A Rare Haven for Gay Men and Lesbians in Harlem


Published: May 27, 2012

A Rare Haven for Gay Men and Lesbians in Harlem

While adhering to many traditions of black churches, Rivers at Rehoboth has made ministry to gay men and lesbians its mission.

In a church nestled among a row of residential brownstones, parishioners clapped and danced as a woman began to testify.

Vanessa M. Brown, who is gay, is the church’s senior pastor and preaches what she calls a “radically inclusive” message. “God doesn’t make any junk,” she said. “He made us knowing who we were going to be before we were it.”

“Aren’t you glad Jesus got up?” the woman, Twanna Gause, asked the predominantly black congregation, which responded with enthusiastic shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah.”

“He got up so I can come out,” Ms. Gause said, as worshipers hopped out of their seats and cheered in agreement. “He got up so you can come out.”

For black Christians who are gay and lesbian, church can be a daunting experience, where on any given Sunday they are taught that homosexuality is not only a sin, but a one-way ticket to hell. That alienation has been a benefit for the Rivers at Rehoboth congregation, in Harlem, which has made ministry to gay men and lesbians, combined with the worship traditions of black churches, its mission.

The congregation was formed by the merger of two churches,  Rivers of Living Faith and Rehoboth Temple. The pastor of Rivers, Vanessa M. Brown, 41, is a lesbian, and the pastor of Rehoboth, Joseph Tolton, 45, is gay, and both were born and raised in Harlem. Their merged congregation rents space out of Grace Congregational Church on West 139th Street, where Mr. Tolton’s former church worshiped for four years.

Ms. Brown, the church’s senior pastor and Ms. Gause’s partner, preaches what she calls a “radically inclusive” message, while Mr. Tolton, the associate pastor, offers as a mantra the phrase “Gay by God.”

“God doesn’t make any junk,” Ms. Brown said. “He made us knowing who we were going to be before we were it.”

Only “small segments” of black church leaders openly welcome gay men and lesbians in their congregations, according to Lawrence H.Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar College who has researched black churches.

“There’s also a large majority that doesn’t,” Mr. Mamiya said.

As evidence, he said that many black churches supported a ballot measure barring same-sex marriage in California.

“That gives you some indication of how strong the opposition is,” he said.

But there have been some signs of change. This month, Board of the N.A.A.C.P. voted this month to express its support in favor of same-sex marriage. 

Rivers at Rehoboth is attended by an average of 200 members each Sunday. On Easter, ushers had to place folding chairs next to pews to accommodate visitors, some of whom had traveled from as far as Italy and Australia.

Both pastors speak openly about their own experiences struggling with sexuality as black Christians.

Mr. Tolton said that for over 20 years, he believed his sexual orientation was a spiritual demon from which he needed to be saved. As a young ​​​​man, he asked clergy to pray for him to be straight.

Mr. Tolton said he left his church after a friend told him he could not be the best man at his wedding because he is gay.

“It broke my heart,” Mr. Tolton said.

Ms. Brown said she, too, struggled with the church’s stance on homosexuality.

She said she married a man who was gay, to help him cover up his sexuality and protect his image in the church. But

Ms. Brown divorced him after growing tired of living a lie, she said.

“I was ruining my own self,” she said. “I wasn’t happy.”

Many members of the Rivers at Rehoboth have their own stories.

Derrick Smith, 26, who found out that he had contracted H.I.V. shortly before joining Mr. Tolton’s church in 2007, said he had been asked to step down as the organist at his former church in the Bronx when he told people of his sexuality. He said he learned about Mr. Tolton’s church on a promotional postcard at a support clinic for gay black men in East Harlem. After a couple of visits, Mr. Smith joined the church and has been an active member since. He now serves as the church’s sound technician.

“I believe it helped save my life,” Mr. Smith said.

Julie Chisolm-May, who attends the church with her wife, Stacey, said before joining Rivers at Rehoboth, they attended separate churches for about eight years because of the glares they would get from people when they were together. Ms. Chisolm-May said if she and her wife had not found Rivers at Rehoboth, they would probably be worshiping from their bedroom, watching ministers preach on television.

“It’s the safest place to go without being condemned at the end of service,” she said.

Now, she said, her entire family attends the church, including her six adult children, and her 74-year-old mother, who changed her views on homosexuality when she joined the congregation.

The pastors say they are now looking for a larger space in which to expand.

“We want people to know that they are loved, there’s a safe space for them in the house of God,” Ms. Brown said, “where they can truly worship the Lord and be their authentic selves.”

Media Reports


   Rivers at Rehoboth Is Groundbreaking Ministry for Gays and Lesbians in Harlem  Read Article Here




The Brody File: State of the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
(Interview with Pastor Joseph Tolton)



Rivers@Rehoboth Goes International
(Norwegian TV)



Why Marriage Equality Matters
by Pastor Joseph Tolton
(Ebony Article)




Vanessa M. Brown

Senior Pastor Vanessa Brown

is a voice of empowerment

foranyone who has ever felt

rejected by their religion. ″I want the LGBT community to know that we are the most resilient, innovative, creative, talented and spiritual beings on the planet,″ says the native New Yorker. <more>

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