Why I can’t hold onto the gospel of Pastor Kim Burrell
By: Kelvin L. Easiley, Jr.
Where does one seek solace when faith fails? Where do the lost find shelter when the leaders that claim to love them preach “death and hell fire” for the simple act of existing? When the music that once soothed and brought peace only sounds like a cacophony of chaos and the choir’s chorus rings a melody that you and your kind are not welcome?
This past week, two major influencers in gospel music openly spat venomous vitriol from the pulpit to the raucous amens from their respective audiences.
Kim Burrell’s most recent hate filled sermon has flooded social media in recent days. And none other than the reigning queen mother of gospel, the Reverend Shirley Caesar – who up until this past holiday season wasn’t on most folks radar until her “Hold My Mule” sermonic song found renewed interest with the popular “You Name It Challenge” – in one breath, cosigned Burrell’s hate rhetoric and rebuked her for not speaking on the issue of homosexuals in the church sooner. These two women are heavyweights in the church. I grew up on the Reverend’s music and to be honest, Burrell’s soaring vocal prowess is only matched by a sacred few. So, this experience has been very personal for me.
For me, gospel music has been the last vestige of the faith I was raised in. The last thread of hope that ensured a benevolent loving creator was looking out for my good. I worked through a lot of trauma that the dogma of my Black Christian faith imparted. Since becoming an actualized human with his own agency and free critical thought, it became hard to marry my love of Black Christianity with its roots in oppression, subjugation, patriarchy, and full out condemnation of me as a queer identifying person. But there was always the music; the rich and vibrant testaments to overcoming and the lush and bluesy narratives of brighter days to come have been a steadfast carryover from a faith that once felt safe.
It has been gospel music that allowed me to find my center when my brain chemistry was not in balance. It was gospel music and it’s live instrumentations that thrusted me further into my deepest feelings of joy in times of celebration and triumph, whether it be the traditional hymns carried over from slavery and Jim Crow, or the contemporary beat that ignored precedence and carved new pathways to worship and praise.
However, most if not all of my faith in the healing nature of gospel music has been tarnished by these two women. For many queer folk who have been raised in the church, the hateful spirit through which these sermons were delivered are common shared experiences.
Suffice it to say, I’m at a loss as to whom in the realm of the gospel would not condemn me to death and eternal damnation. Hearing hate filled sermons is nothing new. Just as hearing calls to “come out of homosexuality” in songs is not ground breaking.
It wasn’t long ago that this same system of oppression that seeks to exclude members of the LGBT community reduced women to little more than placeholders in traditional churches. Women were allowed to be First Ladies, ushers, and Sunday School teachers, but being a pastor or leader of a church was sacrilegious. Patriarchy deemed it so; backed up by narrow-minded thinking, biblical principles and precepts, it was the order of the day.
Now some of these newly empowered women are using the same tenets that worked to oppress them to disallow LGBT parishioners full access to a faith, that at it’s core, is supposed to be rooted in love. The irony would be outright laughable, if it were not so damaging to the psychic health of so many individuals.
If the Black church does not seek a more holistic approach to inclusivity, it will continue to see dwindling numbers in membership and more people (not just queer folk) seeking affirming avenues that allow them full access to their Higher Power in a form that better suits them. In order to remain relevant in this Age of Information, the church will have to adapt and adopt. Just as it has allowed heterosexual women to take the helm, it will have to find space to love and accept their queer siblings in Christ.
My tolerance for people in the church and in the gospel realm who disavow me my full humanity based on their belief that a God so loving denies me access to the same grace it imparts on others – purely because of who I love – is depleted. There are so many queer folks that are actively participating in their own vilification. Many still attend services week after week in places of worship that are not inclusive of queer identifying people. I’ve heard talk of churches that do not subscribe to hate for the LGBTQ community, but I’ve yet to find one and frankly I’m done searching.
Actively participating in my destruction is no longer a something I am willing to do. Both publicly and privately flogging and shaming myself are no longer pastimes of mine, but I know so many who are still in bondage seeking a salvation that may never come.
If this is the kind of salvation and deliverance Kim Burrell expects of LGBTQ people, I will just have to pass.