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Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. of Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue NE has apparently embraced a new form of segregation in his church.
At an April 9 Palm Sunday service, Owens, an honorary member of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Interfaith Council, delivered a sermon titled “Fan or Follower!” The idea was to urge congregants to move beyond being fickle fans of the church to becoming true followers of the righteous path. And the preacher made clear that one segment of his congregation is not welcome on his road to glory: gay men.
During a dramatic, sometimes ranting presentation on how strong men follow the teachings of the church, the bishop pointed out that “real men” for the Lord are heterosexual.
“It takes a real man to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I’m not talking about no faggot or no sissy,” said Owens on a church tape recording. “Wait a minute! Let all the real men come on down here and take a bow,” he said, inviting them to join him at the altar of the huge, stadium-style sanctuary. “All the real men—I’m talking about the straight men,” he preached. “You ain’t funny, and you ain’t cranky, but you’re straight. Come on down here and walk around and praise God that you are straight. Thank him that you’re straight. All the straight men that’s proud to be a Christian, that’s proud to be a man of God!”
The congregants applauded and yelled in support of those who rushed forward. Sources who attended the service say not a single ambulatory man remained in his seat. Owens did not return calls seeking comment.
One attendee, who describes himself as gay, says the service drew some 400 enthusiastic worshipers. He and “about 20” other gay men in the crowd felt they had little choice but to join Owens’ spontaneous celebration of straightness.
He calls the bishop’s message “offensive” because it suggested “it is impossible to be gay and serve God.” He also objects to Owens’ use of “faggot” and “sissy” to describe gay men—“If someone calls me ‘faggot’ or ‘sissy’ on the street, I will fight them”—he says, and describes Owens’ invocation of high-school epithets for gay men as a barrier to those seeking shelter in a forgiving church. “If I wasn’t [already] delivered,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been delivered on that day.”
Another gay man who was at the service, who calls himself Joshua, chose Palm Sunday to visit the Northeast D.C. megachurch for the first time. Joshua moved to the area about four months ago and was shopping for a place of worship. He came with a gay friend who regularly attends Mt. Calvary. “The funny thing is, I had heard good things about the place,” from other gay churchgoers, Joshua says.
Owens’ call for “all the real men” to come to the front of the sanctuary put the new guy in a bind. “I thought, What do I do?” says Joshua. “For the first five seconds, it seemed like an eternity. The friend who invited me…got right up and went to the front of the church,” he says. “I could hear as the men were walking toward the altar—the guys acting all macho and stuff. And I heard some whispering and laughing from the women who knew that some of the men were gay.” He decided to join the guys in the well of the sanctuary near Owens. When the minister told the men to return to their seats, Joshua left the church.
As a regular churchgoer, Joshua has endured his fair share of preachments on the evils of homosexuality. But “the Bishop Owens method,” he says, is in a different, more dangerous category of sermon. Most ministers “reference (homosexuality) as a sin, as one of the sins that is out there,” says Joshua. “But I have never seen an effort to split up who’s straight and who’s gay.”
D.C. has some experience with influential ministers who deliver gay-bashing sermons with the tape recorder running. Last summer, the Rev. Willie Wilson of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church delivered a strident anti-gay diatribe, warning that “lesbianism” was about to “take over our community.” A recording of his graphic descriptions of gay sex quickly made the rounds. His comments stoked outrage among gay leaders and prompted the District’s political class to denounce the politically powerful minister.
Churches and the gay community are considered among D.C.’s most potent vote-producing forces, and there’s little common ground between them. A Northwest D.C. church, the Scripture Cathedral, recently objected to a liquor-license application for Be Bar, a gay-owned establishment near the church in Shaw. The city alcohol control board granted the license last week.
Owens’ 7,000-member church, one of the largest in the city, has long been a regular election-season campaign stop for city politicians, even though a survey of the church’s parking area reveals that a preponderance of Mt. Calvary members register their cars in Maryland. Last month, the church served as the venue for Ward 5 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Vincent Orange’s “State of Ward 5” address. Orange did not return calls seeking comment. On Sunday, May 7, one of the glossy handbills laid out on the church information counter attested to the greatness of Ward 5 council candidate Frank Wilds.
The D.C. Council passed the “Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. Recognition Resolution” in 2004, honoring the minister for his work in the community on drug treatment and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Mayor Williams’ religious adviser, Dr. Susan Newman, says the pulpit pronouncements of Interfaith Council members do not reflect the views of the mayor. Owens is a nonvoting “honorary member” of the council, based on his leadership post as vice bishop of the national Mt. Calvary Holy Church of America Inc. According to Newman, Owens has not attended a council meeting for more than a year. “He’s not one of the high-profile, politically active pastors that you might see on the news,” she says.
The D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Men and Women denounced Owens’ comments and called for the bishop’s removal from the Interfaith Council. In a statement, the group called Owens’ sermon “particularly reproachable because it was delivered in a place of worship, a place that many people go to cope [with] the discrimination that society inflicts on them.”
The Sunday-morning crowd filing into the church’s May 7 service, which celebrated Greater Mt. Calvary’s 40th anniversary, was in no mood to talk on the record to a reporter about their pastor’s views on homosexuality. The few who did respond backed Owens’ take on what constitutes a real man. “He’s a great leader,” said a male congregant who attended the Palm Sunday service but refused to give his name. The Bishop “has a responsibility to lift up men who are following the Lord and the teachings of the Bible,” he says. “It would be pretty hard to imagine a time when the Bishop would stand up and speak against the clear word of God. It’s right there in the Book: Homosexuality is a sin.”
CAMPAIGN TRAIL VERBATIM
An occasional look at the candidates in their own words
Title: “Mound of Prosperity”
Candidate: D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp for Mayor
Event: Groundbreaking for the D.C. USA shopping complex in Columbia Heights
Highlight: Symbolism overload
“Many of you said it was hot out there today. But that’s symbolic of where we are in Washington, D.C. ’Cause D.C. is hot, folks. D.C. is hot!” (Applause)
“But you know what. While this city is hot, while we were standing there, I felt a breeze. And that breeze is symbolic of the type of relief we get as a city as we continue the development of Washington, D.C. As the breeze has given us relief, so will the development expand our revenue base. As the breeze gives us relief, so will the 1,000 jobs help to provide jobs for many of our residents who may be able to walk to work each and every day in this city. It is a good thing that’s happening.” (Applause)
“And finally, as we broke ground to my left, I happened to look and see so many grains of sand that came together as one mound. And each grain of sand is representative of the jobs that can be created because of this development. Each grain of sand can be representative of the tax dollars, the revenue that will come into this city that will help make us improve the quality of life for the people who live here. And the whole mound can be representative of the prosperity and the renaissance that’s occurring in Washington, D.C., this great city of ours.”
•Moderators at D.C. candidate forums are supposed to be neutral participants. But Ed Cowan, the referee at a May 6 Cleveland Park Citizens Association joust featuring D.C. Council at-large hopefuls, just couldn’t resist attacking candidate A. Scott Bolden. Without prompting, Cowan questioned the accuracy of information on Bolden’s Web site and corrected him on a statement about budget cuts. When Bolden tried to weasel out of Cowan’s query about whether he would be a “full-time” councilmember, the moderator pounced again. Bolden told the 30 attendees that he would “serve full-time on the council and maintain an equity interest,” in the Reed Smith law firm, where he is a partner. Cowan pressed Bolden to explain how he could claim full-time councilmember status and still hold a position at a law firm. “I’m not saying that,” Bolden snapped at Cowan with an edge usually reserved for his opponent, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. According to Bolden, being an equity partner “may or may not require some duties, but no obligation to practice law.” Mendelson remained quiet during the back and forth. “I did not go to the forum thinking I was going to be debating two opponents,” says Bolden. “I’ve never seen the moderator do the bidding of my opponent.” Cowan, who describes himself as a semi-retired journalist, says he took it easy on Bolden. On the full-time-councilmember question, “I held back,” says Cowan. “I didn’t want to seem like I was going after him. If I’d have had my wits about me, I would have asked if he would get income from the firm.”
•Ward 8 activist Sandra “SS” Seegars refuses to give up on her obsession with keeping political rival Philip Pannell from being seated as president of the Ward 8 Democrats. She filed papers in D.C. Superior Court last month challenging the decision by the D.C. Democratic State Committee to certify Pannell’s Sept. 17, 2005, election victory. Since then, Seegars has threatened to go to court to execute a “stay away” order on Pannell, who she claims threatened her after she appealed his election to the state committee. Her filing in Superior Court was strictly political; she is asking the court to strip Pannell of the highly coveted Ward 8 Democrats presidency. Seegars claims the state committee did not follow proper procedures in certifying the election and maintains that Pannell missed the deadline for getting his name on the ballot. “Those guys are a bunch of morons when it comes to following the rules,” Seegars says of the state committee. “They had to hire a professional parliamentarian [for the special meeting on her appeal], and they still screwed it up.” —James Jones
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