Homosexuality is still a taboo topic within most church circles.
But one church that is accessible to the Bed-Stuy community has made it a point to invite gay people of faith to come out and worship.
The Unity Fellowship Church-NYC (UFC) led by Bishop Zachary Jones is based in East New York, and it offers Sunday services and community outreach programs during the week that attract people from all walks of life.
“We take a bold stand in that we are openly LGBT people of faith, but we also believe the scriptures in the Bible,” said Jones.
Unity Fellowship Church was founded in Los Angeles in 1982 by Reverend Carl Bean and was the first church organized specifically to reach African Americans of faith in the LGBT community. Since then, they have branched out to 17 churches across the country.
As for their East New York location, Jones said the church consciously targets communities which are marginalized or challenged economically.
“It’s important that we pick areas which will benefit the most from our services,” said Jones. “There are already churches on Castro Street in San Francisco or in the East Village in New York that openly seek out LGBT people of faith, but that was not the case here when we first opened.”
Although there is not a burgeoning LGBT community in East New York or Bed-Stuy, Jones says he believes that there is an increasing amount of tolerance towards homosexuality in the area.
“At the East Market Cafe across the street from our church, there was a recent instance where a man entered the restaurant and made derogatory remarks about homosexuals, and the owner took a stand,” said Jones. “He invited him to sit down quietly or leave.”
As part of UFC’s outreach to the LGBT community, they offer programs that work directly with youth who are struggling with their sexuality.
“We have an outreach organization called Unity Fellowship Breaking Ground, which was started over 15 years ago for LGBT youth and their families,” said Jones.
“It was initially created to deal with issues related to sexuality and HIV among youth, but we’ve expanded since then to deal with issues pertaining to heterosexual youth such as teenage pregnancies. In light of the recent suicides amongst gay youth due to bullying in school, we also offer mental health support.”
Jones has been involved in church activities for his entire life. Born and raised as a Baptist in Los Angeles, he held his own Bible studies as a teenager and was licensed in 1978 as a pulpit minister at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
However, Jones, who is openly gay, says he experienced severe distress as a teenager while trying to manage his sexuality with his spirituality.
“It created enormous conflict,” said Jones. “When I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s, the churches didn’t have the language to deal directly with sexuality, and it wasn’t a topic on TV or in mainstream culture the way it is now. I reached out to have dialogue with my church over what I was experiencing and was silenced.”
Through a self-imposed religious exile and experimentation with other churches, Jones eventually found UFC. He was appointed Assistant Pastor of the congregation in 1987, and served in that role for five years before forming the New York City branch of the church.
Now a happily married husband and father, Jones says he feels a responsibility for the church to have a positive impact on those who are grappling with their sexuality.
“I’m a gay man, and I don’t feel that I am a misfit or freak of any kind,” said Jones. “To find no support from your community can be a very dark and lonely feeling, and the experiences I had feeling that way growing up inform and shape my life today. Any way that I can help influence young people to accept themselves for who they are is something that I take very seriously.”