It was a little more than an hour into the second of Mayor Lenny Curry’s community conversations — this one, called “Religious Freedoms, Thoughts and Beliefs,” was held on Dec. 3 at Edward Waters College — when Pastor Ronnie Edwards of Blessed Hope Missionary Baptist Church expressed his disdain for the direction of the discourse.
“[We’re] beating a dead horse. We keep going back to love as if we don’t love,” he said. “My God doesn’t change.”
Audience members, sitting on bleachers in Adams-Jenkins Sports & Music Complex, responded with a synchronized “Amen.”
The “Amens,” just short of the familiar call-and-response (along with the fan-waving) gave the room an ecclesial feel. But, in a gymnasium and with an audience made up of both white and black people, it was certainly a far cry from the church proceedings that would carry on as usual a few days later.
The issue of expanding Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to include protections for LGBT individuals has brought people together. But it has also created some rifts, locally, both between and among faith leaders and the churches they represent.
When the community discussion was over for the evening, people flooded onto the hardwood floors of the basketball court.
Edwards, who inspired a loud outcry after asserting “homosexuality is a choice,” was met with hugs and hearty handshakes. People of all races approached him with smiles, thanking him for his service and for speaking on their behalf.
The response to one of his comments, in particular, stood out. When asked how he felt about LGBT people being discriminated against just as blacks had been during the Jim Crow era, Edwards shot back, saying the “plight of black people is not in the same universe as the plight of LGBT.”
Many of the people sitting on the bleachers applauded enthusiastically.
Edwards’ insistence that local laws need not include protections for LGBT people, however, is not representative of every black pastor in Jacksonville.
In November, Pastor R.L. Gundy, of Mount Sinai Baptist Church, caused a media frenzy when he became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.
Edwards and Gundy were on the same page when changes to the HRO were proposed back in 2012. Since then, ideas about love and marriage have largely shifted, culminating in June when the Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry.
With the landmark decision, Gundy abandoned efforts to ban same-sex marriage.
Gundy said when LGBT people feel disparaged by the church, it creates a climate that is not conducive to his work as a pastor. Despite claims otherwise, Gundy said he considers any resistance to grant a marginalized community protection from discrimination to be hate.
“If I can’t minister to the people in church and they’re running away because they feel like the church is condemning them, I’m not doing ministry. I’m doing hate,” Gundy said.
Edwards is one of Jacksonville’s many religious leaders who argue that faith-based communities that do not support an inclusive HRO do, in fact, love LGBT people. It was one of his most recited talking points as a panel member during the community conversation.
Edwards declined to comment about Pastor Gundy’s change of heart, however, and was open only to saying he disagreed with Gundy, but wanted to keep his personal opinions private.
Gundy and Edwards are related by marriage, their families intertwined by law, their church membership at Mount Sinai and a deep involvement in the ministry.
Gundy, however, wasn’t sworn to silence.
“Ronnie Edwards is out of this church,” Gundy told Folio Weekly.
“Unfortunately, when he was at the meeting, and I walked in and I saw him, I didn’t know he was going to be there doing that,” Gundy said. “I said, ‘Well, it looks like he didn’t want to call a brother and talk to me because I’m his father in the ministry.’ So I said, ‘He [is] out of his league’ and he was.”
By changing his stance on the HRO, though, it may be Pastor R.L. Gundy who is out of his league, according to some members of black churches who attended the community meeting.
“I would probably be looking for another church,” said one woman in the audience who’d been asked what she’d do if her pastor supported an inclusive HRO. “He’s entitled to change his mind but his parishioners don’t have to stay.”
Earlier this month, a group of 19 African-American pastors called for a public referendum on the issue of an expanded HRO.
FOLLOWING HIS LEAD
On Sunday morning at Mt. Sinai, the parking lot was full. Inside the sanctuary, red and green Christmas ribbons adorned wooden pillars as light shined through windows that reached to the ceiling.
Gundy’s parishioners did not seem phased by his stance on the HRO. One woman, a member of Mount Sinai for more than 70 years, said Gundy opened discussions about it during a Bible study.
“We should not discriminate. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be where we are,” she said.
The woman joined others, like Percy Clarett, in full support of Gundy’s leadership and ideology.
“One thing he really wants is equal opportunity for people to live where they want to live. I think that’s really good. I think no matter who you are, you should be able to live where you want to live,” Clarett said. “He encourages us to love everybody.”
In fact, no one expressed opposition. Robert Lewis, a church deacon, said he has the utmost respect for Gundy.
“He ’bout treating humans like they supposed to be treated. He has an inner love. He’s very protective of people. I just got a lot of respect for him,” Lewis said. “I can’t speak for what other churches do, but when it comes to him, he shows compassion to everybody.”
Today, Gundy and Edwards still agree on at least one thing: The LGBT community’s struggle for civil protections is not the Civil Rights movement.
“It’s different. My ancestors came here as slaves,” said Gundy.
Though he is adamant that they are two different battles, Gundy, who calls himself a “social justice preacher,” said the fight for LGBT rights is not so far apart from the Civil Rights Movement that there is no common ground.
“There is similarities when it comes to discrimination,” he says.
Gundy says he instructs his congregation from the Bible, based on his personal convictions of how Christians are called to live.
“I trained them on the Biblical principles of love, non-discrimination and the fact that some people who are gay are born that way,” Gundy said.
He says he still has a huge issue with the church, which he said “is yet to repent from the sin of segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement.”
“I can’t blame the church or evangelicals for having a Biblical stance because I have mine. But I can blame them when they don’t show the love imperative, which is the moral-ethical piece,” Gundy said. “We can’t continue to carry the name of Christianity and not carry the moral imperative of love. We can’t do that.”