Pastor who once feared coming out now wants to help Black churches become more inclusive

At the young age of 22, Rev. Brandon Thomas Crowley faced a daunting challenge when he took over as the new pastor of a well-known Black church in suburban Boston. He had big shoes to fill, as his predecessor had served the congregation for a remarkable 24 years.

Reaching the decision six years later, in 2015, to tell his congregation that he was gay proved to be a daunting and at times agonizing task for him.

To his relief, the majority of the worshippers at Myrtle Baptist Church in Newton, Massachusetts warmly welcomed him. Crowley’s career has thrived since then, and he has recently authored a book titled “Queering the Black Church.” His aspiration is for this book to provide guidance to other congregations on how to be inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals, rather than alienating them.

Crowley, who is now 37 years old, was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. His hometown, Rome, played a significant role in shaping his upbringing. As a child, Crowley attended Lovejoy Baptist Church, where he developed a deep admiration for the preachers who delivered powerful sermons. This church holds a special place in his heart as his home congregation.

During one Sunday service, the pastor delivered a passionate sermon denouncing individuals who identify as homosexuals.

In an interview, Crowley shared their experience of being subjected to derogatory remarks and offensive language, which made them realize their identity as a queer person. Reflecting on the incident, Crowley stated, “He used derogatory phrases, describing it as a detestable group and a sinful thing, and I just knew he was talking about me. It was my first realization of the true beauty of who I am.”

According to Crowley, his great grandmother consistently reassured him that he was created in the likeness of God. She also shared with him the story of her own experience of becoming pregnant at 14 and her decision to break away from her church when they demanded an apology from her to the congregation.

“She would often speak these words with conviction: ‘God loves you,’ ” Crowley reminisced. “She would share her personal journey of overcoming the hardships she faced while carrying a child. Despite the pressures imposed by society, she found solace in a higher power that transcended the teachings of organized religion. She discovered a faith that surpassed the limitations of traditional preachers.”

During this period, Crowley strongly believed that he had a calling to become a Christian pastor. He felt a deep desire to preach the gospel of social justice.

He started dating a girl at Lovejoy because he believed that he had to conceal his sexual identity in order to pursue his calling.

During his time at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he enrolled in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Assistants program, he had yet to come out. It was during this period that he had his first significant romantic relationship with another young man. However, he chose to keep this aspect of his life hidden from his family and portrayed it as a platonic friendship.

After completing his studies at Morehouse, Crowley received acceptance into Harvard Divinity School. At that time, he contemplated giving up his aspiration of becoming a preacher and instead, expressed a desire to write books on the topic of the perceived decline of the Black church.

However, a close friend of his, who firmly believed in Crowley’s spiritual abilities, urged him to consider applying for the vacant pastorate at Myrtle Baptist, which happened to be less than 10 miles away from the divinity school.

Crowley was intrigued when he first showed interest in the position. However, he was surprised to hear that he was exactly what Myrtle’s search committee was looking for. He couldn’t help but think, “What are they talking about? I’m gay! This seems impossible.”

Despite attending a weekend Gay Pride party in Miami, he made sure to return to Boston in time to deliver a sermon at a service attended by the search committee. This dedication demonstrated his commitment to the job and his desire to be considered for the position.

Crowley quickly became a finalist, but faced a dilemma. Some of his trusted mentors disagreed on whether he should disclose his sexuality to the leaders of Myrtle or keep it to himself while focusing on his role as a preacher. Ultimately, he decided to remain silent on the matter and dedicated himself to his duties as the newly elected senior pastor of Myrtle for a span of six years starting in 2009.

As time went on, Crowley came to the realization that in order to truly carry out the work of God, he needed to operate from a place of genuine authenticity.

During one of his guest preaching sessions, Crowley had a serendipitous encounter with Tyrone Sutton, who would soon become his partner for the next three years. It was during this encounter that Crowley noticed Sutton sitting at the organ, and their connection was immediate. As they embarked on their journey together, music became an integral part of their relationship, as they would often sing and play music during their early dates.

Throughout his life, Crowley claimed to have experienced moments where he perceived a voice emanating from the divine realm. According to his accounts, in 1993, he heard this voice affirming his same-sex attraction as a child. It happened after he had been criticized by a family member for expressing admiration towards a male character on a sitcom.

According to Crowley, a relative disapproved of his sexuality, stating that “God doesn’t like that.” However, Crowley vividly remembers hearing a different voice affirming that God had created him just the way he is. This voice continued to speak to him at the age of 12, calling him towards a life in ministry. Later on, as an adult, Crowley credits this voice for providing guidance during the difficult process of ending a romantic relationship after disclosing his homosexuality to his girlfriend.

In private, all of those instances took place. However, during the spring of 2015, Crowley recounts an incident where he was sitting in Myrtle’s pulpit on a Sunday when he heard a voice speaking to him, urging him to come out.

Crowley vividly remembers his initial reaction to the voice that was encouraging him to reveal the truth, exclaiming, “Are you out of your mind? These individuals are going to ostracize me!”

Minutes later, Crowley, overcome with emotion, made a heartfelt declaration to his congregation, revealing, “I am a Christian male who is proud to be Black and gay.”

“We were already aware, reverend,” one church mother informed him. “We were simply anticipating your acknowledgement.”

After the announcement, a few members of the congregation chose to depart from Myrtle, but for the most part, there was resounding support for the pastor. The church saw an increase in attendance, with many new members, especially from the LGBTQ+ community. This encouraged Crowley to expand his focus beyond Newton and direct his efforts towards challenging the traditional beliefs of the wider Black Church community.

In his book, Crowley reflects on a long history of Black Christian preaching that frequently contained homophobic rhetoric and portrayed homosexuality as a sinful act. He highlights the efforts of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who passionately condemned homosexuality during his tenure as the leader of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church from 1908 to 1936. This church held great prominence within the Black community.

Myrtle, a church that is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, is known for its forward-thinking and inclusive community. However, it is important to note that not all Black churches and denominations in the U.S. share the same views on same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly LGBTQ+ clergy.

The Rev. Karmen Michael Smith, an author of the book “Holy Queer,” which explores the experience of being a gay Black Christian, and a frequent lecturer on the subject, expresses a more cautious viewpoint compared to Crowley’s optimism regarding the possibility of “queering” Black churches. According to Smith, many LGBTQ+ individuals have faced trauma and exclusion within Black churches.

Smith expressed his belief that the individuals in question would not return.

The issue of same-sex marriage continues to be a divisive topic among certain groups. One such example is the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is set to discuss and vote on a proposal to permit AME pastors to officiate same-sex marriages at an upcoming national meeting.

During his time as a pastor in Myrtle, Crowley accomplished a significant milestone by obtaining a Ph.D. from the School of Theology at Boston University. With aspirations of not only being a preacher but also a professor, he expressed his desire to serve his Queer and Black communities in both spiritual and scholarly capacities. In an email, Crowley stated, “I aim to contribute to the betterment of these communities through my expertise and dedication.”

The Rev. Martha Simmons, a renowned authority in Black preaching and the founder of the advocacy group Women of Color in Ministry, took on the role of mentor for Crowley after her insightful guest lecture at Morehouse. In her extensive career, she has encountered numerous students, yet she describes Crowley as the most exceptionally talented individual she has ever come across.

Brandon’s remarkable strength lies in his ability to navigate the challenges of being queer within the confines of a Black Baptist community, a reality he has faced throughout his adult life. Simmons acknowledges Brandon’s exceptional grace in handling these complexities.

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