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Excerpt from Owens’ April 9 sermon (MP3 format, 3 MB)
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr.—pastor of the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, one of the city’s largest congregations—had a clever theme for his April 9 service. His sermon was titled “Fan or Follower!” Owens, who is an honorary member of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Interfaith Council, delivered a message urging congregants to be move beyond being fans of the church to becoming followers of the righteous path.

He also made clear that one segment of his congregation is not welcome on that path: gay men.

During a dramatic presentation on how strong men follow the teachings of the church, he pointed out that “real men” for the Lord are straight. “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 the front of the church. “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.”

Owens did not return calls seeking comment.

One attendee of the service, who describes himself as a gay, says the house was packed for the Palm Sunday service. He and “about 20” other closeted gay men in the crowd, he says, felt they had no choice but to join Owens’ spontaneous celebration of straightness.

He calls the bishop’s message “offensive” because it suggests “it is impossible to be gay and serve God.” He also objects to Owens’ use of “faggot” and “sissy” to describe gay men. “If I wasn’t delivered,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been delivered on that day.”

The Bishop’s anti-gay rhetoric is no surprise coming from the No. 2 man in the conservative Mount Calvary Holy Church of America Inc. Gay activists say Owens has a history of homophobic sermons, but add that his congregation include numerous gay members.

Sermons less than welcoming to the gay community are nothing new in D.C. The Rev. Willie Wilson of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church delivered a strident anti-gay sermon last summer, warning that lesbianism was about to “take over our community.” His comments stoked a outrage in the gay community and prompted many city leaders to denounce the politically powerful minister.

Owens doesn’t share Wilson’s loaded political history, but his sermon celebrating straight men adds fuel to the simmering battle between the city’s conservative churches and the politically powerful gay community.

Owens’ 7,000-member Northeast congregation has long been a regular election-season campaign stop for city politicians, even though most members of the church live in Prince George’s County, Md. Last month, Owens offered up his church as the venue for Ward 5 Councilmember and mayoral candidate Vincent Orange‘s “State of Ward 5” address. The D.C. Council also passed the “Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. Recognition Resolution” in 2004, for his church’s work in the community on drug treatment and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell says the bishop “has a longstanding record of homophobia. I literally will not step in his church,” says Pannell, who is gay.

The mayor’s religious advisor, Dr. Susan Newman, says Owens is a non-voting “honorary member” of the council, based on his leadership post in the national Mount Calvary church. Owens, she says, has not attended a meeting of the council 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. Newman says the sermons of any Interfaith Council member do not reflect the views of the mayor’s council.