Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013 was not a typical day of worship for Bishop Allyson D. Nelson Abrams. For the first time in more than five years, she no longer stood in the pulpit as pastor of Zion Progress Baptist Church, near downtown Detroit, to preach one of her patented fiery sermons that the congregation had become accustom to hearing.
Abrams officially stepped down as pastor on Friday, Oct. 18, after telling her congregation on the previous Sunday that she was married to a same-gender spouse.
In an exclusive interview with the Michigan Chronicle just two days before she resigned, Abrams told her story.
"With some buzz going around about my same-sex marriage, I wanted my church to hear from me before members heard it from other sources; I had already talked with my deacons," said Abrams. "I knew that it would eventually get to my congregation. So I stood in my pulpit on Sunday, Oct. 6 and openly talked about love, Christ, and that I was married and it was a same-gender marriage."
Abrams, 43, said some members of Zion Progress supported her announcement and wanted her to stay on as pastor; other members were adamant about her stepping down and moving on. She also found similar sentiments in local Christian circles of pastors. After a nine-year stint as secretary of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, Abrams decided to resign rather than be subjected to proposed meetings to discuss her same-sex marriage. She also removed Zion Progress from its membership with the Baptist Missionary and Education State Convention, as well as the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
For Abrams, it was important to be honest with her congregation, self and spouse, but more importantly, with God. Therefore, Abrams identified her new spouse as Bishop Emeritus Diana Williams of the Imani Temple of the African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C. Abrams and Williams married in March, 2013 in Iowa, one of 13 states, as well as Washington, D.C., that allow same-gender marriage.
"I am a person of integrity and didn't want to be a hypocrite on this issue," said Abrams. "There are other members of the clergy that speak out on this subject in public, but do just the opposite behind closed doors. I refuse to be a hypocrite. I felt that I needed to be married because I was pastoring a church and leading people."
Abrams said that her same-gender marriage represented a first-time love experience involving another woman. Abrams, a divorced mother of three children, said about a year before she married Williams, she asked God to send love her way, and not necessarily love based on a certain gender. According to Abrams, she and Williams had been friends and worked together on several faith-based initiatives.
"She is definitely my best friend, a wonderful person and is a support system to me in tremendous ways," Abrams said of Williams. "We have a lot in common. We have similar visions, missions and goals. We complement each other very well in how best to serve God."
Abrams said that she was encouraged to make her decision about same-sex marriage after attending a conference in Atlanta about a year or two before she married Williams. Abrams recalled hearing the Rev. Joseph Lowery, dean of the civil rights movement, social activist and preacher, answer a question about gay people in the church.
"I'm a red-lettered Christian," Abrams recalled Lowery saying. "I follow what Jesus Christ said...that is the only thing I know to do. All this talk about who can have rights and who cannot have rights doesn't make sense because Christ received everybody. If we are true Christians, we will follow the red letter words (of God) that's in the bible."
Abrams said Lowery's message hit home with power as she began to look within herself about love and not necessary love based on gender. Abrams also sought counsel from the Rev. Dr. Ken Samuels, who is based in Atlanta, as well as Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder of the City of Refuge UCC, located in San Francisco. Flunder, who is openly gay, is also the founder of The Fellowship, an organization of black pastors and churches that openly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.
Other members of the clergy who gave Abrams advice included the Rev. Christine Wiley, who along with her husband the Rev. Dennis Wiley, serve as pastors of the Covenant Baptist Church (United Church in Christ) in Washington, D.C. In 2007, Covenant Baptist was the first black traditional church in D.C. to marry same-sex couples. The husband and wife also co-chair the organization DC Clergy for Marriage Equality.
Abrams also found scriptures that she believed are important to read as "scriptural references" as it relates to same-gender relationships: Luke 7: 1 -10 and Matthew 8: 5-13 (about the Centurion's servant). She also believed the Greek words "entimos duolos pais" when seen together mean beloved servant, which means male lover. This, according to Abrams, is different from the other servants in nature of the relationship.
"I don't want to get into scriptural debates with folks because folks can argue on both sides based on interpretation," Abrams explained. "I just want to say where I am and what brought me to this point."
While seeking the wisdom of other theologians and reading bible scriptures were important to Abrams, ultimately, she knew the final decision was hers to make. Once she decided to marry Williams, she also knew that such a revelation would not be popular with many conservative Christians, especially in the African-American community.
She is, however, thankful for a loyal circle of local pastors that did not condemn her after she revealed to them the news of her same-gender marriage. The circle included Pastor Wilma Johnson, (New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church), Pastor E.L. Branch (Third New Hope Baptist Church), the Rev. Charles Christian Adams (Hartford Memorial Baptist Church), the Rev. Mother (pastor and Christian radio show host) and a few others.
"Bishop Abrams is a very intelligent, conscientious and progressive minister," Adams told a local reporter last week." According to the article written, Adams, from a constitutional rights standpoint, supports gay marriage. Adams went on to say that in the African-American community there needs to be further discussions on the issue.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights advocate and host of "PoliticsNation" on MSNBC agreed.
"As Americans, it is up to each and every one of us to fight injustice and inequality when we are faced with it," Sharpton said during an interview with TheGrio.com in March of this year.
"Today, we are faced with such injustices in the form of discrimination against same-sex couples, who deserve the same freedom to marry as anyone else. We cannot be part-time advocates for justice. When we fail to stand up to tyranny, we leave an opening for an attack on our own civil rights. The issue is not about being gay or straight but about the civil rights of Americans who are seeking to have the same rights and protections as their brothers and sisters across this great nation."
On the same day that Abrams granted an exclusive interview to the Michigan Chronicle (Oct. 16), the Michigan Marriage Act was being debated before U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman. The judge ultimately set a trial date of Feb. 25, 2014, which shocked many who thought he would dismiss the case to uphold the Michigan amendment that bans same-sex marriage in the state.
Beyond Michigan, same-gender marriage has been a hot-button issue. Even President Obama and the NAACP have voiced strong support for same-gender marriage, which has angered a significant segment of the African-American population. Many national polls now show that a great number of Americans support gay marriage, inclusive of great levels of support among various racial and ethnic groups. However, support among African-Americans remains under 50 percent.
Abrams hopes that the attitudes of African-Americans, especially those in the Black Church, will become more tolerant and accepting of people regardless of sexual orientation. Yet, she knows that acceptance is a steep mountain to climb.
"Some from the pulpit are making these people (gay) feel very small, making them feel that they have no love from God; that God is not going to use them or bless them," explained Abrams. "Some ministers are being hypocrites because behind the scenes they are right there doing stuff with them. I believe that there needs to be open and guided discussion. I believe that the African-American church needs to become open, welcoming and affirming to everybody."
Abrams continued: "Welcoming does not mean that you are going to tell someone what they are going to look like when they come up in to your church. If Christ said, 'come as you are,' that means if you have tattoos, a ring in your nose, you should be able to come to church. To receive young people in your church, or people in general who are unchurched, than you have to welcome and affirm them in your church."
Some pastors disagree to a certain extent:
"People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong," said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, Wash., who has participated in recent rallies in favor of maintaining traditional marriages only. "Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them."
Whatever side of the issue one is on pertaining to same-sex relationships and marriages, Abrams believes that God still loves them.
"I believe that God is an all-knowing God and that He predestined things to come into our lives," Abrams said. "God created us in His image. I believe that God is an inclusive God and does not discriminate against anyone. If you look at the lineage of Jesus, there were all kinds of folks. I believe that everyone should be included in God's church. It is the church that excludes people; not God."
Abrams, who was born in Birmingham, Ala., feels that many people believe that because someone is in a sex-same relationship that they had problems in childhood.
"I had a great childhood," said Abrams, who grew up in a two-parent home that strongly believed in God and Baptist church doctrines. "I was not fondled or molested by anybody. I had healthy relationships with my entire family."
After graduating from high school, Abrams attended Howard University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. She also attended Miles Law School for two years before hearing and accepting her call as a minister. She went on to earn a master of divinity and doctor of ministry from United Theological Seminary. In 2001, Abrams founded and pastored Speak the Truth Baptist Church, before becoming the first female pastor of Zion Progress Baptist Church in its 55-year history.
While Abrams knows that the Black Church must change, she doesn't think it will be anytime soon. She is now in the process of making decisions that she hopes will return her to the pulpit.
"I probably will just leave the state and be a part of another denomination," said Abrams. "I have always been a Baptist; I love being a Baptist. This (same-sex marriage), however, does not seem like it's something that they want to work with me on. I've talked with United Church of Christ and Metropolitan Community Churches. They have language (in their doctrines) that says that they accept everybody and are open and affirming. Many people who are in same-gender relationships or marriages will often go to one of those two denominations."
Abrams vows to press on while continuing to serve God. In some ways, she feels as if she's being forced out of the African-American church because of her same-gender marriage.
"The Lord, however, has not sat me down," said Abrams, who is completing her third book entitled, 'God Can Still Use You. "God is still using me do great things. There is nothing wrong with my heart and my spirit. I will still preach and teach, but it will be somewhere else. I will not stay in a place where people won't receive me. I need to be some place where people will love me and receive and celebrate my gift. My gift is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and helping God's people."
(This article is part two in a series exploring sexual relationships in the African American clergy.)