Storytelling, justice and communitythese core values drove Pride in the Pews when it began in March 2021 as a campaign to collect 66 stories from Black LGBTQ+ Christians across the country.
While the mission for Pride in the Pews has evolved and expanded since its inception, those values remain the backbone. Now, with all 66 interviews slated to be finished by the new year, founder Don Abram, a Black queer minister from Chicago, is looking to transform Pride in the Pews from a campaign into a organizationthe first of its kindthat will mobilize and equip emerging Black LGBTQ+ leaders of faith.
The vision for Pride in the Pews emerged for Abram during the racial justice protests in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd's murder. "But I would say that, of course, that vision had been brewing," Abram noted.
As he was protesting in the streets, Abram wondered, "where is the Black Church?"
"And I immediately realized that even if the Black Church were on the front lines of this movement, I wonder whether they would actually say Black queer lives matter," Abram said. "Because they would be marching, presumably on Saturday, but then on Sunday go into pulpits and preach against my right to exist."
Abram wanted to recognize the gap he perceived between the Black Church's theology on the LGBTQ+ community and the mission of the intersectional Movement for Black Lives, which he noted was founded by Black queer women. In early 2021, Abram received a $40,000 grant to launch Pride in the Pews from the Once Here Foundation after meeting the founder, Karl Bandtel, in a class on pastoral counseling and sharing his vision.
Abram's goal for the first year was to collect 66 Black LGBTQ+ stories in the Black Church66, the number of books in the bible. The project, which Abram called "Can I Get a Witness?", was both an organizing strategy and a needs assessment of the community, Abram said. Its focus on storytelling as a methodology has roots in Abram's religious studies.
Abram, 27, grew up on the South Side and began preaching as a teenager, receiving a front-page profile in the Chicago Tribune for his rousing sermons. He attended Pomona College in California before spending three years at Harvard Divinity School, where Abram studied the intersections of race, religion and politics.
At Harvard Divinity School, Abram applied Black liberation theology from scholars such as James Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas and Patricia Hill Collins to deconstruct homophobic and transphobic theologies. Cone, Abram said, argues that Black liberation theology starts at the place of the lived experiences of Black people, a philosophy that underscores the storytelling value of Pride in the Pews.
Now, Abram and his team are developing avenues to share the 66 stories beyond the interview recordings. Abram recently applied for a grant to create a Pride in the Pews podcast. But Abram said he is also interested in securing funding to create a video compilation of the stories, either as part of a curriculum or as a self-standing documentary.
Abram plans to use the interviews to develop concrete ways the Black Church can better serve the Black LGBTQ+ community. "The voices are central to what we do. We literally cannot move without them," Abram insisted.
After securing another $50,000 grant this year from the Gill Foundation, Abram hired qualitative researchers to analyze the "Can I Get a Witness?" stories. Pride in the Pews will use the qualitative analysis to develop content for training curricula and public-facing stories.
Some trainings are already scheduled for spring 2022, including a pastors-only training, Abram said. Thanks to the Gill Foundation grant, Pride in the Pews will be able to travel across the country to conferences of faith leaders with their training programs.
Clearly, what began as a year-long mission to gather stories has become an organization that intends to stick around. Abram sees himself running Pride in the Pews for at least the next five to eight years"as long as God tells me to," he said.
As he looks to the future, Abram has goals both directed inward at the Black LGBTQ+ Christian community and outward to the public. He wants to host a yearly conference where Black LGBTQ+ leaders of faith can share community, resources and organizing strategies. Abram also hopes to host a conference every four years to uplift national policy priorities, in cadence with the presidential election cycle. He also wants to develop a more robust public-facing compilation of media that center conversations of Black LGBTQ+ faith.
Above all, Abram aims to help the Black LGBTQ+ Christian community elevate their voices in the public square to combat anti-LGBTQ+ voices coming from the Black Church. Through this method, Abram envisions a seismic shift in the Black Church.
"If we were able to invest in that emerging generation of folk who say, 'I'm not going to allow my calling to be stifled by homophobic or transphobic institutions,' I think we'll see a radical shift in the way that the public understands the Black Church, but also in the way that the Black Church is able to show up on behalf of all marginalized identities, not just some," Abram said.
Abram's desire to achieve a sea change in the Black Church also shines through in his intended audience for Pride in the Pews. Abram doesn't only want to speak to those who are already willing to listen. He wants Pride in the Pews to act as an ongoing resource for all Black churches, even those that are struggling to affirm the Black LGBTQ+ community.
"How do we meet them where they are, address their concerns and fears, and journey with them to get to a place of acceptance?" he queried. It's the type of church Abram is searching to work as a pastor in himself now that he's returned to Chicago.
It's been almost a year of running Pride in the Pews. When Abram launched the campaign in March 2021, the Chicago Tribune released a front-page profile of Abram and his mission. At the end of the article, the reporter asked: Does he think he's ever changed anyone's minds on this?
"No," he said at the time.
Like he did the last time he was asked this question, Abram paused.
"It's such a tricky question. I think the answer is still no," he said. "But, I think that I have been able to successfully invite those who are hesitant or skeptical to enter into this conversation to do so."
He added, "I'm not interested in converting. I'm not interested in changing. I am interested in inviting folks into a conversation that will hopefully be transformative enough to prompt them to be more inclusive, and more affirming."
To commemorate the first year of Pride in the Pews, the organization will host a virtual symposium on Feb. 23 at 6-8 p.m. The symposium, entitled "Many Parts, One Body: Sexuality, Gender and Movement Building in the Black Church," will feature Black LGBTQ+ leaders of faith, scholars, activists, and allies, including Rev. Carmarion Anderson, Rev. Dr. Delman Coates and Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey. All are welcome to attend. For more information, visit www.prideinthepews.com/2022-virtual-symposium .