Jamaica's gays worship in the closet

KINGSTON, Jamaica — It takes just 15 minutes to set up an underground church.

Two boxes and a white sheet make up the pulpit. The altar is a card table. Folding chairs constitute the pews. Then Rev. Robert Griffin, a solidly built gay American minister in his mid-40s, unpacks a battered cardboard box; inside is a wooden chalice, two candle holders, a communion plate and a dog-eared copy of the King James Bible. Add a pianist warming up on an electric keyboard and suddenly an empty meeting room is transformed into the Kingston branch of the Sunshine Cathedral, Jamaica’s only gay church.

“We call it church in a box,” said Griffin, who travels to Jamaica once a month from Florida to hold services for Jamaica’s gay community. He helped found this congregation five years ago after reading a Human Rights Watch report about institutionalized anti-gay violence in Jamaica.

“We were asked to come in to create a safe place for people — the gay and lesbian community — to come together and worship,” he said, explaining that the Sunshine Cathedral, with 147 active members organized into four branches around the island, is now an affiliate of his home denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches. This gay-friendly church, founded in Los Angeles in 1968 by an enterprising Pentecostal minister in response to being defrocked for being gay, today serves as a focal point for congregations emerging around the world.

“We have to operate underground because of the hostility towards the gay and lesbian community here in Jamaica,” said Griffin, explaining that the location of this meeting is a closely held secret and that every service is arranged through word of mouth. “If it was known publicly where this congregation meets, I’m pretty sure there would be some type of violence toward the congregation.” Jamaica is a hostile place for gay men and women and homophobia is woven into the everyday fabric of society. To travel around Jamaica in a long-distance taxi or commuter vans is to be continuously assaulted by the throbbing lyrics of popular dancehall DJs calling for the killing of "battymen," as gay men are known here. Anti-gay attitudes are also embedded into the nation’s criminal codes and anyone convicted of the “abominable crime of buggery,” as anal sex is defined, can be sentenced to up to 10 years of hard labor. And while firm statistics detailing anti-gay assaults, beatings and murders are difficult to find — mostly because the police are as likely to harass a victim of a gay assault as they are to help — it seems that almost every member of Jamaica’s gay community that I encountered had at least one, if not several, personal horror stories to relate.

In just one packed afternoon, I met one woman who was shot several times by a gunman who shouted out “de lesbian fi dead” (the lesbian must die), as he pulled the trigger. One man told me his best friend was murdered, chopped into pieces with a machete, and had the skin flayed from his face; he then went on to relate how another gay friend was locked up in his parent’s house by a group of gunmen who then set the building on fire and burned him alive.

Then there was another congregant whose features appeared in video shot at a gay birthday party that became a black-market best seller after a copy was stolen and then released on the streets. He’s had to abandon his home twice, in two different cities, after neighbors saw the video, recognized him and made plans to kill him. And he’s one of the lucky ones, the man says, since he’s lived to tell the tale — unlike four other gay men he knows who had the misfortune to appeared in the video and were later hunted down and murdered.

The Sunshine Cathedral fills quickly. Even though the service isn’t scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., the room begins filling an hour earlier. These services serve as social gatherings as much as they are religious events, and by the time Griffin steps up to the podium — dressed in black pants, a black shirt with a white clerical collar, and a bright multicolored stole — the space is packed with 50 or 60 Jamaican men casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

Griffin begins with song. “Welcome Holy Spirit,” he sings, his voice joined by a swelling congregation of male voices. “Fill me with your power. Live inside of me.” Over the next hour, he led the congregation in song and prayer, peppered with spontaneous testimonials about the workings of God in the congregants' everyday lives. But the heart of the service was his sermon, given just before sharing the wafers and wine of communion. “God loves us, because guess what, God created us,” he said, addressing his congregation in a loud voice, spreading a message of peace and acceptance. “And God did not create us just to sit around and hate us, just because we choose to love someone of the same gender.” Heads nodded fervently around the room.

These are radical beliefs in Jamaica, where religion is a fundamental part of life and the gay-friendly brand of Christianity offered at the Sunshine Cathedral is just the latest religious community. The island, which is often said to have the most churches per square mile in the world, is dense with tiny congregations. About two-thirds of Jamaicans describe themselves as Protestant, according to government census figures. Among the leading denominations are Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist and Pentecostal. Historically, the Church of England had a strong historic influence, but American streams of Christianity have swept the country since its independence. Less than 4 percent of Jamaicans are Roman Catholic. A leading religion is, of course, Rastafarianism, which has Christian roots and an Afro-centric worldview. Ministers here regularly condemn homosexuality as a mortal sin, citing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and God’s destruction of these cities because of the immoral behavior of their gay inhabitants. They also frequently quote verse 20:13 of Leviticus, which declares: "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.”

“Ministers here are endorsing violent acts, calls for murder, to incite riots,” Griffin said. “I hear it being done here, I read it in the papers here, I have even heard it myself. They tell me: ‘We don’t believe in homosexuality and homosexuals should be killed because that’s what the scripture says.’” These beliefs also feed another equally pernicious notion about homosexuality. Since gayness is seen as an ungodly and unnatural act it is widely believed that the only way a young person becomes gay is by being coerced or raped by a gay man.

“That’s a misuse of the pulpit to me,” he said, with a look of outrage on his face. “In this culture, sex and homosexuality seems to pack the churches on Sunday morning. And if a minister is perceived to have not preached against homosexuality on Sunday morning, then that minister has not actually preached, if you will.”

“But we know that scripture says a lot of things,” he said. “My pushback is to ask why is that one particular verse up higher than other verses in that particular section of the Bible? There is another passage that says, 'Slaves, obey your masters.' Well, that particular part of the Bible hasn’t changed. But our attitudes certainly have changed about how we look at slavery."

“We have a lot of education to do around scripture and theology,” Griffin continued. “Not enough critical thinking has been done in this particular area from the churches, or more so from the ministers, around theology and sexuality. How can we talk about sexuality, that it’s not harmful, that it’s not dangerous, and that we can engage it in a way that it is celebrated as a gift from God.”

Religion is a central aspect of life for nearly everyone in Jamaica, explained Griffin, “but if you are gay, you can’t find places to talk about the issues that you’re going through. It may be the issue of my relationship. It may be the issue of my partner dying. It may be wanting to adopt a child or having a child. Or it may the issue of how do I connect my spiritual soul to something greater than what I am?”

“Living in a closet is a soul-killer,” he said, explaining that until the Sunshine Cathedral was founded in Jamaica, gay men had no place to express their spirituality or to explore the meaning of their lives in an accepting environment. Instead, he said, if a gay man walks into any other Jamaican church and asks for help, the standard response is that they must give up their gay lifestyle and practices.

“Ministers here would be happy to counsel you on how to convert from your homosexuality,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to you about how to live your life as a healthy gay person or lesbian. They’ll tell you that homosexuality’s wrong, repent, and don’t live that life anymore. Well, asking me to repent of that is like asking me to repent of my eye color — I can’t change my eye color any more than I can change my sexuality. It’s part of who I am, and I go back to that I think it’s all a gift of the divine.”

Community building and spiritual healing, in this context, is no small task. “The first thing most people who come here want to know, is it OK to be gay?” Griffin said. “That’s the first question – ‘Am I going to hell for being gay?’” But changing fundamental beliefs is a complicated, long-term undertaking, even within the gay community. “A member of our congregation challenged me when we first came here and said, ‘We have been taught scripture was to be taken literally all of our years, and now here you come telling us to rethink scripture and look at it differently.’ And that was kind of a challenge for us, because how do we now help our congregation ... [to] read scripture for themselves, and help them to interpret it in a way that is helpful for them.”

Most of the gay men who come to the Sunshine Cathedral are deeply traumatized, Griffin explained. “They’ve been disowned by their families, kicked out of their homes, physically attacked and abused for being gay. So we’re dealing with the basic necessities of having to help a person rebuild their life all over again. And in that process, we are able to put them in touch with a larger community that says, 'You are going to be OK. It may not feel like you’re OK right now, but you’re going to be OK.'”

“I’ve watched this congregation grow over the past five years,” he said. “Before they had nowhere to go. Now they can come to a place and pray and most importantly be together. To come here in this sacred place, or wherever we are, and make that place sacred, make it holy, where they can sit in a worship service and comfortably hold their partner’s hand or their lover’s hand, and receive communion together as a couple, without condemnation. ... That is what we are offering to a hurting community that’s been hurting for so long.”

Griffin’s dream is that someday the Sunshine Cathedral will be able to own a church building and become the first openly gay institution functioning in Jamaica.

“We hope to become public,” he explained. “I would like to say maybe within the next three to four, maybe at most five years, that Sunshine Cathedral will be able to claim a public witness here in Jamaica. But for the time being, for the protection of the members of this congregation, we cannot be as 'out' as our denomination is.”

“I think the debate on homosexuality in Jamaica will need to begin in that religious community,” he said, explaining how the churches really dominate the political and moral discussions in Jamaican society. “That’s going to be ground zero for us.” The first step toward public acceptance, he believes, has to begin with Jamaica’s religious leaders. “Step one ... is to say we want you to not preach from your pulpit that it is acceptable that homosexuals should be killed,” he said. “How do we get pastors to say, ‘let’s not do this’? Because we’re all humans, and human life is the most important thing, and how dare we preach taking another human’s life? Regardless of what scripture says, how dare we preach this? Human life is too important and too sacred for that.”

But Griffin also understands that change is not going to happen easily — or without significant sacrifices. “There is a greater awareness that there is an emerging public gay community and lesbian community here in Jamaica,” he said, reflecting on the changes that have taken place since he began visiting five years ago. “I don’t think it is as private as it once was. Issues of sexuality and homosexuality are talked about in the papers a lot more than they once were.”

“But I don’t think Jamaica has had their Stonewall yet,” he said, referring to an uprising in New York City in 1969 that signaled the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States. “I think they’ve come very close a couple times, but until they have their Stonewall, I don’t think the nation as a whole is going take this real seriously.”

“There are a younger group of gays and lesbians who are coming onto the scene and saying, man the torpedoes and full speed ahead, let’s get this gay thing done,” he said. “They’re ready. I think if the moment came, and the word was given, they would be in the streets marching. But as the gay community becomes more visible, more organized, more present, and begins to ask for more rights, more protection, there is going to be a pushback, a backlash. And I know that’s probably a reality, that it’s going to happen, but it scares me. Because I know life would be lost, and life is precious. And enough blood has been shed already in Jamaica over this issue.”

(Producer Micah Fink reported from Jamaica on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His series on homophobia and stigma airs on the public television program WorldFocus. An interactive web portal, Glass Closet, offers additional resources and a platform for global conversation.)