SEATTLE -- Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.
Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.
But its congregants, many of them African-American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.
That's particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.
A source of debate around the nation's kitchen tables, same-sex marriage is particularly thorny within the African-American community. For many, church is central to their lives -- and typically, black churches do not approve of homosexuality, saying the Bible condemns it.
"Church is the place where many African-Americans find community. ... And if Pastor says something is wrong, you don't question it," Marshan Goodwin-Moultry, co-pastor of Liberation United Church, said in explaining why gay black men like him can't find peace in most black churches. "You are told to be silent, not to be authentic. It's acceptable to be on the down low."
Historically, African-Americans have not supported gay rights in general and gay marriage in particular in any significant numbers.
Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.
Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community -- from education to health care -- marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African-Americans in same-sex relationships.
But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.
"People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong," said Andre Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.
"Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them."
Next month voters will settle questions around gay marriage in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and here in Washington, the first real tests of whether America's attitude on such unions has softened in recent years. Washington's Referendum 74 would allow same-sex couples to marry.
Campaigns on both sides of the debate are making an effort to reach black voters.
In Maryland, for example, TV ads specifically target African-Americans, who make up a larger proportion of the population there than in any state outside the Deep South, and where the effort to undo a gay marriage law is being led by black pastors.
In Washington -- with a smaller black population but a Ref. 74 contest so close that every vote is likely to matter -- campaign videos and ads from both supporters and opponents feature African-Americans.
Publicly, some black pastors here have taken a stand on either side of the issue while others have remained silent.
In none of the states where voters are being asked to approve or reject same-sex marriage would churches and religious leaders be required to perform such weddings.
Yet many conservative religious leaders -- including some black pastors -- believe stripping gender from the state's marriage laws could have negative consequences for society in general.
Sims acknowledged criticisms that the Bible also was used to condone slavery and restrict civil rights, but said the trouble with biblical interpretations is often with who's doing the interpreting.
He said that approval of Ref. 74 would confer no new rights on gay and lesbian couples but would change how marriage is defined.
"When we start talking about moving genders to fit into this redefinition of marriage ... we are advocating something that I believe the Scripture doesn't advocate or approve of," Sims said.
But other black pastors in Washington state and across the country argue that trying to justify discrimination under the guise of religion is simply wrong.
On Mother's Day, Leslie Braxton, senior pastor of New Beginnings Christian Faith Center in Renton, who has participated locally in debates on the side of gay marriage, delivered a sermon entitled "What to do about same-sex marriage?"
In a free society, Braxton told his congregation, all people have the right to live according to their conscience.
He recalled his first sermon as a rookie preacher 30 years ago, when to get what he called a "cheap Amen," he invoked an often-used refrain: "God did not make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve."
Later, he said, "our gay musicians played the hymn of invitation after I had slapped them all over the pulpit and then depended on them to bring the praise."
"You don't believe in freedom until you believe your neighbor has the right to do what you think they are going to hell for," he said.
While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent -- despite a bump after endorsements by President Barack Obama and the NAACP.
Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.
In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr., said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama's endorsement they've formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their "biblical values" rather than a party line.
Such opposition frustrates blacks who support gay rights and struggle to understand how others who have known what it feels like to have rights denied them could do the same to others.
"This is an issue of equality and equity," said James Bible, president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP and the grandson of an interracial couple.
"It should be the right of all people to embrace and love whomever they choose."
He added: "It's up to organizations that protect and promote civil rights to support such protections for everyone."
As married gay black men, Marshan and Darrell Goodwin-Moultry represent an almost invisible face in the African-American community.
The two men, in their 30s, legally married in New York in January, and in June they celebrated with a wedding ceremony at the church where both are pastors, which holds its services at Epiphany Church in Madrona.
Their path to the altar involved difficult conversations with family members who ultimately -- and in their own way -- reached a point of acceptance.
Darrell Goodwin-Moultry's grandmother, Roberta Harris, of Chicago, who is featured in pro-gay-marriage campaign literature, said, "I came to the decision that this is his life. I support him 100 percent; I love him and would never turn my back on him."
She flew to Seattle for the ceremony, which overflowed with family and friends and even complete strangers, who had heard about it through friends of friends and said they wanted to be there to celebrate the two because they'd never been to a wedding for black men.
The men hope they are role models for other black gays, to show that it's possible for those raised, as they were, in the church to remain consistent with their faith while living their lives honestly.
"We recognize that people don't see this," Darrell Goodwin-Moultry said. "In my life, I often look for mentors. ... I feel that's the one thing that's missing. Marshan and I, we don't ever see mentors for ourselves."
Still, the men are not as rare as it might appear.
The 2010 count showed more than 58,000 same-sex couples in the U.S. who are either African-American or include an African-American partner.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who has endorsed the gay-marriage campaign, pointed out that people often evolve in their thinking on this issue when others around them come out of the closet. But historically, she pointed out, coming out of the closet is not so common among African-Americans.
The daughter of a Korean mother and an African-American father, Strickland said there's also resistance to same-sex marriage within the Korean community.
"Even if you don't agree with interracial marriage or marriage equality," she said, "don't stand in the way of those who want the same right as everyone else."
By Lornet Turnbull
The Seattle Times