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Black church reaches out to gay, transgender teens

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

The Rev. Catharine Cummings played Monopoly with a group of youths.

Eziah Karter-Sabir Blake swiped the play debit card through a plastic reader during a game of Monopoly recently. Another multimillion-dollar sale. The buyer, Giftson Joseph, rubbed his hands together, a glimmer creeping in his eyes as he playfully nudged the Rev. Catharine A. Cummings.

The three - one gay, one transgender, one straight - sat around a table at a new youth drop-in center at Union United Methodist Church, a historically black congregation in the South End, the heart of Boston’s gay community.

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Simply by being there, the trio was straddling a divisive line between the gay community and the black church, where many gay and lesbian minorities have long felt ignored or unwelcome in the pews.

“It’s a big risk they are taking in the black community,’’ said Joseph, an 18-year-old African-American college student who is gay. “There’s already enough stigma in the church. But this is a church that is accepting of all races and sexual orientations.’’

Union United Methodist leaders say the Youth Space drop-in center is an extension of their open and affirming mission to follow the teachings of Christ and serve all people, including those in the margins of society and those who have been disenfranchised.

“Most churches are not willing to put themselves out there . . . because it conflicts with their theology,’’ said Cummings, who then evoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’’

The Youth Space program, which targets gay and straight 13- to 18-year-olds, comes at a time when black churches are coming under increasing pressure from advocates for gays to be more accepting. The topic remains so controversial in many black churches that clergy are reluctant to publicly discuss it.

Neither leaders in the TenPoint Coalition nor the Black Ministerial Alliance, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, returned calls for comment. The Rev. Lorraine Thornhill, who heads the Cambridge Black Pastors Conference said she did not wish to speak about the issue.

The Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr. of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury said everyone who surrenders to Jesus Christ is welcomed at his church, where King once preached. But he said his church would not target specific groups or offer programs for gays.

“I can’t see that happening at our church, because we have a conservative view and a scriptural bias for what we do,’’ Gerald said. “We concentrate on what the Bible says.’’

Union United has a long history of bucking tradition. In the 1800s, black worshipers walked out of their segregated Beacon Hill church home after whites grew uncomfortable and complained about their vibrant, African-style of worship. In 1818, members founded the May Street Church, which became a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to the church’s website.

Quincey Roberts (rear), a case manager for the Youth Lounge, watched as a group that included Eziah Karter-Sabir Blake played Monopoly in the basement of Union United Methodist Church in the South End. The Youth Space, a drop-in program that welcomes participants of all sexual orientations, is housed in the basement of the historically black church.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Quincey Roberts (rear), a case manager for the Youth Lounge, watched as a group that included Eziah Karter-Sabir Blake played Monopoly in the basement of Union United Methodist Church in the South End. The Youth Space, a drop-in program that welcomes participants of all sexual orientations, is housed in the basement of the historically black church.

In 2000, church member Hilda Evans pushed Union United to again change course, and the church agreed to defy United Methodist leaders by declaring itself an open and affirming congregation to gays and straight people alike. It held its first gay service in June 2007 at the height of the state’s same-sex marriage debate.

Cummings, who is straight, said blacks and gays share similar struggles of intolerance.

“Many years ago it was not so popular to serve the African-American communities because of our second-class status,’’ said the 28-year-old associate pastor. “Not wanting to oppress others, we have opened the tent wider and wider.’’

The Youth Space program, held in the church’s basement, does not focus on religious activities. It is open space, with chairs stacked on one side and large tables for the participants to sit around. A computer lab is in the back, a lounge is being renovated, and a stage is available for poetry slams or singing. Volunteers are available to help with homework, test preparation, or anything else.

As a drizzling rain patted the pavement on a recent day, they came in - some in groups or one by one - gay, lesbian, straight. One teen brought her baby. The fact that the program is held in a church is not lost on the participants and volunteers.

“When they called me up, I was like ‘Are you serious?’ ’’ said Quincey Roberts, the 29-year-old cofounder of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition, who is helping to coordinate the center.

He could not believe that a church, a black church, had called. He joined the church recently, buoyed by the support from members, including many older women. Raised in Raleigh, N.C., he had struggled with coming out to his family. And even now, his grandmother refers to his sexuality by saying he is practicing homosexuality. “That’s like saying I’m practicing being African-American,’’ he said.

Blake, a 21-year-old who is transitioning from female to male, grew up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses home and always felt out of place. He recalled coming out to his stepfather and his mother when he turned 19. His mother cried and said, “My daughter is gone,’’ he recounted.

He found refuge in groups such as Boston GLASS, a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people, and the Justice Resource Health Institute, a human services group.

“My history with religion is that sexual orientation and gender identity have not been positive ones in the black church,’’ said Blake. “So I went into this thinking that I would be met with some sort of dislike or friction. But here, I was welcomed.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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