On the Road to Refuge

A radical church reaches out to queer communities.

By Pete Muller Sep 16, 2009

September 16, 2009

See more photos by Pete Muller here.

"You, and everything about you, is welcome in this house of God," Pastor Kendal Brown declares as he removes thick-framed glasses to wipe sweat from his brow. "Welcome home."

His outstretched arms wave before him, palms open and extended toward a crimson crucifix at the front of the church. Members moved by the Holy Spirit run circles around pews filled with teary-eyed worshipers. Organs and drums invade the air with deafening force as members cry out in Pentecostal tongues.

Each Sunday, in the desolate town of Lanham, Maryland, north of Washington, Brown preaches the controversial doctrine of Radical Inclusion, an emerging trans-denominational philosophy that aims to provide safe, affirming space for those wounded by "oppressive," traditional religion. His church, the City of Refuge, reconciles this concept of GLBT-focused, "affirming" worship with Pentecostalism, a branch of Christianity known for a conservative doctrine as well as intense worship styles, like speaking in tongues.

Under Brown’s bold words, the church’s wooden pews are growing warmer every week.

"For centuries, the church has been an integral aspect of African-American culture," Brown explains. "Throughout our history, the church has served as a place of worship, community and organization." For Black people of alternative sexual orientations, however, the conventional church, and many of its followers, pit faith against self-acceptance.

"There are so many congregations across the Washington, D.C. metro area where GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] persons are forced to check an essential part of their being at the door, while their gifts and talents are exploited Sunday after Sunday," he says. In the City of Refuge, his passionate weekly sermons indicate that this ain’t your granddaddy’s Pentecost.   

The City of Refuge’s doctrine of Radical Inclusion casts a wide net around the castaways of conventional churches. On a typical Sunday, the turnout reflects the church’s targeted base: the poor, same-gender-loving and transgender people, people living with HIV and AIDS, recovering drug users, and the formerly incarcerated. Many members arrived in Lanham only after years of painful searching for a place that fit.

"Pentecostalism, the notion of holiness and living in strict codes of behavior, [does] not have a lot of flexibility for same-gender-loving persons," says Associate Pastor Cedric Harmon, a spry and energetic St. Louis native.  City of Refuge’s progressive concept of "being affirming" he adds, "was a watershed for many people who never thought that they could be part of a Pentecostal environment and yet remain true to who they are."

The City of Refuge leadership actively reaches out to local Black communities, many of which trace their roots back to historical migration from the Deep South, where traditional cultures of worship prevail.

"Most affirming churches…don’t offer the celebrated forms of worship that are grounded in the African-American tradition," says Brown, referring to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and gospel-singing that define Sunday services at the City of Refuge. Brown believes that many same-gender-loving Black Christians would feel out of step without participatory worship. "Affirming churches that lack traditional African-American worship," he says, "set up yet another dynamic where [Black] GLBT persons have to leave another part of them at the door."   

• • •

Jazmin Sutherlin, the organist who generates the Sunday soundtrack at the City of Refuge, is a 29 year-old transgender woman. Graceful and elegantly dressed, it’s hard to picture her two years prior, when she donned a goatee and planned to marry a female partner.

Unlike some Black transgender women, Jazmin exudes tremendous comfort in her transition. "I’m not saying it’s easy, but it was something that really needed to happen," she says while speeding in her car toward Lanham from her home in Alexandria one clear Sunday afternoon. "I knew I wanted to be a female since I was a young child. The outside finally matches the inside and I feel much stronger and more balanced as a result."

Still, like many at the City of Refuge, Sutherlin has struggled to reconcile her sexual identity with her faith. "I grew up as part of the first family in Middlesex, Virginia," she recalls, using a common phrase to describe the pastor’s family in the Black church. Both of her parents are Baptist ministers. While her upbringing imbued her with religious devotion, it also exposed her to tremendous pressure regarding her sexual identity. "While my parents are finally coming around, I’m still not welcome in their church unless I’m willing to go as a man," she says. "I missed my sister’s wedding last year because everyone thought my attendance would just cause too much of a scene."

In her experience, she says, compared to the Black Christian community, "other cultures seem to adapt more quickly to change." This expands beyond the religious context. "In Black culture, there are very rigid standards on gender roles and expression," she says. "Breaking away from those expectations is difficult and requires a lot of courage."

Sutherlin started playing the organ at the City of Refuge when her identity was outwardly male. Then, she recalls, "I sat down with both pastors and discussed my plan to transition." Soon, "they called all the relevant members to pass the word, and when I arrived next Sunday, they publicly welcomed me as sister Jazmin."

Each week, she drives other transgender women from around the Washington area to church. "I’m trying my hardest to fill that place with other transgender persons," she says.     

• • •

Alan Jones, one of the church’s more elusive members, prefers to minister on the fringe. One day, he enters D.C.’s Malcolm X Park, a once-notorious destination for cruising and prostitution in the gay Black community. Within minutes of his arrival, a young, gay man, apparently on drugs, strikes up a conversation with intense sexual overtones. Jones spends an hour with the man, using non-judgmental street slang to counsel and encourage him. "You don’t have to put yourself through this, brother," he says. "God loves you just as you are and you deserve better than this." The exchange ends with a hug–a hallmark of "A Jay’s" routine.

"God showed me the path of alternative sexuality so that I could minister to the gay community as part of it," he says. But it took him a long time to find his way to affirming ministry. Like Sutherlin, Jones, 49, spent decades in conventional churches, keeping his sexuality a secret out of fear of rejection.

Jones’s denial was a key factor in two failed marriages. His second marriage deteriorated after he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, contracted from an affair with a male partner. "We just couldn’t survive it," he recalls, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Between the trauma of my diagnosis and the damage caused by the affair, there was just no coming back."

"I used to ask myself, ‘Why do I have to struggle with this issue?’" Jones says. "Why couldn’t I have been an alcoholic or a drug addict or something else that the church would accept?"

HIV nearly defeated him on several occasions, most recently in 2004, when his doctor discovered that his T-Cell count and viral load had reached levels that qualified him as having full-blown AIDS. "At that point, I needed help with everything: bathing, cooking, you name it," he recalls. He eventually recuperated through a regimen of anti-retroviral drugs. He believes that his religious devotion and positive outlook also aided in his recovery. "The fact that I’m still here makes it clear that I’ve not yet fulfilled my purpose on this earth."

Today, he proclaims, "I am positively positive."

Joining this affirming ministry was a milestone in Jones’s journey to self-acceptance. "For a good core of African Americans, if we would see more of these types of affirming ministries spring up, I think you’d see a larger influx of people coming out for support," he says. "It is places like City of Refuge that really gave me the courage to stand up and embrace who I am and not want to live a double life anymore."

His eyes grow momentarily distant, lost in memory, and then he shakes his head and recites Psalm 139. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made," he says with a hesitant smile.

• • •

Pastor Harmon thinks intolerance toward GLBT people in the Black community should be viewed in the context of structural problems. "I do not believe that the African American community just inherently can’t deal with gay people or is exceptionally conservative," he says. "It’s that there are additional burdens, pathologies and challenges already and this issue is often couched as yet another threat."

"Many messages from society, from pulpits or just street wisdom," he says, "claim that someone who identifies as gay or lesbian is somehow a threat to the family structure in the African-American community." While the view that homosexuality poses a threat to the family is pervasive in other racial groups as well, Harmon believes that it resonates more deeply in Black communities. Defending the conventional family structure is a sensitive issue, he says, as many are troubled by the high prevalence of single-parent households and children in foster care.

"All of the gaps, or threats, are wider in communities of color," he adds. "The healthcare gap. The technology gap. The education gap. When same-gender-loving persons are perceived as an additional threat, people do not know how to respond."

But Pastor Kendal Brown says attitudes are changing. When the City of Refuge community reaches out to traditional circles, he says, "It really is about giving people permission to say what they’ve already been thinking, that we are and have always been a part of the African-American community."

The slow pace of social change quickens for two hours each Sunday in the City of Refuge. In this space, the formerly incompatible worlds of traditional Pentecostal worship and alternative sexuality coexist in ecstatic harmony. Painful memories of exclusion dissipate as rainbow flags become symbols for participatory expression.

As members are moved to dance and weep, Pastor Harmon looks at his fellow worshippers and smiles. "This, my friend, is the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ."

Pete Muller is a photographer and multimedia reporter based in Washington DC.