To Heal a Mocking Bird

By Randevyn Pierre

Uncovering, 'Church Cancer:' Stories from Silent Survivors of Divine Punishment

Uncovering ‘Church Cancer:’ Stories from Silent Survivors of Divine Punishment

A House of Hope and Horror


Faith has been a consistent pillar for African American sanity; the place where hope dares to remain an option while oppression, defeat, and despair hold steady as the primary backdrop of reality for many People of Color in the United States.


On the other hand, the group hasn’t been a stronghold of psychological safety for all who have needed its support.


The denial of HIV’s early impact was so severe in some faith communities that ‘church cancer’ became the colloquial term around the cause of death for the formerly embraced, now stigmatized (and socially abandoned) gay men who passed away from AIDS complications.


In the family of Pentecostal churches where I was raised, Biblical literalism informed the way our faith was defined, taught, and expressed.


Like many other Black people, I was socialized into a set of practices that were baked with African spirituality, slave traditions, and Christian theology, and melded into a world of extremism complete with tongue-speaking, altar-convulsing, oil-slinging, dancing, and faith-healing rituals.


Unworthy of Wellness


Being homosexual is something that Black Pentecostal churches have traditionally seen as an unacceptable, perverted embarrassment to the church.


Seeking care is the first step for any person living with HIV who hopes to survive the infection.


Learnings from the field of HIV have shined the light on the concept that the power of shame compromises the audacity of hope.


For 40 years, there have been sectors of Black Pentecostal churches who have publicly and unapologetically demonized, shamed and decried the existence of men who are homosexual—an abusive behavior that has set the stage perfectly for an apathetic community response to HIV.


Regardless to any forthcoming revolutionary breakthroughs in treatment or prevention modality, if the Public Health community is unsuccessful at convincing people to test or seek care for HIV, it will be difficult to make an impact on the health disparities that stubbornly persist among Black men experiencing same gender attraction (MSM transmission category).  


While medical advancements in diabetes and hypertension (illnesses which widely impact the church’s demographics) are widely accepted by many Black Pentecostals, still there is mass rejection of long-standing behavioral science data showing variations in sexual orientation and gender expression as normal, expectable, and healthy variations in human development.


In fact, in the view of many fundamental Christian movements like these, there are no homosexuals—only heterosexual people who have been tricked into unspeakable deviant behaviors, which are considered sexual crimes against God.


Transformed (by the Ruining of Your Mind)


As unbelievable as it may seem to some, it is still widely taught (and believed) in many Black Pentecostal circles of faith that people who experience same gender attraction are overtaken with a sexual, “demon,” and must be spiritually cleansed.


Similar concerns are not as often raised against infractions committed by heterosexual men in positions of authority which contradict their spiritual and marital covenants (e.g. statutory rape/molestation) when involving female partners.  


More specifically, homosexuality is viewed as a spiritual deficiency that must be repaired through a ritual widely known as, “deliverance.”


Deliverance is based on the premise that a person’s sexual orientation is pathological, and is designed to promote heterosexuality for the individual through doctrinal intervention.   


Much like conversion therapy (which is banned in 20 states), where there is evidence that such interventions are harmful, deliverance is arguably an equally controversial process of psychological conditioning and may include ongoing forms of suppression and denial.


Preachers in these spaces have gone as far as claiming that HIV is God’s personal payback via pestilence—exclusively for gay men, although some of them have been known to be secretly same gender attracted themselves, but openly aligned with the oppressive theology.


In one account of a major, Black Pentecostal organization, there was high-fiving and laughing in agreement during a formal sermon as lewd and defaming comments were made regarding homosexual men in the name of God as the crowd exuberantly cheered the speaker on.


While it isn’t possible to measure the full impact of this theology, this narrative, drenched with the toxicity of guilt, shame and hopelessness, is the perfect soil for self-hate and internalized stigma to thrive (even before many youth experience same gender attraction).


Countdown to Catastrophe


Perhaps the deepest tragedy is that over time, there has been a level of acceptance among Black men experiencing same gender attraction within communities of faith; that they are, by default, ungodly; devoid of character, virtue, and integrity.


Perhaps these churches are successful in convincing these men that the best they should expect from their unfortunate, God forsaken existence is temporary joy from cheap thrills.


Many people who experience same gender attraction in Black communities of faith come to expect a ‘well-deserved’ life of misfortune, and/or an untimely death, which is inevitably looming; unless or until they should submit to the “will of God,” by suppressing or denying that experience altogether.


Although family and others closest to me did—I refused to accept this misguided logic as my own truth. Somehow, I knew relegating my mind to this delusional outlook on reality would invite a storm of depression that could lead to significant compromise of my emotional well-being and overall quality of life—and eventually perhaps my death.  


As an act of survival and self-care, I chose to unplug from a doctrine that (although used as a source of support for others) was being weaponized against people like me, by stripping down my dignity, chipping away at my mental health, and compromising my sense of self-worth.


Still, some choose to stay. Due to religious trauma syndrome, this can sometimes be a difficult and often painful personal choice, regardless of the outcome.


Studies of gay and/or bisexual men have shown that lower self-esteem or episodes in which an individual’s self-esteem has been compromised are associated with greater involvement in risky sexual behaviors and sexual compulsivity. This points to a potential association between self-esteem and HIV risk.


In this series of personal accounts, I will share stories of Black men experiencing same gender attraction who grew up watching, and some who continue to watch, as many accept what they have been indoctrinated to believe is their divine punishment—death by disease, an ultimately self-fulfilled prophecy.  

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