]