Don Abram ’16 began preaching at his Black church on the South Side of Chicago when he was a teen—and he first recognized his queerness when he was a child.
Though he grew up in the theologically conservative Greater New Mount Eagle Church, he did not feel any conflict between his faith and his sexuality. But he did feel shame, he says. So, on Sundays he was straight. But as he grew, he was confronted with integrating his queerness and his faith, he says.
“Queerness simply existed outside of the sacred halls of the Black church. It was never something that coexisted in the way that I saw it, which is precisely why I was able to preach when I was called into ministry,” Abram says. “I was able to continue to sort of build my relationship with the Black church and not really see a problem, you being both queer and Christian, because those two things are separate and apart from one. I do not see them as inextricably connected.”
But he began to see the links as time passed. Over the course of his college career, he moved closer to affirmation of his sexual identity because Pomona introduced him to language and to frameworks by which he was able to understand his queerness and begin to understand intersectionality, he says.
“Now I'm being introduced to the scholarly and academic terms that have very real meaning for the way that I moved through the world. And I'm able to be introduced to historic figures. I'm able to be introduced to Black church movements in classrooms like with [Emeritus Professor of Politics Lorn Foster]. And we are able to have robust conversations about the Black religious tradition.”
On Friday nights Abram attended Claremont Christian Fellowship, “where they were preaching justice, where they were preaching ministry on the margins. And I said, ‘This speaks to me. This speaks to me not only because I believe fiercely in justice and in advocating for those who are on the underside of power. It also speaks to me because it provides a theological framework that I can tap into to understand my various intersectionalities.’”
As he found acceptance, and as he studied the Black church more, he says he came to a realization that made it all to make sense to him:
“The Black church has always been queer. We have a tradition of creating our own theology and a theology that affirms our humanity. So, me beginning that process, it was really born out of what I understood as the Black religious tradition.”
The leaders of the Claremont Christian Fellowship, Chris and Lorraine Wu Harry, along with Foster, served as mentors in this process. And when Abram arrived at Harvard Divinity School after graduating from Pomona, he encountered both Ph.Ds and parishioners who “cared about the future of the Black church and the Black church pursuing justice. They created a space for me to be able to queer my theology.”
These relationships and revelations were both exhilarating and sobering. As excited as Abram was to find acceptance, he knew that there were so many in the Black Christian community “who did not have access to those liberal, progressive, forward-thinking spaces.”
That was when Pride in the Pews, a grassroots nationwide campaign celebrating queer stories in the Black church, began to germinate.
“It is in that back and forth, me going from Pomona, heading back to Greater New Mount Eagle, from me going from Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard to coming back to Greater New Mount Eagle. That sort of push and pull really began to get me to think critically about my theory of change, how change happens, how it is possible. And for me, that's in community, that's alongside scripture, and it is through me telling my story,” says Abram.
Abram had worked on the U.S. Senate campaign for Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. And during that campaign he learned the power of storytelling. Thinking of those pushed to the margins because of their sexuality convinced Abram of one thing:
“I want to walk alongside these folks. And while theology is important, what lies at the heart of the Black religious tradition is morality, the oral tradition.”
Growing up and preaching in the Black church, stories were something Abram knew well.
“We tell stories that bring the Bible to life. Like when you read the Exodus story, it's powerful, old gospel. There is power in that Exodus story. But when you hear a Black preacher tell that story, it brings you in and captures you in such a way that you are moved to action. Your faith truly comes alive. So, I say if we want the Black church to begin to reimagine this theology, we have to start with stories.”
And that start is the project, “Can I Get a Witness?” The goal is to capture 66 personal narratives—there are 66 books in the Bible—that would inform curricula and workshops for Black churches regarding LGBTQ+ issues. Abram is in the process of fundraising so that this collection of narratives can be turned into a media campaign that pushes conversations forward.
Abram, who is also a program manager for Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, anticipates both risks and rewards. It will be a hard sell getting pastors who don’t identify as queer or trans to buy into “queering their church,” Abram says. He believes there are people who are ready and willing, but the challenge will be figuring out who they are, he says.
But the challenge will be worth the effort, he says, if the outcome is healing.
“There are many who have been harmed and scarred by the Black church. And in order to survive, they had to leave. In order to create an affirming theology, they had to leave, or they now have tenuous relationships with the Black church who may be reluctant to engage in a project like this, who may believe that there are no redemptive qualities left in the Black church for them to even consider this sort of work. I think ministering to them and creating space by which they're able to reclaim the tradition, I think that's going to be tough.”
For Abram, those who identify as LGBTQ+ aren’t the only beneficiaries of this labor. He speaks of “queering straight folks from those same oppressive theologies that cut across lines of difference, that cut across intersecting identities, and providing a liberatory framework for them to not only free themselves from queerphobic theologies but also misogynistic theologies, patriarchal theologies.
“I think that there is so much possibility in having these conversations and lifting up these stories, I think that we can save lives. And I mean that in a very literal sense. We can save lives by doing this work. So, I'm excited about the possibility of saving lives and doing this work and in moving the Black church to be the prophetic powerhouse that it was from its very foundation.”