Yesterday, while I was looking through my Twitter feed, I came across a blog post written by my good friend and former classmate from Yale Divinity School Alisha Lola Jones called “The Appearance of Evil: A Death of Love and Hospitality Ethics in Black Churches.” In her post, she gives an account of a conversation she had with a minister given the pseudonym “Antwan Harris” about the great lengths that single Christian men go at times in order to prevent their actions toward the opposite sex from being perceived the wrong way. Often times, these attempts at avoiding the “appearance of evil” result in extremely awkward interactions between Christian men and women that are further complicated by faulty assumptions about each other’s motivations.
In a lot of ways, the story of “Antwan Harris” is the story of my life. He could easily be me or any of my close friends. It was situations like the ones that “Antwan Harris” describes in his conversation with Alisha that actually led to the creation of this blog. As I said in my first post, my friends have always told me that my life was too interesting to keep to myself. Much of those “interesting” details come from my experiences with church folk. This is especially true with regard to my experiences in navigating what I have been referring to in my personal life as my six-year drought.
Like “Antwan Harris,” I knew better than to date any women in my former congregation. I had heard too many stories about male ministers have taken advantage of female congregants in the past. I had also taken a divinity school course that essentially instructed ministers not to date their congregants because the ministerial role creates a power imbalance. Besides, church people like to gossip and I knew that dating one of the women in my former congregation would have given others an excuse to talk about me. I enjoyed not being the focal point of their gossip, but I soon found out that my attempts at keeping my reputation in tact only gave rise to another set of rumors.
After my last relationship ended because of my awareness that as a graduate student I wasn’t financially stable enough for marriage, I decided that it was my best interests to remain single for a while. At the time, I did not realize that “a while” would turn into almost six years and counting. As a result, there was no more talk around my church of my relationship status by the time I came back home to Philadelphia almost 2 years after my breakup. I thought that meant I was in the clear with respect to gossip so I focused on ministry. Whenever I needed assistance with any of the programs that I was running, I invited a few of my male friends to come and help me. Everybody knew that I was in a frat, so I figured that they would make nothing of it. I didn’t realize what kind of rumors my actions were facilitating until one day, my cousin came up to me and said, “A few of my friends were asking me if your friend was gay, but I told them he wasn’t.”
That quickly, I figured it out. Because I wasn’t hitting on any of the women in the congregation or bringing a lot of random women through the church, my sexuality was being questioned. It was a catch 22 that was further strengthened by all the attention that “down low” brothers were getting in the media the time. Those people at my old church knew better than to ask my cousin directly about me because my cousin likely would have fought them. (Years later, when I finally explained to her what her friends were really up to, I could literally see her anger reaching dangerous levels.) My friend Lou, whose video I posted yesterday, also informed me that people had been asking him about my friends as well since we all had taken him on as our little brother. Even some of the children that I worked with began pulling me aside to ask me questions about my friends. I didn’t hold it against the children because I knew that they were only repeating the things that their relatives were saying in front of them. Nonetheless it was awkward and aggravating.
The unfortunate reality is that this kind of stereotyping drives a lot of people out of the church. In my case, I was able to ignore it because I knew the truth and I felt that my work in that congregation was much more important than any rumors that were being spread about me. I remained an active part of that congregation until God moved me to my current role in my cousin’s church. However, one of my friends was deeply hurt when I recently mentioned the rumors in passing. We ended up having a series of long conversations about it that reaffirmed my need to start blogging again because voices like ours were not being heard.
The majority of my male friends have either had their sexuality questioned just because their methods of approaching women do not necessarily adhere to societal norms or have been accused of trying to play the women in their churches just by being friendly. Some feel pressure to get into relationships quickly just so that the questions will stop. Others consider giving in to the temptations that they fight so much just because they feel that the rumors have damaged their reputations beyond repair. (Any man who is a virgin or celibate in this overly sexualized society will tell you just how difficult it can be without the added distraction of rumors from church folk.) It is incredibly frustrating to be misread like that so often. It just doesn’t make sense why friendly men who make an effort to show respect to their sisters in Christ are viewed with such suspicion, but it is unfortunately becoming a part of lives of single Christian men everywhere.
Thankfully, there are people out there like Alisha Lola Jones who are willing to bring up topics like this for discussion. After all, it is only through dialogue that we as a people can work together to make things better for the next generation of single Christian men who actually make an effort to do things God’s way.