The Rev. Seth Pickens, senior pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Los Angeles, has come under the scrutiny of members of his congregation after writing an op-ed titled "10 Reasons I Love LGBTQ Folk" for a community newspaper, but he insists that the situation was not as dire as some have perceived it to be.
Teka-Lark Fleming, the irreligious publisher of the Morningside Park Chronicle, the newspaper that published Pickens' controversial op-ed, said she was inspired when she first met the Christian minister and found him to be "a good guy" partly because he was "doing a lot of good work in the community, the way you're supposed to if you're a pastor."
Fleming, who had invited Pickens to submit the op-ed, claims in her outraged response to the subsequent church fracas that Pickens would be subjected to a "tribunal" and grilled about what he believes the Bible teaches about homosexuality and whether he had ever "communicated to anyone that homosexual behavior or homosexual marriage aligns with the Word of God."
Fleming also invited other "progressive black folk" to publicly support Pastor Pickens, and some, such as Sikivu Hutchinson, a feminist author and founder of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, answered to that call by attending services at Zion Hill this past Sunday.
Hutchinson explains in an opinion article published online this week that the demand for an inquiry on Pickens' moral position on human sexuality came "on the heels of internal criticism he'd received for performing a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple last year."
Also describing the inquiry as a "tribunal," Hutchinson writes that the Rev. Pickens was being asked by church officials to "respond to a laundry list of questions on homosexuality and biblical morality." Hutchinson and Pickens' relationship stem from the minister previously agreeing to host "community forums on atheism, black secular humanist traditions and civil rights resistance" at Zion Hill Baptist Church.
According to Fleming, the newspaper publisher, "The community should not lose a good person, a good leader over archaic ideas by ignorant, old, hateful men. Justice can not be compromised."
In a phone conversation with The Christian Post this week, Pickens confirmed that he and church deacons indeed have discussed his stance on sexuality and his biblical interpretation on the issue due to his op-ed, but insisted the situation was not as extreme as some have portrayed it.
He was not being persecuted, he assured CP, and expressed concern over portrayals in the media that made it seem otherwise.
"I never gave anybody that word, I don't know where it came from," Pickens said, alluding to published use of the term "tribunal" to describe his discussion with church leaders.
"Some leaders in our congregation had some questions about it. It's a very hot issue in church and society right now. I do happen to come down clearly on the side of affirming people. Some people in the congregation don't and so some of them wanted me to answer for it," Pickens explained, noting that the conversation took place last week.
He declined to give details about his conversation with Zion Hill's deacons, saying he was not going to comment on "internal stuff." He also declined to provide contact information for other parties involved in the conversation, and refused to comment on whether there would be future conversations between he and the congregation concerning his acceptance of homosexuality.
"I think that overall I'm very loved here. I don't think that I'm in any ... well, I'll say I'm still very loved here, and I love this church," said Pickens.
That love between Pickens and his 300-member congregation was tested when the married minister's "10 Reasons I Love LGBTQ Folk" op-ed was published Feb. 25 on the Morningside Park Chronicle's website.
Some of the reasons given by Pickens in the op-ed for why he "loves LGBTQ folk" include: "My faith tells me to love them unconditionally; I do. Some want to get married, and some don't; go figure. They also bleed red if you cut them. With the bullying and hate many face, they qualify as an oppressed people. Christians support oppressed people. They were here before I was born, and they'll be here after I die. Their demands are forcing us to rethink the potentialities of God."
Pickens, who started pastoring Zion Hill Baptist Church in June 2009, suggested he could not explain during a simple phone conversation why he does not embrace orthodox Christian teachings on sexuality, which traditionally affirm as sinful any sexual activity outside the confines of heterosexual marriage.
"There's a lot to it ... but I think it boils down to the fact that God loves us unconditionally. We're called to love one another unconditionally and we can talk about that, but in terms of what it actually looks like, in terms of the role I feel I'm supposed to have in the community, I feel that … the Word of God, the Spirit of God will make people be what they're supposed to be, but only if they feel welcomed at church," Pickens explained.
"That's not the only way they can come into contact with God, but they're not going to meet God in church if they don't feel welcomed to be there and to really be truly themselves in a safe space. If you don't feel safe, you don't feel like you can really be yourself then how can you have that encounter with God? Because that encounter with God, that necessitates authenticity … I think that churches should be a place where people can be themselves. None of us are without sin, but why should we put one particular sin at the forefront as such a big deal?"
Zion Hill Baptist Church, founded in 1923 and located in predominantly black and Latino Hyde Park district, is "99 percent African American," according to Pickens. The church is incorporated with American Baptist Churches USA and the National Baptist Convention USA. Zion is reportedly in good standing with both bodies. Like all member churches, Zion Hill operates autonomously.
When asked if he thought there were any distinctions as to how homosexuality is dealt with or perceived in traditional black churches, some of which employ a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Pickens said he saw no difference.
"I think there are people of all races, gay and straight, who feel comfortable in a church, don't feel comfortable in a church. But I do think all people genuinely need a path to God and it's a shame when church becomes more of a stumbling block."
He added, "I know that African American same-gender loving people are already very active in church."
Pickens told CP that he has received a mix of praise and rebuke in the greater community, but feels he has no choice but to maintain his convictions.
"I know that it goes against tradition, but I lead as I'm led by God," he said.
Is he led to preach on sexual sins?
"I preach on what I consider the whole counsel of God so I don't harp on sexuality," Pickens explained. "Just this past Sunday, I was in 1 Corinthians 6 [which says] 'flee from sexual immorality' and 'your body is a temple' … I preach about love, patience. I preach about peace, God moving. I preach about miracles. I preach about Christmas … so I really do give, to the best of my ability, the full counsel of the Word and not try to harp on any one particular political issue."
Pickens said he hopes other churches step up to the plate and talk openly among its members about homosexuality like he has with his congregation.
"This is an issue that's gonna be very important for the church to at least openly discuss. Now, I'm not saying open and affirming and accepting, not everyone has to be that way. But we do have to openly discuss it in congregations. I frankly commend the leadership of Zion Hill, not just myself but other leaders for being willing to have these discussions," he said.
At the end of the day, "Zion Hill is united as a church even in the midst of difficulty."
"Really, we are a church. We're a family, we're unified," Pickens added, although everyone "doesn't agree on every issue all the time."
The findings of a survey recently published by the Public Religion Research Institute show that more and more Americans are changing their minds on LGBT issues, with 53 percent of them now favoring same-sex marriage, a double-digit increase in favorability from a decade ago. How churches approach issues related to homosexuality has also emerged as a deciding factor for some congregants, with 58 percent of Americans agreeing that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.