Lesbian Teenager in Newark Dies. The Black Church is Silent.

The Death of Sakia Gunn

Why were Black churches silent after the death of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year old lesbian who was stabbed to death on Newark’s busiest intersection in 2003? That question is one way to begin an interrogation of Black churches’ responses, or lack thereof, to the tragic murder of Sakia at the hands of a presumably straight adult male perpetrator, but it does not permit a nuanced answer that seeks to contextualize churches’ responsiveness or unresponsiveness to Sakia’s murder within the broader trajectory of Black church activism centered on anti-violence as it manifested, or not, in the city of Newark and elsewhere. But it seems some other questions have yet to be asked in relation to activism post-Sakia’s death on the part of those within the church and without. I wonder, for example, Why were White churches, within Newark and without, silent after the death of Sakia? Why were mainstream progressive White LGBTQ organizations and media outlets silent after Sakia’s death (though, there were some exceptions like Workers World and a Montclair-based LGBTQ community group)? Have White churches—within Newark and without—and mainstream progressive White organizations been active in the anti-violence, anti-racism, and anti-sexism work that had been underway before and after Sakia’s death?

I am in no way attempting to dismiss heterosexism as a possibility for churches’ silence. In fact, I know many virulently heterosexist believers in the city of Newark and elsewhere—I have been on the receiving end of some of their rebukes. But what I am attempting to do is complicate the easily-made argument that the silences of many Black church leaders around the death of Sakia were solely a result of homophobia. My concern has to do with the overly cited claim that Black churches, and by default Black people, tend to be more homophobic than some others. While I have interviewed LGBTQ-identified Newarkers who stated that they believe Black folk to be more homophobic than non-Black people, we have not gathered enough qualitative data to validate that claim. The questions posed are not meant to point or redistribute blame, but are meant to irradiate the messy interconnections of race, gender, sexuality, class, religiosity, and geography that ought to be examined in relation to the reactions of some and the silences of others. While this essay centers on a particular case in Newark, NJ, it may illuminate thoughts that could be applied to discussions on Black churches and homophobia across the USA.

Faheem Williams: A Newark Child Murdered

I now turn to another murder that occurred in Newark in 2003 as an additional site to read Black church silence, oppression, and/or activism. The tragic death of 7-year old Faheem Williams, who was killed by an older teenage cousin, received a lot of press attention including several articles that ran in the New York Times. The case became popular because of the disturbing specifics of the case (Faheem was found dead in a basement) and its subsequent impact on the state of New Jersey’s responses to child abuse claims.

Faheem’s case is quite different than Sakia’s. The assailant was similarly convicted of manslaughter, but the case was not tried as a hate crime. In addition, young Faheem was not murdered because of his sexual identity, but similar to Sakia, he was a black, economically challenged, young person who lacked certain protections in Newark. In response to his murder, Bishop James D. Churchwell Jr., pastor of the Emmanuel Church of Christ in Newark where Faheem’s funeral service was held, offered these words, ”our children are in a condition where they need a savior. They need salvation.”1

Bishop Churchwell acknowledges a “condition” that Gary Jardin, a long-time Newark based cultural worker and intellectual, noted as being present within Newark even during the time of the writing of his essay, “The Myth of the Renaissance City,” ten years before Sakia’s death in 1993. Jardin notes, “I think about…the kids trying to thrive in treacherous circumstances characterized by the phrases there are no children here and savage inequalities.”2 Jardin references the brutalizing language that had been used by journalists and some others when describing Newark youth and the conditions that they lived through. Thus, Churchwell, like Jardin, described the conditions that youth encountered in Newark in 2003 as unforgiving, as that which required mediation and even salvation. But, what type of “salvation” was Churchwell referencing? Was he referring to a type of existential salvation of the soul or the saving of Newark’s children from such tenuous material conditions by their adult caretakers?

If Churchwell meant that Newark’s children require existential salvation, that is, saving by and through the Christ, it makes sense why he—and some other church leaders who maintain similar theological understandings—might have also viewed the Bible and prayer as the requisite tools for change and advocacy as opposed to marches and political action. Such understanding produces a theological interpretation of the “weapons of warfare” as spiritual weapons and not carnal tools. To put it another way, in the case of Faheem, resistance ostensibly took the form of spiritual crusading as opposed to corporeal activism. I wonder, then, if this might have been a posture similarly taken up by some Black church leaders after the death of Sakia? Might it have been the case that some Black church leaders located no other tool, but spiritual tools, in their advocacy toolkits at the time? Or, were the silences around Sakia’s death a direct result of heterosexism, period?

Black Christian Leaders’ Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage

I think it is fair to argue that both were possibilities and remain plausible today. For example, The Star Ledger, the local newspaper covering Newark, recently ran a story titled, “N.J.’s black churches open doors to gay congregants, but not right to marry.”3 The article begins with these hopeful words, “A random sampling of black ministers in the Newark area found many are aware of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered men and women in their congregations, singing in the choir or working in a church office. And they are willing to welcome them with open arms.” The survey results offers a perspective of Black church leaders’ attitudes that counter the assumption that most leaders maintain heterosexist beliefs; though, the article doesn’t state if the survey gauged how their views have changed over time since Sakia’s death, assuming the Black church leaders and congregants are familiar with her case. Some aren’t.

The article continues by pointing out the extent to which their “welcome” is truly welcoming or not. For example, the reporter notes, “But support gay marriage from the pulpit? Don’t even think of it. Some pastors object on the basis of scripture, others just don’t see it as the church’s mission to take a political stand on gay rights of any kind.” Rev. William Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, preaches against homophobia but was quoted as saying, “my ministry is not defined by advocacy of gay people.” The reporter goes on to note that he “doesn’t believe the church should be called upon to overtly endorse or criticize topics such as gay marriage.” The article also includes the perspective of The Rev. Jethro James, pastor of Paradise Baptist in Newark, president of the Newark North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen and a well-known activist within the city. When speaking of the several gay and one transgendered person in his congregation, he stated, “They come to worship. And ask forgiveness. Sinners welcome. Come join us.” Thus, while it is quite clear that advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people is not the principle area of concern for the pastors interviewed and it is clear that some of the pastors maintain an interpretation of scripture that still upholds LGBTQ sexual identity and behavior as sinful, the assumed apathetic posture that Black church leaders are thought to take as it relates to the upholding of the humanity of queer persons seems to be complicated by some of the statements in the article. The problem of singularity (or, rather, the focus on singular issues as opposed to intersectional approaches), particularly as it relates to the types of issues prioritized by some church leaders like Rev. Howard, remains in some churches, however. Thus, an intersectional approach to advocacy in all Black churches is necessary.

It was a tragic irony that Sakia was stabbed at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets in Newark. Her blood was spilled at a literal crossing and a metaphorical juncture where various forms of oppression manifest, especially for black women. It may very well be the case that some Black churches were silent because of their desire to stay clear of the question of Sakia’s sexuality or because gay advocacy did not factor as a principle area of concern for them, like Rev. Howard intimates. It is right to critique those Black churches for failing to appeal to a Black political agenda that dismisses sexuality and queer subjectivities. Such dismissals are oppressive. On the other hand, what are we to think of those churches whose silence was not the result of a myopic political platform, but who honestly understood their activist role, like Bishop Churchwell in the case of Faheem’s murder, to be a “spiritual” one?

 

2 Jardin 67

3 Published: Sunday, December 11, 2011, 7:26 AM By Linda Ocasio/The Star-Ledger

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