In many ways, this is what you think of when you think "black church." This is the kind of place where folk get to testifying or shouting, or allowing their bodies to shake in rhythmic, transcendental fits commonly referred to as "the holy ghost." In that respect, the Unity Fellowship Church--an interdenominational congregation in Brooklyn--is very old school. A gifted teen taps a drum set. The Wurlitzer-style organ hums with a soggy sound similar to sobs. Familiar hymns, tambourines, identically dressed ushers--there's nothing unusual here.

On the other hand, this is probably not your typical black church, what with the toddler on one cherry pew crawling back and forth between the bosoms of her two moms, and the transgender woman on another bench thumbing through her Bible. This is undoubtedly one of few black churches where some female worshippers don't conceal but embrace their facial hair--and opt to enhance its symbolism, even, with pinstriped suits and ties; where two men on a date can sit proudly next to one another and snuggle innocently if they choose.

A minister reads off some announcements, alerting the churchgoers to an upcoming potluck event. "And you've got to feed at least 200 people, so don't be bringing no frying pan full of meatballs," he says, his demeanor fey and familial. Giggles erupt. "You bettah tell it!" a guy replies. "I know that's right, honey!" retorts another.

Clearly, these gentlemen are at home, as only a person familiar with the cadence, lingo and usage of the gay black American dialect would recognize. This is high camp mixed with Holy Communion, a bunch of flaming phoenixes asserting their existence and spirituality through good old-time religion. This is an example of a largely unobserved cross-section of New York's churchgoing mass, just one of a few clusters of individuals refuting messages from traditional black churches that condemn or even ignore homosexuals.

"You are a member of the human race," the church's minister, Zachary Jones, says to his flock later in his sermon. "That is your first ethnicity. You have rights within you that you are built to protect. Stop letting people put you into a little box. Stop putting yourself into a little box. No one can deny you the right to worship the Lord thy God!"

"Yes, tell it!" and "Mmm hmm," can be heard from the congregants in the pews, all 20 of them nearly filled to capacity.

"God spared your life for a purpose," continues Jones, dressed in an elaborate robe that shimmers with gold inlays. "It's not that you were any smarter or better than the people who died from the virus. God kept you here to retain the meaning of 'Am I my brother's keeper.'

"Yes, I am!"

_______

Across New York and America, black churches are sacred gathering places, where God-fearing parents bring their children to raise them right, professionals network, political movements emerge, and people make way for the elderly, marry, and bless the recently dead. The black church--the Baptist tradition in particular--is the symbolic rock upon which both ordinary and upper crust black people alike lean, where they come to praise and sing, lay down their burdens and apologize for their sins. For many African-Americans, inclusion in the black church is synonymous with being an active part of the community.

For many gays, though, the church is also a place where they feel they must censor their personal lives. Gays avoid discussion or public revelation--no one asks, and they don't tell.

In this liberal city, there are few ministers bold enough to stand in a pulpit and spew homophobic rhetoric. But many black gay and lesbian New Yorkers--particularly those over 30 who moved to the city as adults--easily recall remarks and incidents that caused them enough pain to seek alternatives to a tradition burning with hellfire and brimstone.

Mark Tuggle of Harlem, a former counselor at the outreach program Gay Men of African Descent, says many men he used to counsel admitted to such experiences. Tuggle himself endured it. "When I was 9 years old," says Tuggle, now 42, "the preacher shouted that homosexuals were not allowed in here. And that really pierced my heart. I felt I wasn't welcome. I was angry and confused. I continued to go for my mother's sake, but I was uncomfortable. I just didn't understand, and I was afraid to tell anybody what I was thinking." Quickly, Tuggle says, "it became apparent to me that the church would not be a safe place for me to explore my feelings." He no longer seeks out any kind of organized religious activity.

One gay man, whom we'll call Ernest Hill, claims to have had an affair with a young associate minister from a Baptist church in East Brooklyn. The liaison cost him the relationship that mattered most: the one with the church. "We were madly in love," says the 42-year-old HIV survivor. The minister was married with a child, and Hill was a high-ranking deacon in the church, mostly comprised of working class families. Hill says the closeted minister caught flak about Hill's sexuality, and the minister eventually outed him to the head pastor: "He told me to be discreet, but I said that I had brought no sexual scandal to the church." Hill was soon informally relieved of his duties.

Discrimination in churches once simply inflicted social and emotional damage. Now, with AIDS dangerously entrenched in communities of color, the prejudice is also deadly. Of the estimated 40,000 people in the U.S. infected with HIV each year, more than half are African American. Among AIDS activists, there's an increasing conviction that religious institutions should respond more aggressively to the crisis. But if churches are to succeed in that mission, they will first have to come to terms with the intricacies of their flock's secular lives--including their sexual selves.

_______

"There's no doubt that the black church is homophobic," says Harlem minister Kenton Rogers. He ought to know. When he became the youngest pastor in the history of Lagree Baptist Church on 125th Street in 1993, he saw issues of sexuality--particularly his own--fester quietly beneath the surface and then come to a volatile, ugly head. Rogers, then 25, had been dubbed "the hip hop reverend" because of his off-duty affinity for baggy jeans, bandanas and a hip ethos. He soon met with opposition from elders in the church over issues, including finances and his own career as a gospel singer. The fact that Rogers wore a hoop earring, and a younger, more "street" crowd was beginning to wander into the congregation, didn't help. Older members and clergy recognized a changing of the guard, he says, that they weren't going to accept without a fight. Literally.