Pride In the Pews Pastor talks inclusion

PrideIndex had the pleasure of announcing its 2023 Institutional Award would go to Pride in The Pews. Pride in the Pews is a national grassroots nonprofit building bridges and creating solutions that empower the Black LGBTQ+ community to thrive in the public square, pulpit, and pew. Don Abrams, the organization’s founder, sat down for an enlightening interview. He gave us the 411 on everything from how the George Floyd murder became his call to activism, his humble Black church upbringing on Chicago’s Southside, and more. 

PrideIndex (PI): What exactly is Pride in the Pews? How did it come about?

Don Abrams (DA): Pride in the Pews began shortly after the spate of protests across the country regarding the George Floyd murder. I had recently returned to Chicago after spending time away for undergraduate and graduate school. I was finishing my research role at Stanford University. I was in the city when the news broke, and riots broke out. I was in the streets along with everyone else, demanding justice. Two things were astonishing and quite appalling to me. That was the silence of the Black church and the absence of their intersectional advocacy. Clearly, we had seen and witnessed a grave injustice related to George Floyd. I also knew that there were several Black Trans women and non-binary folks who had been killed not only due to state-sanctioned violence but at the hands of members of our own community. The Black church was silent on those issues.

After protesting in the streets in all parts of the city and making my voice heard along with so many others, I decided to write an article out of frustration. In that article, I was pretty prophetic in critiquing the Black church’s presence in the public square and their treatment of LGBTQ+ folks. I invited them to reimagine their relationship with our community. After writing that article, which got some traction, I spoke with a colleague from Harvard Divinity School. I expressed my frustration and the impetus behind writing the article. He said, “I’m so inspired by what you’re doing and believe so much in your clarion call and prophetic voice that I want to give you $40,000 to do something about this issue. He wrote the check and said, do with it what you will, and that’s how Pride in the Pews emerged.

We started with a storytelling project called “Can I Get a Witness.” We collected sixty-six Black LGBTQ+ Christian stories. We interviewed folk from the ages of twenty-one to sixty-nine. They shared their stories, plights, and promises with us and their relationship with the Black church. We wanted to approach these stories like sacred texts, believing that they had something to teach us about ourselves and how we relate to one another and the divine. We hired researchers who were qualified to unpack qualitative data. We created models, frameworks, and curricula for the workshop in churches nationwide.

As we did that, we were gaining steam, and folks started noticing us. We began to be featured in articles and have more conversations with funders. It became clear to me that this was not just a project but a purpose. After hearing the stories and the depth of their pain, we needed to start not only thinking about ways to fund this purpose but also the incredible possibility. There needed to be an institution dedicated to moving churches to action. Not only that, but we also needed an institution that centers the religious identity of LGBTQ+ folks to make a real difference in the world.

We started building an institution. In doing so, we moved away from simply making churches more affirming, which was never the goal. The goal was to get churches to leverage their platform, privilege, and perch to make a real difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ folks. Getting them to a place where they can be mobilized in the public square like they were for George Floyd is if they first have conversations about inclusion within the four walls. We wanted to give the Black church the tools to become more affirming and not simply affirming within the four walls, but be equipped to learn and know our stories, and our predicament, so that you might be able to go out into the public square and advocate on our behalf. That’s really the work that we’ve begun doing.

Over time, we’ve even extended our reach to say if we’re interested in the holistic health and wellness of Black LGBTQ+ Christians, we must be in conversation with the institutions that mediate their everyday lives. Of course, that’s the church; you cannot talk about Black folks without the Black church, but it’s also public health institutions. When we think about the impact of religious trauma, we need professionals and clinicians trained to respond right to that trauma in life-giving ways. We need to make sure that these clinicians, therapists, and counselors understand religion’s role in our lives. We’ve been offering training to them as well.

We’ve also been in conversation with LGBTQ+ serving institutions, particularly those that provide social services of any sort. Because they need to know that if you’re going to serve our community, you can’t serve the community while asking them to leave certain parts of themselves, particularly their faith, worldview, and religious identity, outside the doors. What does it look like to hold space within an LGBTQ+ center for religious identity, not simply looking at the trauma it causes but how it might cause someone to try it out? That’s the work that we do today and our primary purpose. We, of course, have a slate of programs and various programmatic offers, but that’s really at the heart. Everything I described is really at the heart of what we do.

PrideIndex (PI):  That is outstanding. That is a mountain, if you will. You sound like the guy pushing the stone up a hill. What do you say to that?

DA: You’re exactly right. What you’re describing is not just a personalized anecdote or feeling; it’s backed up by empirical data. We know that zero out of eight historically Black Christian denominations affirm LGBTQ+ Christians. Zero out of eight. We’ve erected an institution that says, “We think we can change that. We can shift that paradigm if we journey with churches, faith leaders, and practitioners who want to get it right. It is a journey. It is an uphill battle. We are swimming against the current. But we see the tide shifting because our work is contingent on our partners’ willingness to engage in the conversation.

Guess what? We found partners willing to have that conversation, folk pushing back against the dominant and mainstream narrative that the Black church is hopelessly and uniquely homophobic and incapable of having forward-thinking conversations around gender and sexuality. The network we are cultivating daily suggests that there’s energy, momentum, and a burgeoning voice of clergy persons interested in the conversation and willing to walk out prophetically and claim their commitment to inclusion, broadly speaking. You’re right. It is a mountain to climb. Zero out of eight historically Black Christian institutions are affirming. Yet, there are Black churches, Black pastors, and faith-inspired institutions that are eager to have this conversation. We’re simply waiting on the invitation.

PI: Do you only work with other Protestant churches, or do you collaborate with other denominations and religions?

DA: Great question. Currently, Pride in the Pews is primarily focused on the Black church. By that, we mean we use the dominant definition as it relates to how scholars discuss it. That is the eight historic Black religious institutions. That’s Baptist which includes the National Baptist Convention (NBC), the National Baptist Convention of America (NBCA), and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC). Then you have the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the Presbyterian Church (PCA) rounding out the eight. Those are our primary target audiences related to the church and faith. We have not prioritized or focused on any other faith traditions. We are interested in Black, primarily Protestant churches. We are open to working with churches that consider themselves part of the Black religious tradition but are not necessarily Protestant or mainline.

PI: Were you concerned about backlash from the “evangelical community” or evangelical groups?

DA: I was not concerned about the backlash. Friends, colleagues, and peers of mine were concerned about the backlash. They worried about what folks would say online or how they would respond to the work. That was never really a fear of mine. That’s primarily because I’m a Harvard-educated minister. I know what I’m talking about and am confident in my theological convictions and worldviews. Through in-depth critical analysis of sacred text and the socio-cultural and socio-political Black church as an institution, I have come to them. That, coupled with my own faith in the divine, a divine who loves me uncompromisingly and without condition, gave me all the assurance and confidence I needed to carry the workout. The backlash was never a concern because I started with the idea that some individuals are interested in the conversation and want to move the needle forward. Still, they need folk who will journey with them. They need folk who can be interlocutors and partners as they work through difficult conversations. And we want to be that partner for them and with them.

Our target audience was never the White Evangelical who has been notoriously and vociferously anti-LGBTQ+. That’s not the person we targeted. That’s not the person we were eager to be in a relationship with. We were, in fact, interested in partnering with folk who were already having conversations about justice and interested in creating welcoming and affirming environments. Still, they were trying to figure out how to do that without leaving their congregation behind or creating such a risk that they couldn’t make an inclusive community. If that’s our target audience, we’ve succeeded in conversing and finding those folks. Again, I was fearless of the backlash. I’m well-studied and have the credentials to be able to validate my own theological claims. As I mentioned, that, coupled with my faith in the divine that loves me as I am, gave me all the confidence in the world.

PI: Give me a quick, brief overview of your life story. How did you answer the call to join the clergy?

DA: Oh, I’m happy to do that. I grew up in a hand-clappin’ and toe-tappin’ Black church on the south side of Chicago. My Jamaican Patois-speaking grandmother would drag me to church every Sunday. I would be in the pews at 11 a.m. waiting for a soul-stirring word. I participated in nearly every ministry: the Junior Deacons Ministry, Junior Usher Board, choir member, musician, and bass player. Eventually, I made my way to the pulpit at fourteen. I was called to preach via a recurring dream. I woke up in this dream as a celestial being. I walked into my home church. It was a typical Sunday service. Everyone was shouting and praising God exuberantly. I walked down the middle aisle, and I saw a preacher preaching. It was as if I were viewing a mythical figure somehow because I could not make out the face. I presumed that it was the pastor of my childhood church, Reverend Frederick E. Wilson, Sr. As I walked closer, I discovered it wasn’t him but me. That’s where the dream ends. It haunted me for some time. Eventually, I decided after prayer and counsel that this dream was my call to preach.

In answering that call, nearly a month later, I was preaching my trial sermon. As I was preaching my trial sermon, it dawned on me that this was the dream I had seen. That was confirmation that I had been called to preach and to do this work. After completing high school, I went on to Pomona College, where I was able to study the Black church as a political institution, thinking about the cultural and political power it had amassed to fight for justice. That’s where my gravitation toward Black liberation theology really began to emerge. I started to read folks like James Cohn and Kelly Brown Douglas, and others who were really interested in the legacy of the Black church and how we should show up in the public square today. It’s also worth noting that this was when Mike Brown was killed, and my colleagues and I were protesting, much like the George Floyd protests.

I came into political consciousness, recognizing that the more conservative theological interpretations I grew up with did not work for how I understood justice in the world. I then went on to Harvard Divinity School. At that time, I was now out to myself and two friends. I began to think about the intersections of race, faith, religion, and sexuality. How might we create a Black religious tradition that is capacious enough to hold these intersecting identities to respond to all the injustices in the world? I spent three years at Harvard Divinity School, writing about it, thinking about it, reflecting on it, preaching about it, trying to really understand how I, as an individual, make sense of my faith as a black queer man from the Southside of Chicago, who’s been called to advocate for those on the margins. What does it look like to do that? What does it look like to do that from the place of my truth?

I began to seriously explore it and have difficult conversations with friends and my parents, eventually coming out to them. In doing so, I realized that I’ve been called to do something in the world and to leverage my Black religious tradition in the name of freedom in the public square. But I don’t know how to do that. I need to figure out where to do that. I went on to work with Stanford and later a political campaign. Pride in the Pews emerged right after the George Floyd protests. That journey was paved by an earnest desire to live out my calling in the world and do the honest thing. That was true. That resonated with my spirit.

PI: What do you say to folks who say, “Pride in the Pews, it’s a cult, because, in the Bible, it explicitly says, no man should lie down with another man, like he does with a woman,” therefore, everything you stand for is wrong?

DA: I’m Baptist, and what you should know about Baptists is that we’re known for being autonomous. You don’t really know what kind of Baptist Church you’re stepping into until you go into that Baptist Church. We have our own bylaws and cultures, and it is as distinct as the number of folks in the room. We empower individuals to make decisions about their interpretations of the text and their orientation toward the text. In fact, Protestantism was born out of this notion of a priesthood of all believers, which is fundamentally different from a Catholic church, wherein one must go to a priest to have their sins absolved. The priest goes to God on their behalf. Within Protestantism, we believe that the veil was torn. In other words, we can go to God for ourselves.

We don’t need a preacher or a pastor or clergyperson to intervene on our behalf; we as individuals can decide and determine how we relate to the Divine and how we relate to sacred texts. For any individual to say Pride in the Pews is Satanic, they align with my tradition and have the right to orient around the reader how they want to. It is a belief that I fundamentally disagree with and one that I do not subscribe to and believe does significant and irreparable harm to the world. Yet, I’ve been called to see you as my neighbor.

The question I have is, as you have your theological view, and I have my theological view, what does it mean to do justice? What does it mean to love mercy? What does it mean to walk humbly before our God? How do we love one another as we would love ourselves? I’m less interested in your theological views and less interested in the theological convictions you purport and claim. I want to learn how you live out the Great Commission to love. What does that look like for you? Let’s start there. How do we together model for the ministry of Jesus that centers those cast out and left behind? How do we answer the clarion call to action to be concerned with the least of these? If we start there, we might find some common ground.

I’m not interested in convincing or converting you to adopt my theological conviction. But I want to invite you into a conversation acknowledging our shared humanity. If we can do that, we can have conversations across lines of theological difference that advance the common good. You can have your theological beliefs; in fact, I encourage it. But after you have decided what those beliefs are, I want to invite you into the public square to collectively answer the question, how do we center the least of these, those who have been left out and left behind? As we advance our own theological views? How do we make sure we are not causing harm in the process?

PI: What is the ultimate goal of Pride in the Pews?

DA: I see it as a threefold goal. First, normalize narratives and stories of Black LGBTQ+ Christians. Normalize it. It is not an anomaly. It is not some strange phenomenon. It is not a recent occurrence. I want us to get to a place where someone saying, “I am a Black LGBTQ+ Christian” is not new, not unknown, and is not something that folks are hearing for the first time. I want it to be uncontested. I want it to be, “Oh, yes, that makes sense.” “Oh, yes, of course, I know many Black LGBTQ+ Christians.” Really doing the work of normalizing our stories and seeing them as having inherent value and worth for the church and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in creating a version of the Black church, wherein an eight-year-old boy or girl can walk into the doors of any Black church knowing that they will be affirmed and hear messages about God’s unconditional love for them. I would know that our work is done with that young boy or girl who can walk into any Black church on the Southside of Chicago or in the country town of Columbia, Mississippi, and find a Black church that affirms who they are. That’s when I know we’ve done the work well.

Thirdly, I am interested in making sure that any institution that desires to serve the Black LGBTQ+ community has competency around how to orient its services with Black LGBTQ+ Christians in mind. Recognizing that when we tap into our potential when we are fully reconciled in our identity, we do things like organize the March on Washington and create the legal framework for Brown v Board of Education. We changed the entire fashion game because of what our grandmother taught us and how she showed up in church on Sunday morning. We did all of that in the person of Andre Leon Talley. We did all of that in the person of Bayard Rustin. We did all of that in the person of Pauli Murray. If you can give us the tools and resources to be made whole, we’ll change your life. I know we’ve done what we have been called to do when those three things have been accomplished.