Small Atlanta gig, big media results

072804sharptonAccording to the Los Angeles Times website, the desk in the newspaper's Atlanta bureau is currently "vacant." This, for me, makes it even harder to understand the following story by reporter Jenny Jarvie. I predict there is a story behind this story somewhere. The topic is clearly newsworthy, although the event is a long, long way from Los Angeles. It seems that the leaders of a gay-rights group called the National Black Justice Coalition decided, in response to GOP efforts to reach out to morally conservative African-American voters, to hold a conference. The long, long headline describes this effort as "Black Clergy Tackle Homophobia -- A summit put on by a gay rights group gathers Christian leaders to explore attitudes toward homosexuality."

It's interesting that the top paper of the West Coast elected to staff this event in distant Atlanta, which drew 100 "pastors and theologians." Some would say a "mere" 100, although that is a judgment call. It certainly would be a newsworthy event for newspapers in the region. However, the organizers certainly did their homework, since this small meeting also drew the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and other major media. The New York Times reports that 150 people attended, which I assume does not include the reporters and camera crews.

The event was held at the First Iconium Baptist Church, but most of the quotes in the story come from leaders on the religious left. Here is a sample from Jarvie's piece:

"We may not all agree on gay marriage, but at the very least we can say that every child of God deserves to be affirmed in the family of God," the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, senior pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., said in an interview.

Once a Baptist who condemned homosexuals from the pulpit, Samuel now is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which welcomes gays and lesbians.

The story is a familiar one. Sexuality is a tough subject in many historically black denominations, where a basically conservative approach to moral and social issues collides with politically progressive stands on other issues and a rock-ribbed loyalty to the Democratic Party. Thus, Republican efforts to woo black voters have centered on issues that, in most black pulpits, tend to evoke quotations from the Book of Romans rather than the Democratic National Committee.

For the political left, this is bad, bad news. Ask Democratic leaders in the state of Ohio. Let's go back to the Los Angeles Times report:

"We have sat back and allowed the right wing to shape the political agenda," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed the summit. "Now it is important that the black church break the backs of those who are trying to use homosexuality as a political weapon."

Rather than asking pastors to change their beliefs and condone homosexuality, Sharpton appealed for greater tolerance: "If we can forgive adulterers, why do we allow the right wing to attack homosexuals?" he asked.

So a political hook inspired this theological gathering (something that happens on the right, too). I found it interesting that almost every person quoted in the article had, in changing their views on sexuality, found their way out of traditional, doctrinally conservative Christian pulpits and pews and into progressive Christian or even Oprah-esque, "unity," universalist-style church settings.

This, of course, is exactly what conservative black church leaders would have predicted would happen. Interesting.

And one more thing. Read the whole article and then ask: Where are the voices on the other side of this issue? Is the Los Angeles Times piece, in its own way, a piece of evangelism or, perhaps, an analysis piece that should have been labeled as such?

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