The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) occupies a distinct position in the religious lives of its mostly LGBT and African American members. TFAM is a coalition of about forty congregations around the United States that espouses a doctrine of “radical inclusivity” and also embraces the style of traditional African American churches, that is, an expressive, participatory form of worship that relies on communication with the Holy Spirit. It is led by Bishop Yvette Flunder, whose roots are in the Church of God in Christ (the largest predominantly-black Pentecostal denomination in the United States). TFAM has rejected those elements of African American (and other Christian) religious history that demean and reject persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, those whose lives stand outside norms of respectability—e.g., the currently or formerly incarcerated, homeless, drug and alcohol-dependent, those affected by HIV/AIDS—and others whose identities may cause them to be stigmatized in mainstream black or other churches.
Members usually come to TFAM after some period of alienation from the kind of Christian practice in which they were raised—what Bishop Flunder playfully calls Metho-Bapti-Costal (majority black churches, many of which have a Pentecostal flavor). These are churches that have long provided an important foundation for expressing black identity and for claiming membership in the black community. The black church and religious beliefs have almost immeasurable importance for most African Americans, going back to the days of slavery and continuing to the present. Being made to feel unwelcome or unworthy can force worshipers to leave their church or to remain under duress; either option is likely to be traumatic.
TFAM’s mission is to help heal those damaged by their experience in these churches and to restore in them a sense of worthiness, a process which should provide the conditions under which they can achieve transcendent inhabitation by the Holy Spirit. It does this by recreating the worship practices of black churches, but also by explicitly questioning the assumptions that have long served as their unchallenged moral foundation. Its leaders assert that the Bible is an interpreted and interpretable document, grounded in particular historical and cultural contexts, written in ancient languages that require great skill to be adequately translated, and thus not the unerring world of God. The coalition encourages congregants to seek theological education, whether by completing a degree like a Master of Divinity or doctorate, or simply taking courses to enhance their ability to better understand scripture. Whether the intention of the student is to become a pastor or not, TFAM feels that such education offers access to the tools necessary to argue convincingly against homophobic and sexist views among other Christians.
The intense emotions that accompany congregants’ discovery of TFAM have much of the intensity of conversion as it has been described among white, middle-class Americans who embrace Pentecostal worship, often embellished with “New Age” music and preaching styles. Tanya Luhrmann, for example, describes a wide range of conversion experiences among evangelicals she studied in congregations affiliated with the Vineyard. Her narrators’ accounts emphasized how different their newly adopted Pentecostalism was from the kinds of religion with which they were familiar. Narrators tended to report that they had faced humiliation or despair. Choosing a personal relationship with Christ made it possible for them to resolve these challenges. That these forms of spiritual practice were new to them seemed a fundamental part of their efficacy. In a somewhat similar process, among the Catholic Charismatics studied by Mary Jo Neitz, the self-examination and intense emotions associated with finding a new spiritual identity are marked by their embrace of worship practices vastly different from what they had earlier known in mainstream Catholicism.
The fervor experienced by worshipers, particularly when they first discover TFAM, has the affective elements of conversion—weeping, feelings of enormous relief, a sense of having had one’s emotional center radically shifted. But the emphasis of TFAM congregations is different from conversion experiences in that they rely on maintaining the traditional practices of mainstream black churches—minus the homophobia and sexism. Instead, joining TFAM is almost always a process of reclamation, a process whereby worshipers insist on their right to continue these practices on their own terms. Coming to TFAM means discovering a “church home” where it is possible to worship with extravagant emotionality but also to be respected as members of groups marginalized in mainstream churches. Particularly for those attending TFAM services for the first time, the familiarity of all elements of worship evokes intense emotion, with many congregants bursting into tears when they realize they have “come home.”
To strengthen the experience of reclamation, TFAM congregations venerate worship they label “old-time,” referring to devotional practices that recall “traditional” black churches, and engender nostalgia. The churches recalled are either located in the South or established outside the South by migrants to northern and western cities. Whether the power of “old-time” worship is drawn from congregants’ memories or stories they have internalized, these accounts seem to have been cleansed of the exclusion and bigotry congregants may have suffered in the past. Members of the Fellowship can thus reclaim a version of the past that triggers nostalgia without evoking the rejection from their earlier church experiences.
Memories of church services in the South draw on many sources: the music, fans waving in the warm air, the intense feelings generated by prayer and spiritual fulfillment, the sounds of the sermons, with worshipers calling out their encouragement to the pastor, and of being overcome in the Spirit, speaking in tongues and falling out. A frequent metaphor in TFAM sermons, for example, draws on mention of black American cuisine. Such references arouse memories of meals eaten with older family members—grandmothers figure prominently in these accounts—and seem to stimulate powerful reminiscences of taste and smell.
Gospel music also draws worshipers into remembrances of the churches where they grew up. Hymns are those that worshipers know well, with musical accompaniment that also calls forth memories of past church experience. Not only those who perform as part of the choir or praise team, but the entire congregation, takes an active part in singing the familiar songs, harmonizing, and creating a mood that can transport worshipers into states of ecstasy. Some worshipers just sway to the music; others may join in with a tambourine or rhythmic clapping.
Services in TFAM churches are organized in a way that replicates customs of churches worshipers would probably have attended in the past. But at the same time, some elements tend to be inserted into the order of worship that intensify claims the congregation is making to specialness or difference. Most typically, there may be a declaration or proclamation of the mission of the congregation that highlights its adherence to the doctrine of radical inclusivity and the ways in which it departs from church “as usual.”
There is considerable variation among churches in the degree to which the gifts of charisma, such as glossolalia, are displayed. Some services are rather reserved, while others may call forth exuberant displays of dancing, shouting, and speaking in tongues. Depending on the responses of the congregation or feelings that may come up for the person presenting the homily, the direction of the service may change. This sort of spontaneity brings with it the imprimatur of authenticity; displays of emotion or spiritual elevation that are unplanned are, by definition, more deeply rooted in the authentic spiritual experience of the individual and thus contribute to the depth of the experience of the entire congregation. Flexibility makes way for the Spirit to direct worshipers toward particular forms of worship whether that be a spirit of rejoicing, healing, chastening, or renewed commitment.
This kind of authenticity makes clear to congregants that their LGBT identities are acceptable to God and that they have the right to worship in a way they find fulfilling. “George Howard,” who was raised in Pentecostal churches in the South but now lives in Chicago, told me about his many attempts to “cure” himself of his sexuality through fasting and prayer. When all of these efforts failed, he came to the realization that God made him just as he is. But not going to church made him feel incomplete, so he made a number of efforts to find a church that would meet his needs.
It was because having grown up in the church, there was a huge void. I’m not a fan of the electric church, you know the television or the radio. It’s not like being in fellowship with other people. And so it was, it was a huge void for quite some time. But I just preferred not being in the atmosphere where I felt I was not being true to myself.
George was looking for a collective location where he could worship God with a likeminded and supportive congregation. His friend “Wendell Barrett” also offered an account of his first experience in a TFAM congregation. “I was enamored at the fact that it was an open and affirming church with an African American worship style.” He was particularly amazed to see a substantial number of transgender worshipers, people whom he said would have been “crucified” in traditional churches. That such a departure from the norms of respectability could be accepted and treated with dignity made clear what a different worship experience this church would offer.
Others described having been “disfellowshipped” from their home congregations after they were discovered to be gay. “Damon Morris” worshipped in a congregation all his life and had been licensed to preach while still a teenager. He had an encounter with God that compelled him to reveal his homosexuality. “The spirit of the Lord spoke to me and he told me that, ‘Today, I deliver you from lying. Worship me in spirit and truth.’” He knew he had to tell the truth about himself and that his God would support him in taking this path. This led to him being disfellowshipped. After this, he located a gay-positive Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) church that welcomed him and his partner. But even though the MCC church provided a safe space to worship, its majority-white congregation had an unfamiliar style of worship Damon described as “Catholic.” “When I feel the presence of God, I’m one of those people, I lift my hands. I may cry. I may say Hallelujah [or] something and they were very quiet. So when I would do it, when I was done, I would look around and it’d be almost, ‘I can’t believe you’re speaking out during church! What’s wrong with him?’” After finally finding a TFAM church, his resolve to follow his call to preach was strengthened, and he eventually began his own congregation.
TFAM’s commitment to enabling members to embrace their authentic selves, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise outside the mainstream, is anchored in links to worshipers’ history in the black community. This is reinforced through worship practices and by elaboration of iconic representations of African American culture. Despite the intensity of discovery that accompanies congregants’ experiences, calling up images of conversion, worship in TFAM is clearly a kind of reclamation. It is part of a process of emphatically asserting racial history and the nostalgia it engenders.