For the average Black Christian in the South, choosing which church to attend on a Sunday morning might come down to membership or if the mass choir or male chorus will sing on that particular Sunday. For Black LGBTQ people, the choice to enter a house of worship often and unfortunately comes down to spiritual safety. Of the eight historically Black Christian denominations, none are LGBTQ-affirming, according to Pride in The Pews, a Chicago-based non-profit and host of the February 2 State of the Black Church Symposium at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Pride In The Pews, founded by Don Abram, aims to promote the holistic health and well-being of Black LGBTQ+ communities in the public square, the pulpit, and the pew. The two-day event included a fireside chat with State Sen. Shevrin Jones and State Rep. Michele Rayner, two out Florida legislators, along with queer journalist and Morehouse College alumnus Gerren Keith Gaynor, and several LGBTQ faith leaders and allies.
A highlight of the programmatic offerings on day one of the symposium was a conversation on inclusion in the Black church and storytelling with queer actor Nicholas Ashe (“Queen Sugar”), moderated by writer and theologian Ciarra Jones. A viewing of the 2022 independent film “The Spirit God Gave Us,” by Black LGBTQ filmmaker Michael Donte, starring Ashe, was screened for the audience inside Sisters Chapel before the start of the conversation.
“The Spirit God Gave Us” is an intersectional story of faith and queer love through the lens of Malcolm (Ashe) and Shamont (Elijah Boothe), two young Black men who volunteer as ushers for their Baptist church and are faced with reconciling societal and religious expectations with an intense longing for connection and intimacy.
“We’ve seen church stories that are just ridiculously heavy and paint the church in a certain way, but we wanted to show that the church can be a haven if we allow it to be,” Ashe said. “That there is a future where these two men can get married in this Baptist church.”
For Ashe, the projects he’s attached to represent more than entertainment; it is an opportunity to educate and change the narrative about Black queer people.
“I want to make work that makes you walk a little bit taller or feel a little bit different,” Ashe said. “I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg of the work I’m looking to make as a creative. But if we aren’t changing hearts and minds with our stories, then what are we doing? I understand that it’s part of our mission to make entertaining work, but at the same time, I want to tell stories that heal and give you some true sense of navigation after you change channels or leave the theater. I really believe in the power of storytelling,” he said.
It’s nearly impossible to divorce a faith experience, Christian or otherwise, from the Black queer Southern experience. And despite conservative interpretations of scripture, LGBTQ Christians like Ashe and Jones are rejecting the notion that their queerness automatically separates them from God. Jones recounted a specific moment of certainty after coming out to her sister and mourning the idea of never becoming a preacher before being asked a question by her sister that changed her perspective.
“Who said you have to split yourself in two for God to love you? Who said that who you are right now cannot be received by God?”
It was a transformative moment for Jones, with deep Baptist moans of approval echoing throughout the Chapel. But it wouldn’t be the last. Unbeknownst to Ashe, he’d planted a seed in Atlanta a decade earlier that was about to bloom in real-time as Jones opened the conversation up to questions from the audience.
“I am still here because of you,” said A.J. Thomson, an Atlanta-based gay actor who saw Ashe perform in “Choir Boy” at the Alliance Theatre in 2013 shortly after coming out.
Thomson said his dad purchased tickets to the Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”) coming-of-age play about a Black queer prep student as a birthday gift. In the end, he vividly recalls his dad asking, ‘Is that what you go through?'”
“It was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Thomson told Ashe. “I stayed in musical theater because I saw you, Nic Ashe; you changed my life.”
If there was ever a perfect example of the power of Black queer representation on stage and screen, the decades-long impact of Ashe’s work and visibility for Thomson and countless others—this was it.
“I can’t believe I’m breathing the same air in the same room with him again twice in one lifetime,” Thomson said. “He really was that mustard seed (of faith).”