Prizm News / August 5, 2019 / By Katie Hobbins
Out clergy navigate the intersection between sexuality and faith
Father Vincent Black always wanted to become a priest.
Growing up in the Roman Catholic faith, he felt the overwhelming call to the cloth that eventually had him attending seminary school in high school. What no one knew at the time was that Black was holding onto that classic secret: he was gay.
“I remember as a child wondering why women couldn’t be priests and questioning why a priest couldn’t be married or have families and children,” Black reflects. “There was this big disconnect and then there was my own coming out and coming to terms with being gay.”
Black decided to leave seminary, believing there was no place for him in the Roman Catholic church. Feeling discarded by the faith of his childhood, he spiraled into despair.
“I went through a very dark period of thinking that there was no hope for me, that there was something terribly wrong with me, and that clearly God couldn’t love me if I were such a sinner,” remembers Black.
It was when he started university that he finally explored what it meant to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community. When a friend told him about a gay man becoming a bishop within the Episcopal church, Black decided he wanted to learn more. Visiting Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland with his partner Rodger Barnhard, Black says that he instantly felt like he belonged.
“I felt immediately at home when I walked through the doors,” he recalls. “There were several priests presiding at Holy Communion together. One was a woman, one was an older priest who was married and had children and one was a younger male priest who had recently been married. I remember thinking Oh my God. This is exactly what I always thought church could be.”
It was then that he started attending the services and when it came time for Barnhard and his 10-year anniversary, Trinity Cathedral decided to help them celebrate with a wedding. With only three months to prepare and 250 invitations sent out and accepted, Black and Barnhard tied the sacred knot in the first covenant ceremony Trinity Cathedral had ever performed. In the process, Black found himself once morebeing called by God to become a priest, this time with much more manageable barriers.
“When I sat down with [the priest] for the first appointment, I said to her I think I’m called to be a priest,” says Black. “She laughed and said, You might want to become Episcopalian first. I laughed too and I then I dove right in.”
Now, as the Rector of the Church of the Ascension in Lakewood, Ohio, Black role-models for his flock what he believes is a genuine representation of God’s love, all while making sure that marginalized people feel at home within the stained-glass walls.
“Our tagline, which is the tagline of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, is ‘God loves you, no exceptions’ and we believe that,” Black says. “This really is a place were you can come and be loved and experience the love of God and be included.”
On September 5, Equality Ohio will be honoring two out Cincinnati clergy as Advocates for Equality: The Reverend David W. Meredith of the Clifton United Methodist Church and Pastor Lesley E. Jones of Truth & Destiny Covenant Ministries Fellowship United Church of Christ. Prizm spoke with both of these faith leaders about their work, their identity, and how they navigate the intersection of the two.
Do you see what you do as a job?
Reverend Meredith: What I do is work. What I do is paid. But what I do does not feel like a job. What I do feels like fulfillment of what it is for me to be a human being in a relationship with the divine, and all that the divine loves. It doesn’t feel like a job, but it is work.
Pastor Jones: I don’t see what I do as a job. I compartmentalize a lot. There is a portion of it that is a job. But I see my work as a vocation and a calling.
In your work, what does a great day look like?
Reverend Meredith: The Gospel of John states, “the truth will set us free.” Any day in which I experience moments of truth-telling feels like a good day. That could be a Sunday morning worship service where people are free to be themselves in all of their authentic beauty. It could be speaking truth to power in City Hall regarding how immigrant children need to be cared for in our city. Or it could be a personal moment where the truth of the gospel is allowing me to be me.
Pastor Jones: A great day is when I really see the fruits of my labor, like when I get to interact with the young people who live in my neighborhood. Yesterday, I did a training on voter registration and when I pulled in the parking lot, there was a young man with whom I was working a little bit ago. I had told him back then that he needed a haircut if he wanted to get hired. And there he was yesterday, smiling, hair cut, and he told me he had gotten the job. That was a great day.
Regarding that space at the nexus of sexual identity and faith, are there any areas where you have struggled?
Reverend Meredith: The place that remains a place of struggle is within the larger movement for equal rights for LGBTQ persons and their families, particularly around the separation of church and state. There is powerful action to force and enforce equal rights across all spectrums of life in the United States. And yet the Church and faith communities stand in a different relationship than all of those other sectors. I feel compelled on both fronts: compelled to protect faith communities and their freedoms and compelled to work for justice in all aspects of our life together. Those two don’t live well together right now, especially when some are using religious freedoms to discriminate, so there is a lot more work to be done.
Pastor Jones: I’m a church kid, have been in the church all my life, and this is a generational vocation in my family. From what I grew up being taught until I got to the point where I explored my sexuality on my own, there were some struggles. These days, there are daily struggles between balancing what people think justice looks and what God thinks justice looks like. People think the bad guy should lose, but God’s justice doesn’t always mean that.
Over the years, the word acceptance comes up a lot in faith work. How would you describe the concept?
Reverend Meredith: Acceptance is an evolving idea. I think there was a time when acceptance was the deep yearning of the hearts of many if not most LGBTQ persons. I think what we’re being called on today to do is different than acceptance. I don’t know LGBTQ people who want to be accepted. They want the freedom to be their authentic selves in any and all ways. What the church and faith communities are called to do is to hold space for that type of freedom and authenticity of relationships and expression in all of its messy and beautiful diversity.
Pastor Jones: For me, acceptance is the fact that you come to a place where you can find common ground or commonality with the individual or the situation that allows you to say, “Ok, we may not agree, but I can relate to you at the place where you are.” Acceptance is a mutual respect, not that horrible “t” word of tolerance. I’m not just tolerating you, but I’m doing this so we can come to a mutual relationship. A lot of times we want affirmation, and that doesn’t always come because there isn’t always total agreement. And that’s ok. But there can still be total respect.
What advice do you have for your LGBTQ+ siblings who have received their own calling?
Reverend Meredith: Follow it. Period. Be faithful to the calling and find a way to fulfill it. Do not let any of the noise dissuade you from fulfilling your calling to live out your faith. Follow your calling faithfully because that’s where God is working to do good everyday.
Pastor Jones: Go for it! Remember that God called you, and people can prop you up, but they might do so on a 3-legged stool. Remember this verse: God who begins a good work in you is faithful to complete it.
Katie Hobbins is a freelance journalist with a concentration in LGBTQ, entertainment and investigative journalism. Follow her at Katie_Hobbins on Twitter and Wheremyfeetmayfall.com.