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He feared coming out. Now this pastor wants to help Black churches become as welcoming as his own – Metro US

He feared coming out. Now this pastor wants to help Black churches become as welcoming as his own

Black Church-Gay Pastor
The Rev. Brandon Thomas Crowley speaks during Sunday service at Myrtle Baptist Church Sunday, May 5, 2024 in Newton, Mass. In 2015, Crowley, the senior pastor of the church, one of America’s oldest Black churches, announced to his congregation, “I am a proud, Black, gay Christian male.” (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

It was daunting when the Rev. Brandon Thomas Crowley, at age 22, replaced a beloved pastor who had ministered to one of suburban Boston’s most famed Black churches for 24 years.

It was more daunting — at times agonizing — to reach the decision six years later, in 2015, that God wanted him to tell his congregation that he was gay.

To his relief, most of the worshippers at Myrtle Baptist Church in Newton, Massachusetts, embraced him. Crowley’s career has flourished, and he has now written a book — “Queering the Black Church” — that he hopes can serve as a guide for other congregations to be “open and affirming” to LGBTQ+ people rather than shunning them.

Crowley, 41, was born in Atlanta and raised in Rome, Georgia. He admired the preachers he heard as a child, especially at Lovejoy Baptist Church, his home congregation.

One Sunday, however, the pastor preached a fiery sermon against homosexuals.

“He called them all types of names, using derogatory phrases and really describing it as a detestable group and a sinful thing, and I just sort of knew he was talking about me,” Crowley said in an interview. “That was my first introduction to really knowing the beauty of who I am as a queer person.”

Crowley said his great grandmother repeatedly assured him that he was made in the image of God. She also told him about getting pregnant at 14 — and breaking away from her own church after refusing its demand to apologize to the congregation.

“She would say, ‘God loves you,’” Crowley recalled. “She said, ‘They almost made me take my own life when I was pregnant, but I came to know a God beyond the church, and I’ve got beyond what these preachers say.’”

Nonetheless, throughout this period, Crowley felt he was called to be a Christian pastor — a preacher of the social justice gospel.

Believing he had to hide his sexual identity in order to pursue that calling, he began dating a girl at Lovejoy.

He had still not come out by the time he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, joining its Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Assistants program. While at Morehouse, he said, he experienced his first serious romance with a young man, but led his family to believe it was a non-romantic friendship.

After graduating from Morehouse, Crowley was accepted by Harvard Divinity School. He considered abandoning his dream to be a preacher, and instead “write books about the Black church being dead.”

But one of his friends, convinced of his spiritual talents, encouraged Crowley to apply for the open pastorate at Myrtle Baptist — less than 10 miles from the divinity school.

Soon after he expressed initial interest, Crowley said, he received word that he was “exactly” what Myrtle’s search committee was seeking. He recalled his inner reaction: “I was, like, ‘What are y’all talking about? Like, I’m gay! This can’t happen.’”

But he stayed in the running for the job — even breaking away from a weekend Gay Pride party in Miami to get back in Boston in time to preach at a service attended by the search committee.

Before long, Crowley was named a finalist. His closest mentors were split over whether he should tell Myrtle’s leaders about his sexuality or stay quiet on that topic while doing a good job as preacher. He chose the latter course — and operated that way for six years after his election as Myrtle’s new senior pastor in 2009.

But over time, Crowley said, he realized “I could only really do the work of God if I operated from a place of real authenticity.”

He also found love in the church. Crowley first met Tyrone Sutton, his partner of three years, when he was guest preaching. Sutton was sitting at the organ. On one of their first dates they sang and played music together.

Periodically during his life, Crowley said, he heard a voice he believed was coming from the spirit of God. He says it first spoke approvingly of his same-sex attraction as a child in 1993, after he was rebuked by a relative for saying that a male character on a sitcom was “so fine.”

“God doesn’t like that,” the relative said. But Crowley recalls hearing the voice tell him that God had made him that way. He says he heard it again at age 12, beckoning him to a life in ministry. And years later, as an adult, he said it would guide him through the emotional process of breaking up with a girlfriend after telling her about his homosexuality.

But those occasions all occurred in private. In the spring of 2015, Crowley says he was sitting in Myrtle’s pulpit one Sunday when he heard the voice speaking to him — telling him it was time to come out.

“Are you crazy? These people are going to put me out,” Crowley recalls telling the voice that was urging him to share the truth.

But minutes later, a tearful Crowley did just that — announcing to his congregation, “I am a proud, Black, gay Christian male.”

“We already knew, reverend,” one church mother told him. “We were just waiting on you.”

Some congregation members decided to leave Myrtle after the announcement, but mostly there was strong support for the pastor. Myrtle’s pews swelled with new members, many of them gay, and Crowley felt emboldened look beyond Newton and take aim at the broader realm of the Black Church.

This year, his first book, “Queering the Black Church: Dismantling Heteronormativity in the African American Church,” was published by Oxford Press.

In the book, Crowley recounts more than a century of Black Christian preaching that was often laden with homophobic diatribes, and broad characterizations of homosexuality as sinful. He notes that the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. crusaded against homosexuality during his 1908-1936 leadership of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church — one of the most prominent Black churches in the country.

Myrtle, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, takes pride in its progressive, inclusive congregation, but many Black churches and denominations in the U.S. remain opposed to celebrating same-sex marriages or ordaining openly LGBTQ+ clergy.

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith, who wrote “Holy Queer,” about the gift of being a gay Black Christian, and lectures frequently on the topic, said he’s not as optimistic as Crowley that Black churches can be “queered.” For many members of the LGBTQ+ community, Black churches are the site of trauma and exclusion, he said.

“Those folks aren’t coming back,” Smith said.

It remains a volatile issue in some quarters. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, is expected to vote at an upcoming national meeting on a measure which would allow AME pastors to conduct same-sex marriages.

While pastoring at Myrtle, Crowley earned a Ph.D. from Boston University’s School of Theology. He hopes to become a professor as well as a preacher, he said via email, “further serving my Queer and Black communities in both spiritual and scholarly contexts.”

The Rev. Martha Simmons, an expert in Black preaching and founder of the advocacy group Women of Color in Ministry, became a mentor for Crowley after appearing at Morehouse as a guest speaker. She describes him as perhaps the most gifted of all the students she has encountered in her career.

“The most impressive thing about Brandon is that it’s really hard to be queer in a Black Baptist world, and that’s what he’s been in for most of his adult life,” Simmons said. “And he handles it all so well.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.