Tabernacle Baptist Church Preaches Acceptance
Soon after settling in the pews at the historic Old Fourth Ward’s Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, visitors notice that they are surrounded by a diverse congregation infused with same-sex couples, transgendered men and women and heterosexuals, all caught in the rapture of Sunday service
“I was the first African American pastor in the city-in Atlanta, who began to preach messages of inclusion, who opened my church to the LGBT community, and who was embracing it,” said the Rev. Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church.
In 2005, Pastor Meredith took a leap of faith. He stood up and preached for the inclusion of the LGBT community into a church that since its establishment in 1917 had never swayed from traditional Baptist practices. The congregation that had grown from 120 members in 1994 to over 500 by 2005 bringing in an estimated $14,000 to $16,000 in collections weekly quickly dwindled as members who disagreed with the church’s new stance accepting members of the LGBT community left.
The church gained members who brought a new energy to the congregation. “For every one older heterosexual person or couple that left about five same gender [couples] would come,” said Meredith.
Once affiliated with the National Baptist USA Incorporated, Meredith and his church now disassociate with the organization, which considers practices associated with the LGBT community as sin.
Meredith started preaching acceptance 13 years ago when his middle son told him and his wife that he was gay. Soon after, Meredith and his wife began to research Biblical passages about homosexuality. Meredith also read books by the Rev. Peter Gomes, known for his stance on intolerance and acceptance of homosexuality in the church. Before learning that his middle son was gay, Meredith believed the church’s views of homosexuality were flawed but was not sure why.
“It [my son coming out] was kind of the catalyst that thrust me into being inclusive,” said Meredith. “I wouldn’t want to hate my own son or condemn him to hell, and all those other kinds of things and issues that traditionally have gone with the Baptist church.”
The platform of Tabernacle Baptist church is very simple: love and acceptance of all of God’s people, the LGBT community included. However, many churches shy away from such discussions for fear that even the slightest mention of homosexuality or acceptance of that lifestyle could result in a shrinking congregation and the financial losses that would come with the it.
“I think homophobia plays one of the biggest parts in pastors and churches not preaching inclusion,” said Meredith. “There are about seven verses in the whole Bible that people use to build their case against homosexuality. Homophobia causes us to interpret from those Bible verses what we want them to say, based on our own fear and self-hate.”
Meredith thinks that, like him, many people don’t try to interpret Bible references to homosexuality unless they learn that a family member or friend is gay, bisexual or transgender.
A survey done in 2011by the University of California Los Angeles’s Williams Institute of Law concluded that eight million adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, comprising about 3.5 percent of the U.S. population. There are 700,000 adults who identify as transgender. That suggest that almost nine million U.S. adults make up the LGBT population. “The LGBT population in this world is a part of the community. We are everywhere. So why would you exclude? We are 10 percent of the population,” said Meredith. “To me, it just makes more sense to say ‘How do we better get along?’ ‘How do we assimilate into the fabric of the church the culture that includes this population of people?’ If we are one family under God, the doors of the church should be open to everyone-gays included.”
Now with a solid 85 percent of the congregation comprised of members of the LGBT community, Tabernacle is flourishing, and Meredith is doing all that he can to uplift and advocate for them.
One of the many programs available to both members of the church and the surrounding community takes place on Wednesday nights. Meredith’s Relationships and Life Class draws 150-200 participants weekly. He leads discussions centered on LGBT relationships, focusing on how to build same sex families in the African-American community. The class also focuses on how to have successful same sex relationships: “How do we get it right?” Meredith said.
With family being one of the most important aspects of keeping any church alive, Tabernacle takes pride in same-sex families and takes serious couples who want to marry and commit to one another under God. Meredith officiated his first same-sex wedding in 2005. He calls them commitment ceremonies.
“I would say to them if this is what you want to do, your church will recognize it, your pastor will recognize it-and will give you a ceremony to honor your commitment and your partnership,” said Meredith. “Even if it is not legal in Georgia, no one can tell me as a pastor that I cannot do commitment ceremonies with my members. If you decided you want to live in partnership and in union with this person then this community that represents this church with standby you and honor you.”
Today with same sex marriage legal in nine states, many of the members travel to New York and Maryland to get marriage certificates. They return to Atlanta to officiate the marriage with a ceremony at the church, their homes, banquet halls and various venues.
One of the oldest couples who attend Tabernacle are a transgender couple. They have been together 22 years. Meredith described the difficulties with the matriculation of the transgender community into the church. Sometimes they face discrimination from lesbians and gays.
“At first it was difficult because sometimes even in the LGBT community transgendered are still not treated with the same standards and respect that other gays are treated with-that’s one of the issues they have. However, one of the things that I’ve pushed for is that the transgendered assimilate into the congregation just like everybody else,” said Meredith “A transgendered person feels like ‘This is who I am,’ and if that is their truth to them, we have to respect that and embrace that.” In 2007, Meredith announced to his church that he is bisexual. He ended his marriage. He says his coming out was “the greatest…the best part of it all.”
Now with a congregation of about 1,200 members, Tabernacle has gained national and international attention. The church gave many the courage to come forward and be themselves.
“Everyone thought the church wasn’t going to survive but it’s flourishing and doing well,” said Meredith. “Before we were ‘Y’all are going to hell!’ And now we’re a success story.”