The African American community has beamed with tremendous pride at the work of the first Black President, Barack Obama, in his first term: Bringing the troops home; creating jobs.; doubling the amount of Pell Grants available for college students; saving the automotive industry; appointing a record number of women & Latinos to strategic positions; stopping Osama Bin Laden; standing up for Trayvon Martin; acknowledging the Occupy Movement; addressing predatory lending; passing historic health care reform… amongst so many other accomplishments.
Given this, I was taken aback by President Obama’s public endorsement of same sex marriage on Tuesday.
My feelings of disappointment arise not only from the fact that I don’t agree with the President, but also because his announcement came so suddenly, and without any warning to the Black church community.
The church at its core is to be a refuge for all of God’s children, including homosexuals. There is a gay community within the Black church. We can’t ignore them or bash them. However, the church has no shades of gray when it comes to marriage. Our faith reserves marriage for a man and a woman. President Obama, as a product of the Black church, is fully aware of that. Knowing this, the President made this endorsement without calling or preparing any of us. For many of us, it felt like a betrayal.
The Black church has been there for him from the start. As a 3rd generation member the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American Protestant denomination in the country, I remember in 2008 when then-Senator Obama came to our general conference, the day after we unanimously passed legislation against same sex marriages. The Bishops of the church took him in private quarters and surrounded him, covering him in prayer. The photo of this moment soon went viral. After the inauguration, the President was met with an onslaught of disrespect, opposition and attack. But he has always been covered in prayer and supported in large measure by the Black church community. Even when national evangelical Franklin Graham openly questioned the President’s Christianity, the NAACP went with national religious leaders from different denominations to demand an apology.
Given this history, it’s not hard to understand why many Black pastors feel jilted. Many have hastened to declare that they will no longer support the President. But when I reflect about this current impasse with Barack Obama, I am reminded of a recent challenge I had as a father.
My oldest daughter is navigating her way through her first year of high school. A complete culture shock in her change of environment. New friends, new teachers, new building, new challenges and new expectations. By and large she is a finalist in her own teenage reality show, unofficially entitled “Survivor”. Recently, and with great trepidation, she handed me her report card. She excelled in language arts, science, music, and history. But algebra remained an albatross around her adolescent neck. It looks like she will have to follow her father’s footsteps and serve a stint in summer school. We are extremely proud of the strides she has made in every other area, but disappointed in her performance in math. But despite our dismay, as her chief supporters, there’s one thing we cannot do: give up on her or abandon her. We are committed to find her a tutor and to remain encouraging. She’s got a great future and this shortcoming will not stop her dreams of graduating, going to college and becoming the greatest journalist the world has ever seen.
Just as I believe in my daughter, I still believe in the President.
It’s has to be about more than our feelings and our differences. While my disagreement with the President on this issue is severe, I have to look at other issues at stake that are critical to our community: improving public education, investing in HBCUs, addressing Social Security, creating jobs, endorsing entrepreneurship, and leveling the paying field so that everybody gets a fair shot.
While I am uncomfortable with the President on this position, I am more uncomfortable with the alternative: an agenda that does not include the poor and platform that has not engaged minorities or the Black church.
This is not the time for us to become disengaged. We cannot afford apathy. This decision is not a reason to leave the political process. We have too much to lose. Our community must participate. That’s why I’m committed to registering a million new voters for November and to challenging vote suppression and voter intimidation.
There are people who want to know now, “What’s the point?” There are many who wonder, “Does it matter?” There are congregations and clergy that are trying to remain confident.
I am reminded of the words of a writer whose name now escapes me, who once said we must have the “audacity of hope.”
Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant is the pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, Md.
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