PSR Alum’s African American Project Goes National

June 30, 2013
Author: 
Daniel Borysewicz

Reverend Roland Stringfellow (MDiv/CSR ‘06) began developing the Umoja Project in 2008, when he saw the need for a program that would facilitate reconciliation and healing between the African American and LGBT communities after the scapegoating that occurred following the passage of Proposition 8. 

The Umoja Project started in 2009 with a roundtable discussion in Oakland with pastors and bishops, many of whom were not supportive of marriage equality. During this initial conversation, it became clear that these religious leaders were aware of LGBT people within their congregations, but many were unable to reconcile their interpretation of scripture regarding homosexuality and how they are to provide pastoral care for these people within their congregations. Rev. Stringfellow stated that it is important to “engage African Americans Christians around the passages of scripture they see as condemning lesbian and gay people. Christ’s message promotes the ‘Love of the Love’ to supersede the ‘Letter of the Law.’” An example of this, Stringfellow says, is Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter argues that the Jewish law forbids eating unclean animals.  However, a voice replies, “do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (NIV Acts 10:15b). Rev. Stringfellow feels that this vision “had nothing to do with food, but is really about people, how we are to treat people, and never to call anyone unclean.”

Umoja- a Swahili word for "unity"- is a 5-week in-depth bible study that focuses on passages from the Gospel of John. This gospel was chosen because it illustrates many examples of how people today should be framing ways of inclusion of LGBT people. Rev. Stringfellow also connects the work of the Freedom Riders, other Civil Rights leaders and “how their work for good was being categorized as evil” by many during that time. Over the course of the 5 weeks, the participants explore and discuss theology and scripture, the emotional toil of living divided, the connection between Civil Rights and Gay Rights, and much more. The project is very flexible and rooted in African American Christian traditions, with the universal lessons of the Civil Rights section used to unpack the rest of the discussions. According to Rev. Stringfellow, “some have found it so engaging they have gone beyond the five weeks.” 

Stringfellow's own experiences in the church helped him build this curriculum.  Prior to coming to PSR, he was a Baptist minister for ten years in Indiana, and was part of the Fundamentalist Baptist Fellowship Association. He sought out the Ex-Gay movement for assistance in dealing with his sexuality, which he referred to as “my thorn in my flesh", but eventually ended his association with the church.

In 2002, he met Excutive Director of CLGS, Dr. Bernard Schlager at the Creating Change Conferece in Portland, OR. Stringfellow's eyes and heart were opened through conversations with the coordinator for the African American Roundtable, and he decided to pursue an MDiv at PSR with a focus on LGBT ministry, becoming one of the first people to seek the Certificate in Sexuality and Religion (CSR) offered by CLGS.

Rev. Stringfellow graduated from PSR in 2006, and went on to hold various positions in eductaional administration, both in Berkeley, and in his home state of Indiana. He returned to CA in 2008, in the midst of the heated Prop 8 campaign, to head up the Coalition of Welcoming Congregations. During the early days of working with CWC and against Prop 8, Rev. Stringfellow recalls important advice PSR alum and staff member Maura Tucker (MDiv ’91) provided to him: “we’re in a fight for our lives here and you really need to help organize the congregations for this fight.”

As Rev. Stringfellow continued to work as the CWC Coordinator, his presence in the Marriage Equality debate in California garnered attention from various avenues. The recognition of Rev. Stringfellow’s work gained him the semi-national spotlight of being selected as one of the Grand Marshalls for the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. According to Dr. Schlager, Stringfellow has “become one of the most important people of faith here in Northern California” in this debate.

As of this year, the work of the Umoja Project has moved out of California onto the national stage. Through the enormous success of Rev. Stringfellow’s implementation of the project in California, Umoja has expanded to two additional states. Dr. Bernard Schlager, CLGS Executive Director, stated that “several of our funders have been very excited about the reach and success of the Umoja Project and we are grateful to these funders who are making this work possible.” As part of the expansion outside of California, Rev. Stringfellow will follow the same successful model of holding initial closed door conversations with pastors and bishops of historically African American churches to find champions who would be interested in bringing this conversation back to their congregations. The 5-week Bible Study is a resource for these clergy after meeting with Rev. Stringfellow in these closed-door conversations.

Additionally, part of this national expansion will be to bring the Umoja Project to Theological Education for Leadership (TEL) at PSR. There will be three levels offered to clergy and congregations. The ‘Beginner’ level will be for those who wish to come to the table and have an initial conversation about LGBT inclusion but are unsure of their level of commitment.  The ‘Intermediate’ level will be for congregations who serve African-American LGBT populations and want to learn how better to welcome them. And the ‘Advanced’ level will be for those who are already doing the work of LGBT inclusion and desire to become Certified Umoja Trainers and replicate the work of the Umoja program has been doing. The first of these TEL sessions begins in October. Rev. Stringfellow stated that “LGBT inclusion is the hot topic in the African American communities now”—with President Obama and the NAACP coming out in support of marriage equality, African American clergy and laity are seeking to engage in a dialog about what they feel the scripture says about homosexuality and how they can reconcile with the new position from their top leaders.

Rev. Stringfellow is transitioning out of the CWC Coordinator position this summer, and is relocating to Detroit with his partner Jerry Peterson, Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center (www.ruthelliscenter.org). Stringfellow will continue his work on the national Umoja Project, and will be co-coordinator for the CLGS African American Roundtable and it is his desire to restart the roundtable’s “Souls a'Fire” conference, which is a venue where African American queer scholars can share their work with the greater community. Dr. Schlager concludes by stating that “[we are] very proud to have him as a graduate of PSR and the CSR program because he has taken all that he has learned, blended it with his life experience, and become an authentic and effective religious leader, Roland has become a vital part of the CLGS and PSR communities and we look forward to his continued work with the Center in the years to come.”