Rivers at Rehoboth Is Groundbreaking Ministry for Gays and Lesbians in Harlem

You wouldn’t assume that most black churches in Harlem have much in common with Lady Gaga. But Rivers at Rehoboth is a church that espouses the same thing the pop star does — that its gay and lesbian constituents are born that way, and more specifically born that way because it’s God’s will.

Rivers and Rehoboth is a ministry for gay Christians, led by lesbian pastor Vanessa M. Brown and a team of associate pastors. Many of its members come from other, less affirming religious communities — the New York Times mentions one couple, Julie and Stacey Chisolm-May, who used to attend church on Sunday separately because  they didn’t have somewhere that they could show up together without fearing repercussion. Rivers at Rehoboth has an average of 200 members attending each Sunday, and are looking to move into a larger space to accommodate more people.

The relationship between homosexuality, religion, and the black community has been much discussed in the media, and not always productively — while exit polls initially placed much of the blame for Prop 8’s passage on California’s black voters, later analysis revealed that those reports were exaggerated. Myths that the black (and/or religious) community is uniformly homophobic also ignore the experience of people like Rivers and Rehoboth’s congregration, for whom a black and Christian identity coexists with same-sex relationships. People like Rivers at Rehoboth’s congregation often feel like outsiders in all of the communities they belong to, and for this reasons a space like an accepting church becomes especially important — it becomes one of the only places where the congregation can, as Pastor Brown says, “be their authentic selves.”

So far, 2012 has been a year for exploding long-held beliefs about perceptions of the gay community. While communities of color and religious communities have long been thought of as consistently anti-gay, this was the year that the NAACP and Barack Obama both supported marriage equality, and a new poll found that people of color are more likely to support marriage equality than whites. When a North Carolina Baptist minister advocating imprisoning gays and lesbians behind and electric fence, he had a few supporters, but he also had 1000 people protest against him.

The world that Rivers at Rehoboth exists in is a complex and multilayered one; more than just being more accepting of gay people than it has been in years past, which a number of polls have shown, it’s one in which there’s greater understanding of the many different ways in which we live different identities and belong to many different communities. Because of the strides we’ve made in terms of visibility — because many Americans not only know that gay people exist, but know that gay people are members of their PTA and their mountain biking club and their group therapy sessions — there’s a little more breathing room for our “authentic selves.” There’s still not nearly enough, as trans people getting fired from their jobs and the ongoing issue of bullying demonstrate, but for the membership at Rivers at Rehoboth, it seems like a big step in the right direction. And the more visibility and acceptance we gain, the more it creates in turn. Julie Chisolm-May, who says that if it weren’t for Rivers at Rehoboth she and her wife would likely be “worshiping from their bedroom, watching ministers preach on television,” now attends church with her entire family, including her six grown children and her newly-accepting 74-year-old mother.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 761 articles for us.

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    There is also a denomination called the Metropolitan Community Church that has churches in a lot of cities…the one in Atlanta is pretty big and diverse. I love my childhood church in my hometown…but once I come out, it just ain’t gonna happen.

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    I wish every church was a place to be your authentic self. I always feel super awkward when I go home to visit my family and have to go to my old Southern Baptist church with them. This church sounds awesome!

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    My church in Boulder is very, very set in allowing you to be who you are. It’s funny, we’re a United Methodist church but don’t follow their rulebook.

    They posted this press release saying they’ll perform any and all marriages in the church:
    http://fumcboulder.org/2012/05/08/press-release-fumc-boulders-response-to-general-conference/

    Plus my super hot girlfriend works there. I mean, it’s a win-win. They care so hard about authenticity and inclusion and loving everyone – it’s a fantastic environment. I swear I’m not being a church weirdo, but we call it “big gay church” and it makes me really happy that I can be who I am whenever I’m there. Plus, I think standing up to the man is badass and they do a great job of saying they’ll perform the marriages – for anyone who knows about the United Methodist church and Amy DeLong, it’s a huge no-no and they’ll probably lose their ordinations. But whatever. It’s high time small churches started doing something!!

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    expansion church on lafayette street in nyc also advocates the notion of “always being your most authentic self” cuz like that’s how it’s supposed to be.

    rachel, i love this. we should do more in-depth stuff on religion.

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    Everyone is welcome to come worship with us. Along with David, I too am a member and an “up-and-coming” minister at Rivers @ Rehoboth. God is doing Awesome works there! God Loves You no matter who you are or where you come from! If you are in NYC, please accept this as your cordial invitation to meet our Gracious God!

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    All are welcome at Rivers @ Rehohoth. I am a member along with David and Douglas as well as a minister there … an Interfaith minister at that!!! Come join us in authentic worship of the one God with many names.

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    I would like to set the record straight and let everyone know Rivers at Rehoboth ( my church) is not a gay church. It is an affirming church where the majority of the congregation is in same sex relationships. Not all members are gay. We have several memebrs that are in heterosexual relationships. We have families that have same sex parents and straight parents as well. We welcome everyone!

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