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Jamaica's gays worship in the closet

The Sunshine Cathedral, Jamaica's only gay church, gives parishioners a community, in secret.

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.”