“Good luck with that,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo-based American Family Association. “If they’re here trying to change people’s fundamental religious views, views they judge as wrong, I know people aren’t apt to change their conventional beliefs based on TV ads. Why target the South? The problems they’re claiming aren’t any more real in Mississippi than anywhere else.”
By Riley Manning
There’s a new effort gaining momentum in Mississippi aimed at changing the conversation about homosexuality.
Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign, a nationwide advocacy group for LGBT rights, compiled a massive survey to assess the experiences and priorities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Mississippi.
Among their findings, they determined 57 percent of respondents have called Mississippi home for over 20 years. Around 10 percent are serving or have served in the armed forces. More than half claim they volunteer in their communities.
Perhaps even more notably, half of those surveyed said they are people of faith.
In the most religious state in the country, the HRC’s newest initiative precisely aims to soften the conversation around homosexuality among Mississippi’s church-goers.
“You can’t really have a conversation about mostly anything without also talking about faith,” said Rob Hill, director of the HRC’s Mississippi efforts. “Especially here, you cannot divorce faith from this conversation.”
‘All God’s Children’
Earlier this month, the HRC rolled out the first in a series of television ads to promote education about the experiences of LGBT Mississippians. The first commercial in the “All God’s Children” series features Southern Baptist mother Mary Jane Kennedy, who speaks on her son coming out as gay.
“[Kennedy] is a person of deep faith,” Hill said. “Because of her religious beliefs, her journey to acceptance was difficult, and that’s what people should hear. We want to offer hope.”
The next commercial appeared this week, and features state Rep. Alyce Clark, D-Jackson, the first black woman to serve in the Mississippi Legislature. She speaks about her own gay son.
Born in Greenwood and raised in Jackson, Blossom Brown is a transexual woman living in Columbus. She will also be the subject of an ad by the HRC.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that the LGBT community really wants to be a part of the church community,” she said. “As a transgender woman, it’s hard to find a place where I can get that peace time with the Lord without being criticized, often to my face.”
The HRC has booted up similar campaigns in Arkansas and Alabama, but some are skeptical about their efforts.
[...] Tim Wildmon comment moved to top of page. --ABratt
Hill differed with Wildmon. He said one-third of people from the HRC’s survey said they had been personally harassed by a person of authority, say an employer, or a police officer. In addition, members of the LGBT community can be fired and evicted for their sexual orientation.
“Even Mississippi’s hate crime laws don’t cover LGBT people, but in a poll we conducted last month, we found the majority of mainstream citizens thought these protections were actually in place,” he said.
What’s a church to do?
Bishop Clarence Parks, pastor of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo, admitted the church in general has been afraid to talk about homosexuality in the past, and often when it was, it was in a vicious way.
“Because we weren’t used to it, we felt the need to be really harsh on it and put it out of our sight,” he said. “But it wasn’t out of our mind. As we go forth, we’re learning how to deal with the issue better, but at the end of the day, a sin is a sin.”
Bishop Kelvin Ransey, who pastors Spirit of Excellence Church in Oxford, agreed.
“People think the church hates gays, but that’s far from the truth. We love them, but acting in that way is not compatible with what we believe,” Ransey said.
The Rev. Jeffery Daniel, pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo, said the church itself is being pulled in two extreme directions.
“As a minister, you should be able to stand on your convictions without being accused of preaching hate,” Daniel said. “At the same time, you can’t beat people over the head with scripture. I preach against homosexuality just like I do against gambling and fornication, but I do so while still being aware of the person.”
In general, though, he sees a growing cultural acceptance of the LGBT community from the younger generation simply from being exposed to it from a young age. While many churches may have handled the issue poorly, many who have handled it responsibly have still been vilified one way or another.
“More people are coming out as gay who are connected to people against it. That forces these people to change their stance,” Daniel said. “It’s wrong to belittle a person either way, but from our perspective, we want to love you out of it.”
The Rev. Warren Black, a United Methodist minister who pastored Oxford University United Methodist Church for 18 years before retiring this year, says he hopes the church doesn’t land on the wrong side of history or the gospel. In his eyes, the more time the church wastes not accepting the LGBT community, the more young lives are at risk.
“The reality is people need help. Confusion over sexual orientation is one of the leading causes of teen suicide. These kids have nowhere to turn, and to me, that should be a ministry of the church,” Black said. “Meanwhile, more and more of the younger generation are leaving the church.”
Parks, Ransey, Black, and Hill did all agree that LGBT Mississippians should be protected under the law.
“Nobody should be fired for no reason, and I definitely don’t think it should be OK to go out and beat someone up or anything like that,” Parks said. “But there are civil rights and kingdom rights. I’m all for the LGBT community having civil rights. But marriage in the church is a kingdom right.”
Hill took heart in this attitude. The most he hopes for at this point, he said, is for the church community to hear the LGBT community out.
“We don’t want to fight. We want to be able to sit down and talk,” Hill said. “We hope that if we change people’s hearts and minds, that can lead to policy change.”
Black was optimistic, too.
“I greatly admire the HRC. I think things are really starting to move down here,” he said.
The HRC will make an appearance in Oxford at the Egg Bowl next weekend. Hill said they will have an information booth set up outside of Lamar Hall.