Julion Evans was only forty-two years old when he died. He died after grappling for four years with the rare disease called amyloidosis, an illness that occurs when a substance called amyloid builds up in one’s organs. Amyloid is an abnormal protein that is usually produced in bone marrow and can be deposited in any tissue or organ. Amyloidosis frequently affects the heart, kidneys, liver, spleen, nervous system and digestive tract. Severe amyloidosis can lead to life-threatening organ failure. There is no cure for amyloidosis. There was no cure for Julion Evans.
When he died, his family wanted him to be remembered at the family church, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida. The family had chosen to have the funeral at New Hope because it was large enough to accommodate the hundreds of mourners expected. Evans’ mother, Julie Atwood, was baptized in the church as a child and several of her family members, including her sister, still attend the church.
But the day before the service, Julie Atwood was standing at her son’s casket during his wake when she received a phone call from the pastor of the church, the Reverend T. W. Jenkins. Ms. Atwood says the pastor told her that it would be “blasphemous” to proceed with the funeral and that he was canceling it. Why? Because Julion Evans was gay.
What kind of pastor is the Reverend T. W. Jenkins that he would use the telephone to tell a grieving family of his decision? At the very minimum, this decision required of him to speak to the family face-to-face. Pastor Jenkins may have his D.Min. degree, but I find him guilty of pastoral malfeasance.
Julion’s husband, Kendall Capers, talked with the funeral home’s managers and requested space for a funeral the next day, which they gladly granted. But the ugliness of this church’s actions compounded the grief for Capers who is still reeling from the shock. “I haven’t had a chance to grieve since I got the phone call,” Capers said.
Here are the facts about Evans’ life that were too “blasphemous” for Jenkins to relay to his congregation. When Evans died, he had been with his husband, Kendall Capers, for seventeen years. During the last four of those years, Evans was dying of amyloidosis, a rare, incurable, painful disease that slowly destroys the organs, nervous system, and digestive tract. Capers took care of Evans through his illness. The two finally wed in Maryland when it was clear that Evans did not have much longer to live. The decision by Pastor Jenkins devastated Evans’ husband, Kendall Capers.
In defense of his decision, Jenkins said: “Based on our preaching of the Scripture, we would have been in error to allow the service in our church. I’m not trying to condemn anyone’s lifestyle, but at the same time I am a man of God, and I have to stand up for my principles.”
As a pastor, of course, Jenkins has his civic and constitutional right to deny religious services to anyone he wants. But that legal prerogative does not exempt Jenkins from moral judgment – and morally, his actions are surely breathtakingly despicable. Here was Julion Evans, a man in a deeply committed relationship of seventeen years, who suffered bravely through a horrible disease – and yet this church denied him peace, even in death. Pastor Jenkins, this up-standing “man of God” can “stand up for [his] principles” all he wants, but the rest of us have every right to be utterly sickened by his actions.
According to its website, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church is a “Christ-centered” and “biblically-based” place of worship. It offers ministries “open to visitors searching for a spirit-filled place to call home.”
Well, not if you are Julion Evans.
Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas may feel that gays deserve to die and to go to Hell, but this church outdoes does them by a long shot: this church does not even think they deserve a Christian burial.
If there is any ray of hope that comes out of this shameful event, it is this. Another Baptist pastor, the Reverend Otis Cooper, ended up performing the funeral service for the family. Cooper, a young pastor at New Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida, has only been a pastor of this church for ten months. Julion Evans’ mother attends his church. The family ended up having the funeral at the same funeral home that handled the wake, with Cooper officiating. Cooper says he does not regret his decision. I can only hope that his congregation feels the same way.
Now, it does not surprise me that a conservative Christian venue such as New Hope Missionary Baptist Church would find itself in a moral quandary over hosting a funeral for an openly gay man, one in which his grieving husband would be in attendance. If you are a church that preaches against gay unions and is opposed to performing same-sex weddings, it would indeed potentially present a conflict to preside over a gay man’s funeral.
But frankly, that is all still completely crappy and unenlightened and pretty much the exact opposite of what I believe Jesus would do. Such an attitude completely ignores Jesus’ message of love, particularly towards those in mourning for Julion Evans, in favor of those in the congregation who hold the purse strings. Jesus would not have done to this grieving mother and this bereaving husband what this pastor and his church did to Julie Atwood and Kendall Capers. Jesus would not have turned them away. He would have embraced them – embraced Julion and embraced his friends. Jesus would not have turned them away because for him, compassion was more important than any earthly judgment.
So let us think for a moment. What could this spiritual leader of a congregation have done when the outraged members of his flock began calling and complaining about the prospect of a gay man’s final blessing being bestowed there? What was the moral imperative that Pastor Jenkins ought to have followed?
Well, here is a radical thought. He could have led. Pastor Jenkins had a chance to be the spirit of Jesus the Christ to this family. Instead, he kicked each of them while they were down. And he kicked them hard.
We should expect of our clergy not only that they are they compassionate, but also that they are knowledgeable about issues that present themselves. As we do not go to a doctor who never learned a thing after graduation from med school, so too, we should not want our clergy to cease studying after they are ordained. But from the remarks that Pastor Jenkins has made in this matter, I can only speculate that his education ended when he finished seminary.
The Biblical texts that are most often cited in the same-sex debate deserve some explanation in order to reduce their citation for hurtful purposes. So let me be presumptuous and try to enlighten Pastor Jenkins a bit, so that if this situation ever arises again he can and will handle it differently. (Hope, it is said, springs eternal and I am a very hopeful person!)
Does Pastor Jenkins know, for instance, that the text of Genesis 19 – usually cited as evidence of the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality – centers upon the story of Lot’s visitation in the city of Sodom by two angels? The men of Sodom tell Lot to hand over the male visitors so that they may “know” them, that is, sexually know them (giving rise to the term “sodomy”). It is horrifying to our contemporary minds when Lot bargains with the visitors by offering the men his virgin daughters instead. However, any reader of ancient literature (of which the Hebrew Bible is a component) would realize the familiar motif concerning hospitality. The story is not one denigrating same-sex practice; instead it upholds the incredible (and ludicrous) hospitality of Lot as a virtue.
Does Pastor Jenkins know that the holiness codes of Leviticus thread down from an all-encompassing mandate to the Israelites to behave distinctly from their foreign (and depraved) neighbors? Leviticus 20:13 that proscribes the death penalty for same-sex relations is quite related to the codes that condemn bestiality, invoke dietary restrictions, and order the wearing of certain fibers. The codes make the Israelites unique from their neighbors, and they reflect a particular time and place in Israelite history. These strict behavioral rules were established and they were applied only to the followers of Yahweh, namely, the Israelites! If this is a valid analysis, (as I believe it is) it probably means that the vast majority of orthodox Christians apply to Christians the same rules that were intended to apply only to the Israelites. Any contemporary critique must note this reality before invoking the codes as ammunition against same-sex practice.
Further, does Pastor Jenkins know that there is no Hebrew or Greek equivalent word in the Biblical text to reflect the modern term “same-sex orientation” or “homosexuality?” Moreover, there were no discussions or arguments concerning sexual orientation in the ancient and late ancient world, conversations that would only arrive in the modern era of psychology. Instead, ancient writers believed any wanton sexual behavior of any variety was a mismanagement of one’s appetites. The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, follows this pattern.
Speaking of the apostle Paul, does Pastor Jenkins know that the Pauline letters that are raised in the same-sex debate are part of Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality in the first century C.E? In his letter to the Corinthians, for instance, Paul includes in a laundry list of vices “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” These terms are injected along with many other vices: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers,” and Paul is addressing the issue of a church member sleeping with his stepmother. In other words, Paul is addressing ALL deviant sexual and immoral behavior, not just that of a same-sex variety. In his address to the Romans, Paul describes the root sin of the Gentiles as idolatry, and the consequences of idolatry are vices beginning with women and men “exchanging” natural intercourse for unnatural. While Paul is describing this behavior as the result of wayward passions, the chief sin is idolatry and separation from the one true God. While the Romans text offers the longest discussion of same-sex behavior in the New Testament, it is unclear whether it truly is a condemnation of a specific practice.
Does Pastor Jenkins know that until the middle of the twentieth century, there was little discussion of this issue either in church or in society? The general consensus was that practicing homosexuality was destructive behavior, condemned as “sinful.” But data began to emerge in the 1950s that was destined to change these definitions and their resulting stereotypes. Scientific studies began to suggest that homosexuality was not abnormal behavior; that homosexuality was not a mental illness, as believed for a long time. It was simply a minority aspect of sexuality that has always been present in the human species. Investigations have revealed that the percentage of homosexuals in the population was fairly constant at all times and in all places. We now know that approximately 10% of the population is homosexual and that this percentage applies to the animal kingdom as well. Homosexuality was determined not to be something people choose, but something to which they awaken. It was part of one’s identity – and as such was not open to change.
The test of this latter truth came in the realization that those of us who are heterosexual did not choose our sexual orientation, either. We also simply awakened to it. Yet heterosexuals continued to believe that what they do not choose, the homosexual person does. This has meant that the heterosexual majority could continue to cast blame on parents, on dominating mothers, on weak fathers, or on molesting adults as the causative agents that created homosexuality in innocent children. Remnants of these largely discredited ideas still feed the prejudices of many people. I suspect that such ideas probably feed the members of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
The above discussions will likely never satisfy the Reverend Mr. Jenkins, his congregation, or any other opponents of gay rights or of same-sex marriage to any degree. But I believe that it is valid to question the basing of every aspect of our lives entirely on what the Bible “says” to the exclusion of anything and everything else that has been written. To understand the Bible is to realize that the Biblical material is very diverse, and also very condemnatory. For example, Jesus supposedly reflects on the Adam and Eve story to insist to his listeners that those that divorce and re-marry commit adultery (Mark 10:1-12; Matt 19:4; also Luke 16:18). The Bible “says” a lot of things. The Bible, when read at face value, condones incest (Lot and his daughters) slavery, the denigration of women, and a host of other ills that our world can do without. Perhaps we should treat the Bible less like the inerrant “Word of God” and understand it more as a human-authored document that arouses in us a life of faith and should be taken seriously, but not literally.
If Pastor Jenkins knows any of this, then he should be courageous enough to share it with his obviously uninformed congregation. Maybe then there will be new hope at New Hope, but I must confess, I won’t hold my breath.