"Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so."
I've probably sung this hymn a thousand times as a kid in Sunday school, yet it took me almost a lifetime to accept myself as a proud gay black man who loves the Lord. And most important, he loves me!
At 43 years old, I have finally evolved into who I believe the creator has predestined me to be. Despite my Southern Baptist upbringing in the black church, I have endured the process of spiritual, emotional, and psychological cleansing so that others may be enlightened on the taboo subject of homosexuality within the black community.
Yes, homosexuality exists in the black community. And based on my experience and many others', it is typically addressed through traditional religious teachings as a grotesque sin, and God can deliver you from it. Religious leaders preach at a fever pitch that affection toward the same sex is an abomination, according to Old Testament scriptures in the Bible. And because of these teachings, many LGBT African-Americans community are sidelined, diminished, and conflicted in their faith.
I grew up in Virginia in a large, God-fearing home with six brothers, two sisters, and loving parents, who celebrated 56 years of marriage this summer. My mom was the church organist and pianist, and I followed in her footsteps, learning to play both instruments by ear. I loved church and its many rituals. There is no greater inspiration than good ol' gospel music and preaching in the black church. Hand clapping. Foot stomping. Praise and worship. Call and response. Hallelujah and amen. But there's one thing I know to be true: You can't pray the gay away.
As a minister of music and a pastor for nearly 30 years of my life, I struggled with the reality that I could not "get delivered" from this awful sin of homosexuality and my natural proclivity toward men. For many years, I buried my feelings and thought I was healed. I married a mother of three, and together we had two more children of our own. But eventually, my yearnings for and attraction to the same sex resurfaced, which led to infidelities with other men during my marriage.
Unfortunately, some of the most effective and dynamic faith leaders who preach from the pulpit against the sin of homosexuality are hypocrites, repressing their own same-sex attraction. They create an illusion of righteous living while struggling behind the scenes to stay faithful to their wives or girlfriends.
The black church is deceiving itself and its followers. By rejecting and isolating gay church members, it's simply forcing individuals to live in the closet, and enabling them to engage in secretive, risky sexual behavior.
Strong, God-fearing believers often lead double lives -- that is, one that is straight and "acceptable in the eyes of God" and one that is on "the down low" from family and friends. It's a cosmic deception, whose consequences affect not only the gay person's life, but everyone he or she touches. Well, the black church's homophobia comes at a costly price tag.
When you look at the statistics, the black community is the hardest hit with new HIV infections, living with HIV or diagnosed with AIDS. Alarmingly, African-Americans account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (13 years or older), although we represent 12 percent of the nation's population, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The incidence of HIV and AIDS consistently rises within our community because we refuse to admit that we indulge in intimacy with the same sex. We hide in the closet or remain on the down low in a desperate effort to preserve our faith, protect our loved ones, and gain acceptance as a normal man or woman, according to the expectations of our church and community.
But like the Bible says: What's done in the dark comes to light. A wife or girlfriend discovers during a routine blood screening for a new job that she is HIV-positive and contracted the disease from her male partner. Or a husband on the down low discovers he's HIV-positive after testing at the local clinic.
Most new HIV infections among black women are attributed to heterosexual contact, and African-American women accounted for 29 percent of the estimated new HIV infections, states the CDC. And black men who have sex with other men have a higher prevalence of HIV infection, and many are not aware the have the virus, so they transmit it, unknowingly infecting others. Alarmingly, six in 10 gay and bisexual black men will become HIV-positive by the time they turn 40 years old.
It's time for the black community to have a come-to-Jesus-moment and address the obvious. No longer can our churches condemn those who are homosexuals with the traditional dogmatic and self-righteous preaching, teaching, and witnessing. Neither laying on of hands, praying in the spirit, fasting for extended periods of time, or reading the Bible daily will address homosexuality or the catastrophic crisis of HIV in the black community.
I am a gay pastor who has finally reconciled my faith and sexuality. I now want my life to be a testimony of how important it is to live an authentic life. The black church has an obligation to its gay members to break the cycle of depression, deception, dishonesty, and despair that is killing all of us prematurely. Acceptance is the best medicine to drastically reduce the incidences of HIV in our community.
We must be intentional about healing the black church of its hypocrisy, hard-heartedness, secrecy, brokenness, lies, insecurity, and irresponsibility in its role of perpetuating this deadly cycle. AIDS is martyring our community by the minute, and therefore we must actively engage ourselves in persistent dialogue, retroactive reckoning, and proactive measures to redefine our values and missions as a faith community. Every soul is worth saving and every life is worth living.
Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.
PASTOR MITCHELL JONES is a gay pastor and appears on OWN's Iyanla: Fix My Life. Follow him on Twitter at @AskPastorJones.
The Advocate's #6in10Men
If nothing changes, 6 in 10 black gay and bisexual men in the United States will have HIV by the time they are 40 years old. Learn more about this crisis in The Advocate's series #6in10Men: https://www.advocate.com/6in10menPosted by The Advocate magazine on Friday, September 25, 2015