Rev. Mark Wilson’s eyes were misty and his lower lip was curled as he stood on the steps of the San Francisco Civic Center in front of hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters on Tuesday, May 26. Just a few hours earlier, the California Supreme Court had issued a 6–1 ruling upholding Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Wilson, director of the UC Berkeley Gospel Chorus and the openly gay, African-American pastor from Tapestry Ministries in Berkeley, ignited the rally by joyfully belting out an old civil rights–era song. A vibrant crowd clapped their hands as Wilson’s soulful moan crackled through the speakers: “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.”
In the wake of last week’s ruling, same-sex marriage advocates in California, like Wilson, have vowed to keep fighting. Efforts to put an initiative that would undo Prop. 8 onto the ballot in either 2010 or 2012 have already begun. But for the next vote to pass, the movement will need to take the battle to the church and win over hearts and minds in the trenches of Christian scripture scholarship where Wilson has fought his entire life.
Initially, the black church was blamed for the passage of Prop. 8 by many on the left. Exit polls suggested that many of the same African-American voters who turned out to support Barack Obama also tipped the balance on Prop. 8.
But a study conducted by Patrick Egan of New York University and Kenneth Sherrill of Hunter College revealed that the “Yes on Proposition 8” vote in California had less to do with race and was much more about religion. When Egan and Sherrill sliced up the pie, they discovered that roughly 70 percent of Californians who attend religious worship on a weekly basis supported Prop. 8, regardless of their race. And since African-Americans attend religious services on a more frequent basis than the average Californian, it is only to be expected that a majority of voters in the African-American community supported Prop. 8.
Kenneth P. Miller, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, recently published an article, “The Democratic Coalition’s Religious Divide: Why California Voters Supported Obama but Not Same-Sex Marriage,” that describes the electoral politics that drove the vote on Prop. 8. Miller said same-sex marriage proponents will need to make inroads with the Christian community in California if they are to produce a different outcome in 2010 or 2012.
“They need to persuade those Christian voters that extending marriage rights to the gay community is consistent with their religious beliefs, not undermining them,” he said. “There are a lot of strong Christian arguments for and against gay marriage.”
Rev. Wilson has spent a lifetime in this polarized Christian debate on homosexuality. From as far back as Wilson can remember, he’s known two things about himself: he has a natural gift for preaching the gospel, and he is gay.
Wilson grew up in a devoted Christian family. He started directing the choir at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oakland at age 12. By age 14 he was preaching from the pulpit. As a kid, he knew he was special, and he knew he was different, but he never thought his sexuality was a sin until he was 12 years old, when he heard his minister say, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
By high school, Wilson was tormented by the division between his sexuality and what he was being taught about it. He prayed for deliverance.
“I would say, ‘God, take this away from me. I don’t want to be damned’,” he said.
Preaching quickly became an avenue for Wilson to repress his burgeoning teenage hormones.
“I thought, if I’m this way, you can’t damn me if I preach your gospel and I’m the most knowledgeable on your gospel. I felt I had to compensate to get into heaven,” he said.
Wilson described himself as a sexist and a homophobe in college. He tried to form a ministers’ association on the campus of Howard University but was denied because he wouldn’t allow women. He said it was a sin for women to preach. Eventually, he was overburdened by the weight of his denial.
He remembers sitting alone behind the dormitories for an entire weekend, fasting and reading scripture. He finally came out of the closet to a professor whom he considered a mentor. Wilson said his mentor simply told him that God loved him. Soon after, he started to reinterpret the scriptures, he said, finding love rather than sin. And he embraced the love he found.
“That feeling of God’s love gave me freedom,” he said.
For Wilson, winning the fight for self-acceptance was only the beginning of a larger confrontation with the fundamentalist elements of the Christian church. Questions about his sexuality quickly surfaced after he became the pastor of the McGee Avenue Baptist Church in South Berkeley in 1992. Wilson said the church was quietly divided over his leadership until he was publicly “outed” in a 1998 Oakland Tribune article. According to Wilson, a group of dissenters called for a vote of confidence against him in January 1999, citing administrative issues. But he prevailed, he said, through crafty politics and by winning the support of the church’s influential matriarchs.
Rev. Theophous Reagans, who trained as a minister for six years under Wilson at McGee Baptist, said supporters eventually judged his mentor by his message and character, not his sexuality.
“It was very tense. This is an issue that is very strongly contested,” he said. “It depends on one’s interpretation of the scriptures. Mark taught us that God is love and there are no differences in the eyes of God—no males, no females, no black, no white—just souls. He made it easy.”
Wilson eventually left the church in 2004 to take a teaching position at the Pacific School of Religion just north of the UC Berkeley campus. Some in the community say he left under a cloud of animosity; Wilson insists he didn’t run away, it was just time to take on a new challenge. Last year, he established a new church, Tapestry Ministries, to create a venue of Christian worship centered on critical thinking, social justice, diversity of worship and hope.
Wilson thinks that success against Proposition 8 in 2010 or 2012 will hinge on whether Christian voters can be persuaded that same-sex marriage is compatible with the scriptures, mirroring the conflict he’s had to resolve within himself and his former church.
In the end, both sides will be using the Bible to frame a religious argument.
Bishop Bob Jackson, pastor of the Acts Full Gospel Church of God and Christ in Oakland, an ardent supporter of Prop. 8, thinks it’s misleading to suggest that denouncing same-sex marriage inherently contradicts God’s message of love.
“As Christians we love one another, there is no argument there. The design of marriage is about a man and a woman coming together for procreation” he said. “It’s a mistake to redefine marriage on what you think as opposed to what God says.”
But to Wilson, marriage is more than just a word that is defined in the scriptures. It’s a matter of equality and dignity under God’s eyes.
“It hit me when I was doing a marriage for a couple at the courthouse in Oakland,” he said. “I looked at all the gay men of different races and ethnicities and thought of all the places we’d been—clubs, bushes, bathhouses, private parties—they were always dark. Here we were standing in this place of legitimacy with light all around us. I just got tears in my eyes.”