Pastor Don Abram went to church reluctantly as a child.
“I grew up in a hand-clapping, toe-tapping Black church on the South Side of Chicago,” he said.
The 28-year-old recalled how his grandmother would drag him to service every Sunday, ignoring all his protestations – like not being able to find the right tie or his white usher gloves.
His heart eventually changed, and he integrated himself into the life of the church, singing in the choir and becoming a junior deacon. He even started preaching when he was 14.
But when he began openly identifying as queer, it all came to a screeching halt.
“The church that loved me, and that raised me and reared me nearly turned its back on me,” Abram said.
That experience pushed Abram to found Pride in the Pews. The nonprofit launched in 2020 as he worked to collect and share stories of LGBTQ+ people in the Black Church, which includes a group of eight historically Black religious denominations and other Christian groups that primarily minister to African Americans.
In the last year, the organization has held workshops with 10 Black churches around the country to move the needle on their advocacy for LGTBQ+ people.
In March, Abram brought his teachings home.
‘Journey with people’
In his heart, Abram felt he should be able to preach and be open about his sexual attractions. He attended Harvard Divinity School, where he abandoned what he calls “dehumanizing theologies” in favor of new ones rooted in lifting marginalized people.
He said the roots of his interpretation of the scripture come from James Cone’s Black liberation theology. Cone argued that God identified with people experiencing oppression and focused particularly on ministering to African-Americans.
At the same time, Abram says he’s not interested in arguing about theology. He wants to work with churches that are willing to move the needle in any way – liberal or conservative.
“If we don’t journey with people, if we don’t answer what is possibly seen as mundane or routine questions around the LGBTQ+ community, there is no real way that those who are on the periphery might be able to engage the conversation,” Abram said of his workshops. “We’re trying to lower the barrier of entry so those who are nervous or reticent about the conversation can feel comfortable enough to begin to have it.”It’s a call that resonated with Rev. Eddie Journey. Journey invited Abram to conduct his first local workshop at Second Baptist Church in Evanston because he thinks Abram can help his church become more inclusive.
“Churches that don’t answer this question – or haven’t answered for these individuals – I don’t think will exist in 20 years,” Journey said.
The workshop begins
About 10 congregants gathered at Second Baptist on a Saturday morning in early March. After donuts and prayer, Abram asked them to rise from their chairs and rank their church on a scale he created called the “Institutional Church Continuum.”
Members stood under signs saying one word from the continuum – antagonizing, avoiding, accepting, affirming and advocating. On the far left, Abram’s continuum says an antagonizing church dehumanizes or bullies LGBTQ people. On the far right, an advocating church actively seeks to hear and promote their experiences.
Most people at the workshop settled somewhere near the “accepting” sign.
Participant Anthony Agee chose this place because he thinks the church hasn’t explicitly communicated with the congregation where it stands.
“There are members who are maybe accepting, and I think would be affirming if that was explained to them,” Agee explained.“We never took the opportunity to say we are an affirming community.”At the end of the workshop, Abram handed participants a questionnaire. It asked things like whether the church funds programs for LGBTQ people, and whether such people are allowed to be in church leadership.
After considering their responses, lay members rank the church again. Most people move down a peg – instead of standing near accepting and affirming, they stand near accepting and avoiding.
Pride in the Pews will work with the church over the next six months, hosting focus groups with LGBTQ members of the church and people outside the church to see how they perceive it – all in the hopes of moving the needle another inch.
“We’re interested in meeting you where you are so that LGBTQ folk don’t experience as much harm, as much violence, as much theological sort of berating as they do now,” Abram said.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow @adorakn.