New field education faculty: Horace Griffin

“I am excited to work with seminarians as they begin to think about how they will be leaders, to have the opportunity to help them find the right sites—the right churches, the right institutions—where they can explore the kind of ministries they want,” says Horace Griffin, PSR’s new associate professor of field education and leadership development. “I’m hopeful that my training in pastoral theology and pastoral ministry will help them in this important step in their lives.”

Griffin replaces Lynn Rhodes, who retired last June after 25 years as director of field ed at PSR. He comes from General Theological Seminary in New York, where he was director of field education and adjunct professor of theology. He comes with a mission, spelled out in his groundbreaking 2006 book, its title echoing John’s Gospel: Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches (2006).

“I believe that PSR is a seminary that is leading our culture in the work that we’ve been called to do at this time in history: advancing the cause of LGBT equality,” he says about his decision to accept his appointment here. “I see the struggle and the movement for LGBT equality as similar to that on race that was faced by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I believe I’ve been called to PSR to have a voice in this movement.”

In the preface to his book, he describes himself as “a son of the black church, born, nurtured, and ‘raised up’ in the southern rural black Baptist church.” He knows from personal experience what it is like to be black and gay in historical black denominations and churches; he writes that black-sanctioned homophobia “produces a lot of twisted people.”

Horace Griffin was born and grew up in northern Florida, in the segregated, working-class town of Starke, and can remember entering the dentist’s office through the back door and sitting in “colored” waiting rooms in the 1960s.  Neither of his parents finished high school, but both pushed education for their four children. Horace was voted “most likely to succeed” in his predominately white high school, where he excelled as a student and played not on  the football field (as one of his brothers did) but in the band. In his mother’s Baptist church, he so impressed with his bright promise that he was ordained when he was a junior in high school. “I was popular, the good kid, going to church, and doing the right thing,” he recalls. But, beginning in his early teens, he also came up against the charge that he was “not all boy.”

“I was a fundamentalist, so I believed that homosexuality was sinful—even though I had sexual attraction for males. I saw that attraction as a sin, the ‘devil’ tempting me. I was fighting this, and preaching against this, and praying to be delivered from this sin. This was my formation, the early part of my life journey, going through that torment, wrestling with reality—knowing that this was not what I sought or created, but who I was.

“I fought doubly hard to prove to those who were saying I was a sissy or ‘like that,’ to prove them wrong, to prove I that was a ‘real man.’” His protestation came out in a strong way, “with a lot of emotion,” he recalls. “I held up Anita Bryant in preaching.” Anita Bryant? “Oh, yeah. She was in Florida, where I grew up.” Both his inner battle and outer crusade continued when he went to Morehouse College, an all-male college with a significant gay student population. “I could tell many guys were gay. I wrote letters and preached sermons in the college chapel against them.”

It was after his graduation from Morehouse, in 1983, that he had his first sexual experience with a man, a man who challenged Griffin’s homophobic thinking. “He said something that sticks with me to this day: ‘We believe this about homosexuality because it is what we were taught.’ That might seem a very mild statement, but it made me pause for the first time ever. I had been educated to believe that certain things were self-evident. For example: ‘This is a table.’ ‘Homosexuality is wrong.’ The notion that this was not a self-evident  fact was eye-opening for me.”

That fall, as Griffin began MDiv studies at Boston University, his life began to fall apart. “Having actually had sex with a man, I had to confront the fact that I am the person I’ve been fighting against. Probably at that point,” he says today, “I was suicidal. How was I going to live? How could I be a Baptist minister?”

He went home for a few months in 1984, “still struggling, still praying, still planning not to give in.” He moved to Atlanta and took up various jobs over the next two years. His struggles reached an explosive point when the Volkswagen he was driving was broadsided by a truck on the interstate. Incredibly, he suffered only cuts and bruises. “This was a spiritual experience,” Horace says today. “God spoke to me: ‘Is this what you want?’ I decided I did not want to die, and also that I would never let anyone make me feel less than human again.” All of this happened, Griffin points out, in the mid-1980s, when there was virtually no social support for the decision he was making— especially for a gay African American man.

After this “wake-up call,” Griffin returned to seminary at Boston University, and started exploring how the Bible had been used to support slavery and women’s subjection. “I thought: race and women—perhaps this applies to gays as well.”

He earned both his MA (1993) and PhD (1995) at Vanderbilt University, specializing in religion and personality. In 1989 he came out publicly, at a forum at the Metropolitan Community Church in Nashville. “It was liberating, but very scary.”

Griffin says that he had a sort of “Saul-Paul” experience:  before he had persecuted and preached against gays; now he was going to be their defender and advocate. He co-wrote a letter in response to an article denigrating gays at Vanderbilt, which began his activism. In the fall of 1990, Griffin started teaching at Fisk University, where he received a Professor of the Year award and chaired the Department of Religious and Philosophical Studies. He came out to the faculty there, becoming the first openly gay department chair in the university’s 127-year-history, after a gay student attempted suicide. Griffin also co-chaired the Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice, a civil rights organization for gay citizens in Nashville and middle Tennessee.

In 1996, Griffin moved to the University of Missouri as assistant professor of African American religions; he resigned in 1999 in part because that university refused to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy. He went to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, where he taught for six years, continued his activism, and began his book, which in part provided the context for his own experience and struggle in converting from a Saul to a Paul on black homosexuality.

“This book provides a historical overview and critical analysis of the black church and its current engagement with lesbian and gay Christians,” Griffin writes in Their Own Receive Them Not, which won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Studies. “It is an engagement I characterize as oppressive and duplicitous.”

He calls for African Americans to critically examine the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality in the same way that Christianity and race was engaged, contextualized, and made part of an historical past. His hope is that, “In the inheritance of the black church as the center of black people’s lives, black pastors as heirs and keepers of this sacred canopy can lead others in dismantling its sin of homophobia and heterosexual supremacy.”

“The black church has stood as a model of the gospel, opposing slavery and emphasizing black liberation,” he writes. “If Christians today in the black church ever plan to live into this historical witness as a Christian body committed to black people’s liberation and the liberation of all oppressed people, they must ultimately stand with lesbians and gays as equal members in God’s church and world. Homosexuality is part of human sexuality, just as African Americans are part of the human race.” To accept this, Griffin says, is to proclaim a true black liberation theology. “And in doing so, we will honor God.”

In his office at PSR, Griffin says, “I am not asking the church to do anything that it is not already doing. It selectively chooses certain passages of Scripture and tradition that it feels is authoritative. And it refuses to recognize certain passages—about slavery, ‘part slave and part free’; about giving up all of one’s wealth; about excluding menstruating women—as being authoritative. And when they refuse to adhere to such passages, they do not seem themselves as any less Christian. Instead, they see such passages as time-bound. All I’m asking is that the passages about gays and lesbians be treated in the same way.”