Standing On the Wrong Side of History
A Southern city in the midst of a renaissance focuses on love and progress, while a struggling religious network and its pawns with hateful, homophobic attitudes unleashes their fury
I love my city. Born and raised here in Birmingham. I haven’t always had this kind of endearment for the Magic City, especially when things were less magical. And trust me, not even Magic Mike stripping down to his undergarments through the perkier parts of Downtown could have saved it from its imploding doom and unfortunate despair. But everything has changed in the last couple of years. The city is in great shape and there’s a world of things to do on almost any given day of the week. There are more attractions to be attracted to. And this week just drives home that point.
This week, all eyes will be glued on Birmingham, Ala., as they prepare for its Empowerment Week; a kick-off of sorts containing celebration of concerts, American Idol reunions, a dose of Cosby, panel discussions, documentary showings, civic activities and tons more. I had to take a second glance at some of the events and ask myself: “Am I really in Birmingham?”
But then I had to take a second glance at some of the special guests that’s coming in.
I did. And what I saw was quite alarming.
In Kelly Ingram Park, on September 11, Christian singer Donnie McClurkin led his sanctified minions in a ‘Praise in the Park’ jamboree with fellow gospel singers CeCe Winans, Wess Morgan and once-upon-a-time actor Clifton Davis (best known for his work on ‘That’s My Mama’, ‘Amen’ and for writing “Never Can Say Goodbye”). Just a quick recap on McClurkin’s awesomeness and spiritual gifts: McClurkin is a Grammy-award winning gospel sensation who has sung his way up the charts with Sunday morning anthems like “Stand,” “Speak to My Heart” and “We Fall Down.” He’s also known for preaching to the choir, and it’s not always the kind bathed in universal love. See, his brand of Christianity is one that’s saturated in the laurels of modern-day Pentecostalism, the kind that believes in the Holy Ghost fire and “speaking of tounges” and “casting out of demons.” He falls into the traditions of black evangelicals that came out of the Azusa, Cali. movement of the 20th century – which happens to be the Churches of God in Christ (COGIC). According to the National Council of Churches, they are the largest African-American denomination within the Pentecostal church family with a membership of over eight million members. They are also enriched with a glowing history of gospel-trained singers. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the mighty pillars of foundational gospel music and one of the genre’s first crossover acts, led the way for newcomers like Dr. Mattie Moss Clark and her daughters to follow in the church’s rich tradition of rhythmic worship. McClurkin is also a part of that rich heritage. And maybe that’s why he’s such a magnet to the church-going faithful in Birmingham. He’s packed auditoriums and churches throughout the city with every visit since his star rose to such prominence in the 1990’s while recording best-selling records for Warner Alliance and Verity Records. But McClurkin does comes with his own share of controversies, particularly when he explored the depths of his own past as a practicing homosexual and then later casting stones at the gay community. In his 2001 book, Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor, McClurkin expelled the dark secrets that had disturbed him as a young teen that surrounded the sexual abuse he endured from his uncle. He used the platform to briefly talk about his troubled upbringing and his misunderstood relationship with his father before hinting at his “deliverance” from homosexuality.
His hate speech has landed him in hot water many times in the past. At a performance in Barbados in October 2008, the singer compared gays to “drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members.” In 2009 at a Church of God in Christ youth service while giving an altar call for “deliverance,” he attacked Tonéx, a gospel artist who came out the closet as being gay. “I can’t condemn Tonéx,” he says. “I gotta love Tonéx, but I gotta tell him the truth. This is not the will of God. That’s a broken person. That’s not the real way.” He also boldly attacked pop singer Katy Perry for “turning the girls out.”
“You don’t understand what’s going on right now,” he screams. “Katy Perry is turning the girls out! Talking about ‘I kissed a girl and I like it.’ These young girls are just as bad as the boys in homosexuality, but you don’t see it.”
WATCH A PORTION OF DONNIE McCLURKIN PREACHING AT COGIC CONVENTION / 2009
In a way to create the ultimate climax for the church service, he makes an explosive leap into tirade territory on LGBT youth by comparing them to “vampires.” During his plea for an Extreme Makeover: Sexuality Edition to the front platform of the auditorium, he yelled, “Every one of you young people that say I don’t need this…I gotta be right. I don’t want to be a feminine man. I don’t want to be a hard woman. I don’t want to be in homosexuality, bisexuality, tri-sexuality. I’m not a lesbian; I’m a holy woman of God. I’m not gay; I’m born again. Come now. Run, young people.” At his beck and call, hundreds of young people rushed to the front of the stage seeking for a way out of their confusion.
Deliverance is something of a misnomer in the Christian faith, and is often used in association of a miraculous breakthrough. For McClurkin, his deliverance is mostly a partial one. Sadly, the controversial gospel singer himself admits he isn’t cured from the gay bug. While talking with blogger Carrington Lei in 2009, McClurkin spoke about the curse of homosexuality and strangely compared it to diabetes. “I never said that I was cured from anything, I said that I was delivered…I’m a diabetic now and I don’t eat sugar, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want sugar. The more I don’t eat the sugar, the more I lose the taste for sugar and the more my diet starts to change permanently – I can’t stand a regular soda now because it’s too much sugar. So, the more I don’t intake the sugar, the more it leaves out of my desire.”
On a side note in reference to a “cure” from homosexuality, Exodus International, once the largest ex-gay therapy ministry in the world, closed its doors of operation on its outreach and even apologized for its fraudulent practices, from which they claim their therapy sessions did not work and even brought “damage” to many people. “There’s no better way to do it than an apology for the people who were hurt,” Chambers said on SiriusXM Progress, one month after releasing a public apology. “Exodus should have just stayed as a support system for people who were looking for an alternative to gay life. I think the therapeutic aspect of it, not to mention the short stint we had in the political world on this, really did a disservice.”
Before arriving to Birmingham, McClurkin ran across another downturn of events when he was “uninvited” by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to participate in a lineup of musicians to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The singer took to his Socialcam account to post his own explanation about the matter. “I’m more than a little disgruntled and want to rectify something,” McClurkin said in the shared video. “This is bullying, discrimination and intolerance. This is depriving someone of their civil rights. These are…systematic bullying tactics.” He would also turn to political pundit Roland Martin for a special appearance on the syndicated radio show, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, to tell his side of the story, one that he claims left him with the impression that he was “bullied” and “threatened” by the office of the Washington D.C. mayor Vincent Gray.
In Birmingham, McClurkin keeps his commentary on homosexuality at bay. He didn’t whisper a peep about the whole D.C. uproar. He didn’t want to upset the audience or stir up any animosity. He’s playing the role of the good host. But he isn’t the only piece of controversy that decided to come to town.
Rev. Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also on the platform. Her message for the evening was a bit relaxed, tamed and – in many ways – defeated. She didn’t sound the vigorous mouthpiece that joined up with the embattled megachurch pastor Eddie Long to march the streets of Atlanta against gay marriage back in 2005. An unexpected change of events forced King to walk away from Long’s shadows after the pastor – also a staunch condemner of homosexuality – settled out of court with four young men who filed lawsuits claiming that they were coerced into sexual relationships.
King made headlines recently when she made a statement at a church meeting in New Zealand that her father “did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage,” although records show that Dr. King’s speeches advocated freedom and justice for all. So did the activism of his wife, the late Dr. Coretta Scott King. It’s also a bit ironic for Bernice King to make such a drastic statement, knowing that President Barack Obama most recently honored Bayard Rustin – an openly gay civil rights leader who helped organized the 1963 March on Washington and a special aide to the slain civil rights leader – with the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. It was at the march, which also celebrates its fiftieth year anniversary this year, where Dr. King delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the August 2013 issue of Atlanta magazine, she admits that she is often misinterpreted by the masses for being homophobic, but her conservative biblical views holds her hands firmly on the plow. She then says she’s “not the enemy” and that it’s hard for her to be homophobic because she “has friends who are gay and lesbian.” Still, gay activists are questioning her way of mode of thinking. “She may not be the enemy, but her logic is deeply flawed,” said Kimberley McLeod, founder and editor-in-chief of Elixher, an online magazine for black queer women.
On Wednesday, at Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park before an audience of one-thousand sweaty church-goers, one block away from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed fifty years ago, McClurkin and King chatted for a good thirty-five minutes about her legendary father, the movement and how the mainstream society has been chipping away at his legacy. “Those of us in the Body of Christ have assigned [Martin Luther King, Jr.] to the secular word as a civil rights leader,” she said. “I believe he was a church father. Everything he did was out of the word of God. In fact, if I can say this, he allowed the Word of God to become flesh.” As she ranted onward, her thoughts became even messier and, at times, divisive. “We really haven’t gone into the Promised Land yet,” she said, while referencing a familiar portion from his “I Have a Dream” speech. “I honestly believe that he was speaking to the Body of Christ when he talked about the ‘we.’ Those who crossed over into the Promised Land, it took those who were the leadership to go first. If the world is going to be saved, then the leadership has to come from the people of God. And we have not understood our role, our responsibility and our mandate to do that.”
“It’s the ‘we’ factor that’s going to make the difference,” she said. “That was not a Martin Luther King moment. He was the leader, yes. But that was a people’s movement. It never would have happened if the people were not bonded or banded together in the spirit of Christ.”
And yet her words continued to tear down the building blocks of the more-inclusive community that Dr. King stretched for and focused more on the agendas of the stockholders and Praise-a-Thon donors that prop up the Christian-themed Trinity Broadcasting Network: “I go back to this word ‘we’ because I’m going to drive that home, because ‘we’ve’ lost something in our world and in our society in particular when it comes to this ‘we’ thing. ‘We’ have giving over our power to too many systems and too many individuals, and we don’t understand the power of the ‘we…and the ‘we’ in particular in the Body of Christ.”
Rather than ruffling up any feathers with persons of other faith and backgrounds, it’s obvious that King is referencing a particular group of people when discussing the “we.” Without exploring the depths of encyclopedic fact-checking, this “we” she’s referencing happens to be the Body of Christ, not the “we the People” of the United States. And there’s a serious problem with that portion of ideology when glancing at the purpose of Dr. King’s “beloved community.” His brand of civil rights was applicable to all, not just black people and not just born-again believers. He wanted to see the end of segregation in our world and to send a scathing blow to the offices of Jim Crow and its rational towards organized racism. Certainly it is a hard and almost impossible task, but to do that one must eradicate the barriers that separate the worlds and to forge coalitions and alliances birth in love, peace and prosperity. For that to happen, this movement would be set in stone using nonviolence, channeling the very echoes that define the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, a prolific Indian leader who was non-Christian. Unfortunately, King’s statements in Kelly Ingram Park painted the picture that her father only wanted certain unalienable rights of this country to be granted to God’s church, and not to those outside its kingdom.
Knowing what we know now, the movement was made up of a large constellation of people. The “we” was more than just Christians; it would include blacks, whites, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, women, men and people from all walks of life. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King referenced the creed of our own nation that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” He went on to say that he dreamt that “one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Without any reference to the term “Christian” to identify his subjects, we can safely assume that King is speaking to the masses, and not to a particular group of people as his daughter, Bernice, is saying.
Today, King oversees the operations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, while her brothers, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, runs the King estate. But the family remains divided as they operate separate empires overseeing their father’s legacy. On August 28, his estate filed a complaint in an Atlanta court asking a judge to stop the King Center from using his image, likeness and memorabilia unless a new agreement is made up. It’s not the first time the family has duke it out in court or in public; In 2008, Bernice King and her brother Martin Luther King II sued their brother, Dexter, alleging that he was mismanaging their father’s estate. They remain totally divided on the interpretation of their mother’s legacy. Before her passing in 2006 from ovarian cancer, Coretta Scott King fought for gay rights, while Bernice King openly attacked gays and the idea of gay marriage.
When Donnie McClurkin asked King if the movement was still “in motion,” she slumped into Debby Downer syndrome. “At the moment, I don’t think so,” she replied. “I think we are caught up in secular culture too much. I think we are too materialized. To me, I don’t see that. It saddens my heart. I’m crying literally on the inside, because I’m saying for everything my parents and all of those who sacrificed their lives…in this park, for us to be as comfortable as we are, there’s a problem with that.”
To create a magical moment for television, McClurkin, being the more outspoken host, asked King if she was the next in line to lead the nations into the next dimension of civil rights, picking up where her father left off. He kept referencing “the mantle” as if it was some sorcerer’s key to victory. She refrained from saying what’s to come next from her future endeavors, but only alluded that she would be interested in overseeing a ministry that would shepherd the next generation of “kings.”
On this coming Saturday, TBN will bring their rodeo back into town for a special television taping hosted by Birmingham’s current mayor William Bell, for a segment of “The Hour of Power.” He will be joined by prosperity gospel preacher Rod Parsley. With a list of controversy stacked to the hills, Parsley – the overseer of World Harvest Church and Breakthrough Ministries of Columbus, Ohio – built his kingdom on hyper-evangelical principles mostly stemmed from the teaching of his Pentecostal mentor Dr. Lester Sumrall. At one time, his ministry attracted thousands of members, and hundreds of thousands from every shade of color via his popular syndicated telecast aired on TBN and a host of other religious networks. Then Parsley’s brand would be tainted with explosive rhetoric aimed at bashing Democrat-funded programs – anything pertaining to gay rights, women’s rights and . His ministry pumped millions of dollars into Bush’s reelection campaign and lassoed himself to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, before climaxing with the “Silent No More” agenda to block a state constitutional amendment on marriage equality. In 2004, his sermon Uncensored: While Freedom Still Rings became the hair to break the camel’s back. He went on a tangent to attack abortion of any kind, focusing intently on the practices done at Planned Parenthood. He still throws stones at gays and same-sex marriage, has a furious hatred towards Muslims (“Allah was a demon spirit”) and continues to do what he cans to curb any hate crime legislation.
LISTEN TO ROD PARSLEY AND HIS HATE SPEECH AIMED AT LGBTQ COMMUNITY
In a fundraising letter issued to his ministry partners, Parsley wrote the following verbiage:
“Your $50 gift now will help fight the hate crimes law, and, as a thank-you, I will send you some helpful resources so you can be part of a grassroots effort to defeat this flawed legislation. Hate crimes proponents say that the bill will protect certain classes of people from crimes based in prejudice. But in fact, it could be used to keep Christians from speaking publicly about the biblical view of homosexuality. When you give $50 to help me produce a national TV expos? to reveal the truth about the proposed law, I will send you: Your own DVD copy of “Arresting Thoughts … Attacking Freedom,” the TV special we want to air across America to unite patriots in defeating hate crimes legislation.”
In 2009, his ministry fell into a financial collapse. On his website, Parsley pleaded for donors to chip in to save his enterprise from complete disaster. Blaming things on the recession, the church faced a $3 million fourth-quarter deficit “even after a budget cut of nearly one-third.” A $3 million settlement with parents alleging their toddler son was abused by the church’s day care center also hurt their budget’s pockets.
His most absurd attack on Dems comes most recently. It’s one that’s been tagged as a prophetic word from God, sounding like the scared tactics that comes from the mouth of Pat Robertson. In a conversation with self-proclaimed prophet Perry Stone, Parsley accepted Perry’s commentary on Obamacare after he claimed that it was the Mark of the Beast (text taken from the Book of Revelations) and that the U.S. government might enforce the implanting of microchips.
What Parsley has to say to the citizens of Birmingham has yet to be seen. But what is so troubling is that anyone with a history of destructive politics and dangerous conservatism as Parsley is being welcomed in a city that’s making progress of the liberal kind. Birmingham may sit at the heart of the Bible Belt and may be flooded with the Southern Baptist kind, but our city’s current renaissance is being led by 21st century thinkers. William Bell, born and raised in Birmingham during its turbulent years, happens to be one of those thinkers. “Having grown up here in Birmingham and having lived through discrimination and things of that nature, I’m a firm believer that all individuals are to be treated equally and fairly,” Mayor Bell said, immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws of the Defensive of Marriage Act. “The decision by the Supreme Court in relation to DOMA is another step toward that equal respect for all individual rights.” In the middle of reelection campaign this year, Bell reached out to the members of Birmingham’s LGBTQ community at the Alabama Stonewall Democrats’ Cocktails with Candidates forum and promised that he would champion their causes for equality. When asked if he’s been a champion for the gay community, Bell proclaimed, “I have been, I am and will be.” On record, he has been the only sitting mayor in the state of Alabama to publicly acknowledge the historic ruling on DOMA and Proposition 8 and to speak in favor of gay rights and marriage equality.
Bell isn’t the only big thinker challenging the status quo of Alabama’s biggest city. It is host to Birmingham SHOUT, Alabama’s only LGBTQ film festival, which coincides with the critically-acclaimed Sidewalk Film Festival. Central Alabama Pride has been celebrating its annual Pride Week in the city of Birmingham for over thirty five years. And dozens of Christian churches are springing up across town, advocating a liberating gospel saturated in a utopian-like discourse that teaches its parishioners to love and not hate.
Since 2006, Alabama State Representative Patricia Todd, representing District 54 which encompasses most parts of Birmingham, has become a focal opponent on the state’s out-of-touch laws on gays and lesbians, while also fighting to lower alarming poverty rates in her district. She also is the first ever openly gay elected official and serves as the associate director for AIDS Alabama. And since the groundbreaking ruling and with the momentum now tilting towards gay rights, Todd announced in June that she will continue to challenge the state regarding its same-sex marriage ban. And she has very good reason to do that. “The reality is, unfortunately in Alabama, the only way we ever progress any civil rights in this state is through a court decision,” Todd said. “This is no different. We will have to use that process and move forward.”
In recent history, Todd has faced some major uphill challenges in the House to create a better world for gays and lesbians. Bills on hate speech legislation, bullying, same-sex marriage and civil unions have either died in the House or have been blocked from a vote. Although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2003 struck down all state sodomy laws, language on sodomy still exists in the century-old Alabama Constitution, which happens to be the longest still-operative book of amendments in the world.
Even with opposition on the right, particularly with Governor Robert Bentley (R), the Alabama National Guard announced in early September that they will abide by policies set by the Pentagon to grant benefits to same-sex couples in the service, even as other states are setting certain restrictions and refusing to honor their requests. The governor, an opponent of gay rights, expressed his discontent to the service’s decision. “When they’re under my command, they’re under state law,” Bentley said. “When they’re under the command of the president, they’re under federal law.” On the same week when Bentley echoed his frustrations with the racist code used in some of the fraternities and sororities on the campus of the University of Alabama, the same week when Birmingham pulled out the red carpet to the world for Empowerment Week, Bentley shot down any sign of passage for same-sex married servicemen in the Alabama National Guard to receive federal benefits.
While I’m free for anyone to come to the city and do as they please, as long as it’s not against the law, I do have a problem with the perception of outside interest groups using Birmingham as their filthy pawns. Our city may stand in the need of exposure and national attention, but I don’t think Trinity Broadcasting Network and their paid-for-play chess pieces should be the way to go. If Birmingham wants to move fifty years forward as their 50th year Civil Rights anniversary moniker suggests, then they need to disassociate themselves from backwards thinkers that will only send Birmingham back fifty years.
9/16/13 2:33 p.m.
Rod Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church (Columbus, OH), was supposed to appear with Mayor William Bell at the TBN live taping on Sunday, September 15, 2013. Fifty years ago on that day, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists, killing four little girls and injuring others. For reason unbeknownst to the immediate public, Parsley was a no-show. His name was not even mentioned in the updated line-up of guests. In his place were luminaries and special musical guests including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, former major league baseball player Darryl Strawberry, Pastor Stephen Green, Earnest Pugh, Anthony Evans and Jason Crabb. After Mayor Bell greeted the crowd with warm accolades about King’s legacy and his love to reach across all aisles of faith, color and creed, the stench from Rod Parsley’s divisive rhetoric seemed to be nearby.
“I just happened upon that event at Kelly Ingram Park and left because of the homophobic undertones,” says Emily Lowrey,responding to a conversation thread on Facebook. “How is it that their wanting God in government is any different than Justice Roy Moore wanting God in government? Sickening to see ‘moral law’ being discussed by any people, but doubly perplexing to see people who have been oppressed bobbing their heads up and down in agreement.”
The airing of the live tapings are slated to air on TBN this week and are set to re-broadcast at select times. Check your local TV listings for more information or go to www.tbn.org.
J MATTHEW COBB, born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., is the editor-at-large of HiFi Magazine.