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.

A "squad" of police officers, as the Amsterdam News recounted in 1994, had to be called to the church one June day "to bring back the spirit of the Lord" after fisticuffs erupted on an otherwise peaceful Sunday. A deacon rushed the pulpit, grabbed the microphone and shouted that Rogers had been installed as pastor "illegally," and that the deacon board had voted him out. Writer Yusef Salaam quotes an unnamed worshipper concerned about Rogers' lack of a wife and, yes, his suspected homosexuality. He writes: "Rogers, a bachelor, brushed off rumors about his sexual orientation. 'One minute they're saying that I'm sleeping with all of the women in the church, then the next minute they're saying I'm a homosexual.'"

Public relations-savvy though Rogers was, he couldn't prolong the inevitable, and months later he was gone. "I felt so helpless," says Rogers, a light-skinned fellow with a close haircut and a club-bouncer's build. Though he does not identify with the label "gay," he acknowledges being a same-gender--loving man. "I could feel the brunt as a pastor, but then I imagined all the people that felt helpless and I began to have sensitivity for all helpless people. That's when the turning point came for me. I knew if I could feel that helpless, then there could be others."

And so in August 1994, Rogers, fed up with the sexual shame he says the church required of him, broke from the black Baptist tradition and formed an "open and affirming" church in which all people could celebrate God and simultaneously affirm their unique sexual orientations. He began a small service in a brownstone on 131st Street and called it the Oasis of Love. (He recently renamed it the Christ Centered International Church.) Services attract people from all walks of life--gay couples, parents and their gay kids, married (straight) couples and so on--all united by a love of Christ and a disdain for any place of worship that refuses to accept them completely.

On a recent February Sunday, Rogers stands before his congregation, today a small group of about 30 people, mostly women. Prior to the sermon, they sing gospel a cappella, keeping time with the help of tambourine thwacks and foot stomps.

"I want the kind of love that Christ has," he says to the assembled. "He doesn't mind laying down his reputation to help somebody! He didn't allow the way he was shaped or molded or ostracized to faze him! So when we've been looked at as an outcast, you do not allow the way you've been treated to mold your personality." Claps and shouts from the folding-chair pews echo agreement.

_______

While Rogers was making his bold break from the Baptist church, Zachary Jones was starting a quiet revolution across the East River. "I had left the black church," says Bishop Jones, a native of Los Angeles who speaks with a sultry, raspy voice. "I'm a product of the black church, so it was very painful. But in my respect for the institution, I decided to find solace somewhere else."

The rift had been mounting since adolescence. "The more I became aware of my own physical desires, I heard messages.... 'God didn't make homosexuals.' They were 'wrong' or 'demonic,'" he says.

By the time he was 23, Jones says he remembers thinking, "I just can't do it. I can't win it, I can't beat it," although he worked to "cure" himself. "I fasted. There was laying on of hands. I spent years trying to get there. I was never much of a quitter, but..."

Ultimately, it was a chance date that led him to Unity Fellowship, a daring new church founded in L.A. by Archbishop Carl Bean shortly after he was ordained in 1982. His liberation theology doctrine frowns upon a male-dominated hierarchy, and gears its message toward people of color and diverse sexuality.

Jones chuckles. "I had just decided, 'No more church,' but I felt like in order for me to get next to this guy, I had to go." In time, he says, "I found myself going back again and again. So many things the Rev. Bean was saying I agreed with--that the quality of life counts more than length. That to love thy neighbor is the greatest commandment. It was so freeing, and touching me in dry places. I found myself not getting enough."

Jones, who was already ordained as a minister, saw that the church was struggling, and began assisting however he could. "It was the early '80s. I had just lost my lover. AIDS was hitting hard. I could not ignore my training." So Jones started helping him visit the hospital-bound; in a few years he had begun teaching a Sunday school class. "We grew as a body. The word spread about the work we were doing."

New York took notice, and after visiting the city in 1992 and meeting with other concerned community members who had also left black churches, Jones volunteered to leave Unity L.A. to start a branch in New York. "I saw the hunger, and the appetite was so pervasive. I agreed to come here on my faith and conviction." Services began at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on West 13th Street. "It just mushroomed," he says. By 1994, the church rented out its own space, St. Mary's Chapel in Clinton Hill. Now Unity has hundreds of members who vary across educational, economic and--increasingly--ethnic backgrounds. It's operating with a million-dollar budget, offering a range of services. And Unity just recently converted a commercial space into a sparkling new 12,000-square-foot temple in East New York.

"We just keep building," says Jones. "The more we build, the more people just keep coming."

_______

Historians note that the world's most famous black minister, Martin Luther King Jr., kept close quarters with an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin. An influential member of King's cabinet, Rustin was subsequently a key figure in the March on Washington. But his sexuality was an issue for many in the movement, and although King resisted others' efforts to sideline Rustin, politics ended up pushing him to the background anyway. "He was under such extraordinary pressure about his own sex life," Rustin said in a 1987 interview before his death the same year. "There were very real efforts to entrap him. My being gay was not a problem for Dr. King but a problem for the movement."

In more recent years, though, some black religious leaders have opposed efforts to secure civil rights for gay Americans. After the NAACP supported activists during the 1993 march on Washington for gay rights, the Rev. Dennis Kuby and others tried to discredit parallels between gay rights and black civil rights, saying in a letter to the Washington Times, "Gays are not subject to water hoses or police dogs, denied access to lunch counters or prevented from voting."

Later, in 1998, black churches in Florida circulated fliers trying to roll back an amendment to Miami-Dade County's human rights ordinance granting protection for gays and lesbians. The fliers said Dr. King would be "outraged" to discover that people were equating the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement.

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, has actually been a powerful counterforce to homophobia; she has publicly supported same-sex rights initiatives since as far back as 1986. When it comes to the black church, though, Mrs. King and others are up against a legacy of prejudice within the institution. Just as many white clergy do, black Baptist ministers use the Bible to justify persecuting gay sex and identity.

"If one wants to be oppressive to people who find themselves same-sex oriented, then the Bible will give them that," says Randall Bailey, a minister and biblical scholar at the Interdenominational Theology Center in Atlanta, who has spent more than 20 years examining issues of sexuality and the Bible, particularly the controversial "Sodomite" scriptures.

Passages in Leviticus, Genesis and Samuel have caused the most debate, but Bailey, who is heterosexual, explains that they are often misappropriated. In his view, laws forbidding two men from having intercourse essentially boil down to a patriarchal effort to repopulate Israel--passages were simply written to discourage activity that would lead to "wasted sperm."

The Bible, Bailey notes, also contains one of the world's oldest tales of homosexual romance. "It's pretty explicit," he says of the books of Samuel, "that Jonathan is in love with David and David is not resisting." He says that for Bible experts hellbent on dismissing King David's gay romance, the "love" discussed is about political loyalty. But Bailey avers that the passage is "all about male sexual behavior," and even though David couples with a few divorced women, "he never says he loves them--only Jonathan."

As part of his work at the Interdenominational Theology Center, a school of Morehouse College, Bailey spends much of his time training the young theologians who graduate to become America's prominent black ministers. He also preaches in select churches around the country, but not often. "When I raise a critique of heterosexism in my sermons, I get a mixed reaction," he says, adding that his uncompromised message of liberation and cross-sexual unity has prevented him from heading his own church in Atlanta. "It's not well received," he says wryly.

But the church cannot be blamed for all black homophobia. Many sociologists speculate that some of it has to be attributed to ingrained cultural values. "So much of black culture is about denying mythology," says Keith Boykin, an author and activist who co-wrote President Clinton's statement to the 1993 gay march on Washington. He says this may be partly because black people have long made upward mobility a primary concern. So to shed stereotypes, Boykin says, many blacks work individually to "contradict to whatever negative images" society holds of them. Homosexuality, already stigmatized, takes on an added taboo for black men expected to represent strength and masculinity, and black women expected to be child-bearers and carriers of the race.

_______

By now, most black Americans are aware that AIDS is ravaging their own communities. Although blacks make up only about 12 percent of the population, they accounted for half of the new HIV cases in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control--21,000 new cases a year. Black Americans are infected at twice the rate of Hispanics and eight times the rate of whites. AIDS is now the leading cause of death among black women ages 25 to 34 and black men 35 to 44.

In its 2001 report "HIV/AIDS among African Americans: A Closer Look," the CDC finds that several factors may contribute to such alarming rates of infection, among them poverty, substance abuse, partners at risk, and denial and discrimination. The report mentions that some black communities are reluctant to acknowledge sensitive issues like homosexuality.

For generations, churches have been fiercely committed to providing vital resources for their communities--assisting children and mothers, providing housing for the homeless, feeding the hungry. In New York, hundreds of black churches operate food pantries. By contrast, just a few odd dozen churches have HIV/AIDS prevention ministries. Many activists working to fight the epidemic say that the tepid response by religious leaders to the massive AIDS crisis in their own communities is a tragic failure. "The black church has always been the leader in the community," says Denise Williams, deputy director of the Community Resource Exchange, which is working with local nonprofits to build an infrastructure to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in communities of color. "But the problem is that the church is not being a leader on this."

In a 1997 survey, the AIDS Institute of the New York State Department of Health, which gives grants to 13 groups statewide to do HIV education in partnership with religious institutions, found that just 17 percent of faith groups surveyed conducted some form of HIV education. Of those that did not, 41 percent said that among their reasons for not providing such services was opposition to homosexuality, drugs or condom use.

Some groups are working aggressively to get more churches more involved in AIDS prevention. Balm in Gilead, a national faith-based HIV prevention group, has done essential groundwork over the last several years, convincing churches that AIDS must be part of their sermons and educational programs. This March, it got 10,000 black churches across America to participate in its Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS.

And in New York, 30 churches are working as part of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI). Their services range from providing peer education and housing for people with HIV to setting up information tables, distributing literature and, in a few rare instances, condoms. Getting them involved "took a lot of hard work and dedication," says Deborah Levine, who heads HCCI's Health & Wellness Strategies division. "It was sitting down with the Harlem clergy. They were the ones that said they would put aside their theological beliefs and look at the common problems." But because churches are, well, churches, discussions about HIV/AIDS must sometimes be tailored very carefully. "Everybody has different places," continues Levine. "We don't all start out being champions. It depends on the congregation itself. But no congregations have said they don't want something to do with it."

Convincing churches that AIDS is their business is not impossible. But what's proving more difficult, educators say, is getting religious organizations to promote effective safe sex education.

HIV prevention specialists have consistently found that safe sex education needs to be explicit in order to have a significant impact. It has to show sexually active people how to use condoms; it needs to talk specifically about exchanging bodily fluids and degrees of risky behavior.

But such essentials of HIV prevention education are almost never part of churches' work. Discussing sex remains taboo; homosexuality, all the more so. Anal and oral sex are typically unmentionable, as is intravenous drug use. "It's like they will take care of you once you've got AIDS, but won't tell you what you need to do not to get it," Williams says sternly.

Comments one AIDS educator, who requested anonymity, "The most is a pastor saying, 'We're dying from this,' and those are the really progressive pastors. I mean, how can you address having gay men be safe when you won't even talk about gay people? People engage in sex, IV drug use--it's just not a conversation you're going to have."

Other educators say they've gotten the same message from churches: They'll only go so far. "You can't go shaking someone's tree where you're not invited," says Rev. Ella Eure of the AIDS group Harlem United, part of the New York State Department of Health's Faith Communities Initiative, which gets religious institutions involved in HIV prevention. "There is protocol. I tell my gay brothers and sisters Rome was not built in a day. You approach people where they are." She and other activists say they take a gradual approach: Start getting religious groups accustomed to talking about the issues broadly, and then, over time, coax them to reckon more and more directly with sexuality and other controversial issues.

There's a paradox to the work Williams and Eure are doing: Even when they succeed, religious groups have a hard time finding funding and other resources to take the next steps. Says HCCI's Levine, "Our phone does not stop ringing from pastors looking for support. We hold the black church to task, but haven't provided the dollars or resources for capacity."

Khali Mootoo, a case manager and social worker for HCCI, points out that churches really don't need a lot of government money, because they can raise funds within their congregations. "A church can do it with little to nothing," says Mootoo. His job, he says, is to step in to provide the literature, videos and services congregations request.

One HCCI member church, Second Providence Baptist on 116th Street, initiated an HIV/AIDS ministry. For a while, its leaders had been reluctant to deal with AIDS at all. But minister Londzo Wilson kept pressing. Within the church, "there was a lack of knowledge," he says. "The attitude was, 'I'm not gay, I'm not white, it doesn't affect me.' I didn't get to them overnight." But through gentle pestering he succeeded, and for the past 18 months, the church has held a weekly open forum that regularly attracts 30 to 40 people and where they can talk about health issues, including AIDS and HIV. Mostly the church lets outsiders do the nuts-and-bolts work: It hosts workshops and seminars where doctors, clinicians and social workers can meet with community residents.

But Williams, like others working to build faith-based services, says a few churches are not enough. The black church should be leading the community away from prejudice, ignorance and disease, she says--not the other way around. "For those that are out there on the front lines," says Williams, "they should be commended. But we don't need soloists. We need a choir."

_______

Gospel choirs, as it happens, are often the first place to find closeted gays in churches, and wherever silence and sexual shame lie AIDS breeds. There's probably no better example of this than legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, who was never known or assumed to be gay (at least publicly) until his death of AIDS in 1991. Says Keith Boykin, "If you look behind the pulpit at the choir members and music directors, you see a different story than the fire-and-brimstone view of homosexuality." In fact, he says, "if you go to any of those gospel conventions, it's like a circuit party."

One choir, New York's Lavender Light--the Black and People of All Color Lesbian and Gay Gospel Choir--was formed in 1985 by three New Yorkers. Lidell Jackson, Tony Teal and Charles Bennett Brack (it was Brack who urged Zachary Jones to start New York's Unity ministry) broke from the black church to protest the silence churches required and the ripple effect that hush had on HIV infection in the community. Now, its 33 members, relying on traditional hymns and spirituals, perform at events across the city and nationwide, but only in places where they and their message are fully accepted. "Our message," says spokesperson Maria Elena-Grant, "is that it is possible to be a child of God and be true to who you are."

They've met some subtle resistance, almost always from black churches. "It's not been in our face; we've found that black churches have been more passive," says Elena-Grant. "We've gotten in, and then people take a deep breath and wait for things to be over."

Inside Unity Fellowship in Brooklyn, deep breaths serve another purpose--they prepare for joyful, rousing noises made unto the Lord. It might be because of the hymns they sing, or the prayer for which everyone in the church forms a circle and clasps hands, but the people at Unity Fellowship--outcasts elsewhere--seem unified. They have been affirmed and uplifted: armor for the coming week.

"Now let's have all the babies up front," Jones says as the service comes to a close. Parents bring their toddlers up the aisle; the grade-schoolers fidget and the tweens preen. Jones says these are "children of love," and that they will grow to understand unconditional love; as adults, they'll protect all people's right to love and work for justice.

"We are here to honor our families," he says, "and serve them in a way that honors their entire life, from the cradle to the grave." The organ churns gently. He looks out at the congregation and declares with resolve: "You have come a long way. And I am so very proud of you."

Malcolm Venable is a Manhattan-based freelance writer. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.