Like many black Southerners, Wanda Floyd grew up viewing the church as a natural extension of her family. Every Sunday, you could find Floyd and her two brothers in Henderson’s Shiloh Baptist Church, ushering or singing in the choir. But while she was encouraged to build on her faith, Floyd was discouraged from doing certain other things that came naturally to her.
“Growing up, I was always attracted to girls,” Floyd says, flashing a toothy grin. Casually clad in black jeans, white T-shirt and thick-soled shoes, she leans back in her chair at the office of Imani Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Durham, smoothing back her short-cropped hair with a move that indicates neat efficiency rather than vanity. As you’d expect from a minister, Floyd talks in a manner that is both calming and straight-laced as she recalls how she’d “go around hugging girls and thinking nothing of it–until one day when a fourth-grade teacher pulled me aside and said, ‘Girls don’t do that.’”
As a teen, Floyd heeded that lesson, playing it safe by dating boys. It wasn’t until she left Henderson to attend N.C. State University that Floyd had her first lesbian experience. She and a friend “were lying out near a baseball field one night,” she says, “and I just rolled over and kissed her.” Right then, Floyd decided her grade-school teacher had been dead wrong. The kiss, she says, “was the best thing since sliced bread.”
Floyd didn’t share this discovery with her family back in Henderson. To this day, in fact, Floyd has “never had ‘the talk’” with her family–partly, she says, because the idea of creating “drama” runs contrary to her nature.
But she didn’t go back to Henderson, either. After graduating in 1984, Floyd stayed in the Triangle, where she felt free to date and make friends with other lesbians. Still, she missed her families–both biological and church. Knowing all too well the Baptist church’s zero tolerance for lesbians, Floyd joined St. John’s MCC in Raleigh, where worship services are designed for gay and lesbian Christians.
At St. John’s, Floyd began to feel a call to the ministry. By 1993, she was preaching the Gospel as an associate pastor at St. John’s, although it would be six more years before she’d complete seminary school and be ordained. Now, she quips, “I’s official, but I ain’t nothing like traditional.”
St. John’s wasn’t traditional, either, but it was predominantly white. After a couple of years as associate pastor, Floyd had begun to “feel like it was time to do something else.” But what? She didn’t want to risk losing the second church family of her life; then again, she didn’t want to risk not finding her “purpose and mission in life–the thing you were put on Earth to do, regardless of trauma or whatever.”
Maybe it’s her confident manner, or maybe it’s the soothing effects of a trickling waterfall and tranquility candle in her office, but until Floyd mentions “trauma” it would not occur to you that she’d possibly undergone any. Wrong.
At 30, when Floyd began pondering her future, she was also trying to regroup from a series of hellish experiences. In 1991, she’d been in a bicycle accident that killed her girlfriend. In 1992, Floyd was sexually assaulted while walking in her Durham neighborhood; after three hours, her assailant released her–alive despite a slit throat. And in 1993, just 10 hours after she’d driven a brand new fire-engine red Honda off the car lot, Floyd was hit by a tractor-trailer.
“God was showing me something,” Floyd concludes matter-of-factly, obviously preferring to focus on the practical implications of what happened. Talking about the hell she went through, she displays the patience of Job, never cursing God. You hope she doesn’t notice the four-letter words crossing your mind as you listen to her horror stories.
“I spent a lot of time in meditation,” Floyd continues, “and something inside me said, ‘OK, I’m tired of running.’ ” What she’d been running from was the next step in her life, one that would lead to the creation of her own church family–and one that would also lead to changes with her other family.
As she pondered her true calling, Floyd got a call from Dallas, Texas, asking her to interview for a clergy position with the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly white MCC congregation with some 3,000 members. “I knew that God was calling me somewhere else,” she says. But as she got ready to leave for a church conference in Charlotte a few weeks later, she realized she still hadn’t received the application materials the Dallas church had promised to send.
Soon, Floyd says, she understood why.
After a long day at the Charlotte conference, which was attended by mostly white folks, Floyd and her new partner, Sheryl Griffin, decided to go someplace where they could relax and be among other black lesbians. They ended up at a bar. So it was in an unlikely setting that Floyd remembers “hearing, very clearly, God saying ‘Your work isn’t done here, Wanda, there’s more to do.’ ”
Suddenly, she knew what there was to do. Floyd turned to Griffin in tears, saying, ” ‘On Sunday, the people in this bar won’t have anyplace to go to church.’ I knew then we weren’t going to Texas.”
Though it would be two more years before she founded Imani MCC (“Imani” means “faith” in Kiswahili), Floyd now knew she was being called to create a new church family with a special outreach to the gay African-American community.
Meantime, she made some other decisions. “The talk” or no talk, she decided to take Griffin home to Henderson for Thanksgiving dinner in ’95. “Dinner went fine,” Floyd says dryly, “so we went back for Christmas.” But during the second visit, “things turned ugly.” No fisticuffs or loud arguments, she says, just snippy remarks and snide innuendo–enough to make it obvious that “nobody appreciated [Griffin’s] presence or my boldness in bringing her home. Before then, I guess they thought it was a phase I was going through.”
Griffin, a petite Chicago native with a won’t-back-down gaze, remembers looking forward to those holiday meals in Henderson. “I had a real fantasy in my head about the black family in the South,” she recalls. “I was looking forward to some sho’ nuff foot-stompin’ food, and I was honored and grateful that her mom allowed me to participate.”
The food was good, Griffin recalls, but her reception wasn’t so great. “I was treated like a casual friend,” she says. “But I couldn’t be in her [mom’s] presence and lie about who I am.”
For a while, Floyd continued to visit home, sans Griffin. Despite her efforts to diffuse it, though, the family drama persisted. After her father died of a heart attack in 1998, family members became more direct in their disapproval of Floyd. Her brother “told me that if Sheryl came to the funeral, he’d cause a scene.” Later on, a half-sister declared Floyd’s life choices simply unacceptable. “It turned out,” Floyd says, “that my family had just been tolerating me all those years,” perhaps because of her father’s quieting influence. “I haven’t been back home for Christmas or Thanksgiving since my dad died. Other than him, my partner’s the only person who’s loved me unconditionally.”
Griffin agrees, adding that Floyd’s dad was the only family member who treated her warmly. “He truly embraced me,” she says wistfully. “He was one of those ‘Hey good lookin,’ friendly types. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t miss much.” While he “might not have approved of what Wanda was doing,” Griffin says, “it didn’t change how he treated her.”
It was the kind of father-daughter relationship Griffin never had. She grew up fast and hard in Chicago’s tough housing projects, raised by a single mother. At 9, Griffin found herself “functioning as head of household” after her mom had a nervous breakdown. “I was always running around, combing my younger sisters’ hair and doing laundry” and otherwise taking responsibility for the family’s well-being. Without a supportive male figure around who’d have her mom’s back, Griffin says she grew to be like “my mother’s man.”
When Griffin met Floyd at an MCC conference in 1994, she was ending a relationship-gone-sour with another minister. She was also reeling from the recent deaths of her mother and one of her sisters. Struggling to keep her emotions under wraps, Griffin had concentrated on her office-management career, keeping busy to the point of numbness. “I wasn’t expecting to run into Wanda Floyd,” she says, her husky voice softening into a purr. Now, “she’s my family.”
A month has passed since Floyd and Griffin joined 3,000 other couples for a symbolic holy union at the Millenium March in Washington, D.C. A certificate of the union rests atop the fireplace mantle of their living room, testifying to how they’ve managed to survive hard knocks and become each other’s family.
As they worked to build a home together, Floyd and Griffin also worked together on the family Floyd felt called to create. Citing “ethical concerns,” Griffin holds no official position with Imani MCC. But since Floyd founded the church in 1997, she’s helped her work toward their common goal for the church: to save souls, yes, but also to provide what Floyd describes as “a place of healing where gay Christians can meet people who love them as a family would.”
Sometimes the result is another new family. Franda Graves, a respiratory therapist from Greensboro, met her partner at Imani last year. After years of attending churches where homosexuality was condemned, Graves says she was relieved to find a church home where “gays have reconciled themselves and are able to call each other up and pray together. You can ask some [straight] people to pray with you, but what they’re really going to pray about is your homosexuality.”
At her former church in Durham, Imani member Joan Burnett says she “didn’t verbally come out, but I cut my hair short and instead of skirts I started wearing ties.” But when Burnett, who works as a mental-health counselor, finally sat down to talk with her minister about her sexuality, she says he “didn’t understand what was going on. He said that parents in the church wouldn’t want me around their kids.”
When a friend told her about Imani, Burnett went there and found “a tremendous amount of acceptance.” Aside from feeling “awestruck” by Floyd’s courage in starting the church, Burnett says the reverend’s “faith is stronger than anybody I’ve been around. She’s confident, [which] helped me feel like, ‘It’s true, God does love me.’”
Burnett, who was raised by a Presbyterian minister, says her relationship with her biological family is strained. They haven’t turned her away, but Burnett’s sexuality is “just not something we talk about.”
It’s all the talk at Imani. Since joining last year, Burnett says she’s become part of “a faith family where I feel whole and complete. It’s not my biological family,” she says, “but if I didn’t have Imani I don’t know where I’d be right now. There’s so much love in that place, and it’s powerful to be around people who’ve suffered so much because of who they are, yet are still able to worship God.”
So far, Imani’s 55 steady members are predominantly black and female. But the church has been aiming for more diversity of its own, and lately, Floyd says the ethnic mix is “shifting, with more non-people of color and males–which is good.”
On a recent, muggy Wednesday evening, 20 Imani members have come together for worship and Bible study–mostly black women, with a few white women and men of both races. While raising money for a building, Imani rents space from the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Church. In the center of the UUC’s Bible-study classroom, straight-back chairs are arranged in a circle on thick tan carpet; window seats with cushions, throw pillows and crocheted quilts cover the room’s fringes.
In this relaxed setting, church members greet each other with warm hugs. They chat about upcoming holy unions and ask how folks’ jobs–as security guards, nurses, office managers–are going. As class begins, everyone’s hand is gently clasped while church members bow heads and pray in Jesus’ name.
“Homosexuality: Not a sin, not a sickness,” is the title of a four-part series the group has been discussing. Focusing on the Book of Romans, they respond to questions on a study sheet handed out by Floyd. One question: “What causes women to ‘exchange natural intercourse for unnatural’ and men to ‘burn with lust for one another?’”
Hands shoot up; mouths “ooh, ooh” for the chance to respond. “We have to look at the culture and the time this was written,” says an older man whose soothing bass transmits a calm authority. A discourse begins about the common practice of sodomy and masquerade (or, as one man calls it, “drag queen”) theater in ancient Greek culture, the notable absence of the word “homosexual” in Scripture, and the power struggles over behavioral norms that took place during St. Paul’s ministry.
During the talks, the minister leans forward in her chair, elbows on knees, hands clasped in front of her white cleric’s collar. She listens intently as the members speak their minds about the notion that their lives are in any way “unnatural.” Faces glow from a big dose of spiritual affirmative action.
As class wraps up, Floyd tells her members to remember that “Jesus is the ultimate authority, not Paul, not Peter, not James.” And “what did Jesus say about ‘homosexuality?’”
“Nothing!” comes a resounding reply.
Smiling, the non-traditional Rev. Floyd asks her church family, “Everybody cool … clear on that?”
Imani MCC will hold a special Pride weekend worship service on Sunday, June 11, at 3 p.m. Call 403-6881 for details.