ATLANTA — Traditional African American churches are not known for being tolerant of homosexuals -- especially not in the Bible Belt.
But on Friday, more than 100 pastors and theologians from around the country filled Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church for a summit on homophobia in black churches.
"We may not all agree on gay marriage, but at the very least we can say that every child of God deserves to be affirmed in the family of God," the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, senior pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., said in an interview.
Once a Baptist who condemned homosexuals from the pulpit, Samuel now is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which welcomes gays and lesbians.
As the national debate continues over whether same-sex marriage should be legalized or constitutionally banned, the Black Church Summit organizers said their goal was to encourage greater understanding.
"It's time," said Sylvia Rhue, religious affairs and constituency development director for the National Black Justice Coalition, the gay rights group that organized the summit. "HIV and AIDS is a major concern in the black community, and churches can't deal with it if they can't deal with human sexuality."
Perhaps more than AIDS, however, it was the political ramifications of black pastors' attitudes toward gays and lesbians that motivated the landmark gathering.
Many civil rights leaders argue that conservative Republicans have used the issue of gay marriage to manipulate black ministers and gain minority votes. President Bush boosted his share of the black vote from 8% in 2000 to 11% in 2004.
"We have sat back and allowed the right wing to shape the political agenda," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed the summit. "Now it is important that the black church break the backs of those who are trying to use homosexuality as a political weapon."
Rather than asking pastors to change their beliefs and condone homosexuality, Sharpton appealed for greater tolerance: "If we can forgive adulterers, why do we allow the right wing to attack homosexuals?" he asked.
The relationship between black clergy and homosexuals is particularly strained in Atlanta -- home to the largest population of African American gay and lesbian couples in the South, as well as a growing number of conservative black megachurches.
Last year, nearly 40,000 people attended the city's gay pride celebration, which organizers say is the largest such black gay event in the world.
In December 2004, Eddie L. Long -- pastor of New Birth, a megachurch in suburban Atlanta -- led a march calling for, among other things, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Nearly 10,000 participants set off from Auburn Avenue, the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Among them was the Rev. Bernice King, the civil rights leader's youngest child.
Coretta Scott King, King's widow, has supported marriage rights for gays and lesbians, as have civil rights figures such as Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.
"We currently have a kind of standoff," said Robert Franklin, a professor of social ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University; he believes the summit marks the beginning of a dialogue that could reconcile gays with the church.
"It is time for the black church to show greater maturity," Franklin said. "We need to reach out to Christians who are not sure about how they feel about the issue."
Rhue said she invited many conservative pastors -- including Long and Bernice King -- but received no reply.
Homosexuality in African American churches long has been taboo, with many gays and their pastors operating under a "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy. In recent years, the relationship has become more strained as pastors increasingly have spoken out against homosexuality.
"I don't go to church anymore," said the writer E. Lynn Harris, 48, who used to attend New Birth. "I've heard enough hell sermons."
Harris' latest novel, "I Say a Little Prayer," is about a gay man who struggles to deal with the homophobia of his ex-lover, a fundamentalist pastor. "As my character, Chauncey, says in the book: 'If I can't come here and feel welcome, where can I go?' "
In Atlanta, many go to the Rev. Antonio Jones, the black gay pastor of Unity Fellowship Church. Some pastors even ask if they can send their gay congregants to him.
During his eight years in Atlanta, Jones said, he has become encouraged as more mainstream pastors talk about homosexuality. "Even if they are not sure, confident or clear, they are having more and more conversations," he said.
He cited the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a veteran civil rights activist and pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church, who used to denounce gays from the pulpit until a popular member of his congregation told him he was dying of AIDS.
"This thing has changed my values," McDonald said. "As a pastor, you don't choose your congregation. You have to be a pastor for everyone."
Although McDonald said he could not see himself presiding over a same-sex ceremony, he said he was now committed to challenging discrimination against homosexuals and addressing the spread of HIV.
For some, however, attitudes are not changing fast enough.
The Rev. Kathi Martin, a pastor at First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta, was pressured to leave her African Methodist Episcopal church in 1998 after sanctifying a same-sex marriage. Martin said she was glad to see some pastors move from condemnation to tolerance, but she wanted to go beyond tolerance to affirmation.
A minister's daughter, Martin grew up proud to belong to a historical black church that was founded on liberation. But, she said, "I think it will be years before I would be comfortable in a traditional church."