A church put women and LGBTQ people first. Attendance surged.
This church is redefining the relationship between the Black church and queer people.
On a rainy day in Harlem, Rev. Kyndra Frazier, 36, works at her desk at in a quiet office. She’s visibly relaxed, self-aware, and youthful.
Yet her journey to becoming a leader of one of the largest, most historic African American churches in New York City and exuding such confidence wasn’t easy.
Rev. Frazier was raised in North Carolina. Her family were leaders in the Church of God, so from a young age she found solace and enjoyment in her faith. But her teenage years were conflicted.
Rev. Frazier is queer — a life the church was starkly against.
She struggled to reconcile her sexuality and faith, fasting and praying, to no avail. Her parents found out about her queerness while listening in on a phone call between Frazier and her secret girlfriend.
“I recall being ashamed and embarrassed by what they’d heard, Rev. Frazier says. “They let me know that they couldn’t trust me anymore.”
It took about eight years for her immediate family to accept her. It took even longer for Frazier to realize she could love who she chooses and be a faith-driven person.
This duality drew Rev. Frazier to First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) and its executive pastor, Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr.
Rev. Walrond enjoys preaching in jeans. Photo courtesy of FCBC.
Rev. Waldron, 46, leans into the common themes of Black church identity in his teachings: faith, community, and a dedication to justice.
Unlike many Baptist clergy, though, Rev. Walrond has extended his message of tolerance and inclusion to a group typically excluded from ministry: the LGBTQ community.
“We as people of color have so many things that we battle with,” Rev. Frazier says. “For many of us, not only are we Black, ... we're also queer. Churches have to do the work that centers those folks and remind them that they’re valid and loved in such challenging times.”
Rev. Waldron’s progressive nature breathes through every part of the church. Since joining as the executive pastor in 2004, he's surrounded himself with women leaders, a rarity in most churches. His preaching style is casual; he wears jeans — unusual against his suit-and-tie counterparts in Baptist churches around the nation. (He once told The New York Times, “I like being loose when I go out to preach.”)
But his mannerisms and unique style of preaching connect congregants to the deeper acceptance of each churchgoer in the room. At FCBC, you’re at home, you’re welcome, and nothing — from clothing to sexual orientation — gets in the way of that.
All three of FCBC's Sunday morning services are typically filled to capacity. Photo courtesy of FCBC.
The inclusive efforts have been largely beneficial. FCBC's membership has grown from 350 to 10,000+ people.
Lines of people wrap around the street on Sunday mornings. During the service, gospel music echoes through the white ceilings lined with purple and gold. Churchgoers are each immersed in their own spiritual experiences inside this space that exudes warmth and solidarity.
It was on a similar Sunday in 2016 that Rev. Frazier came out to the congregation, something nearly unheard of in most religious spaces. For the FCBC’s queer membership, it was especially incredible.
“To see her pronounce who she was openly gay in the pulpit was a huge thing for me to see,” said Olando Charles, a queer member of the church. “If she can make it, so can I.”
Olando Charles is an active member of FCBC and the HOPE Center. Photo by the author.
Rev. Frazier's visibility in the pulpit likely couldn't have happened without Rev. Walrond constantly striving to bring people of all backgrounds to the church.
While Rev. Walrond's actions aren't surprising to many of his congregants, his outreach — and style of operating a church — are unusual in American church culture: Catholic churches have fired openly gay priests, several churches have removed queer musicians, priests have been fired for vocally supporting LGBTQ rights, and women overall still struggle to be viewed as viable leaders in churches all over the country.
The pastors of FCBC are needed now more than ever.
To reach the most marginalized in the FCBC and Harlem communities, Rev. Waldron opened the HOPE (Healing On Purpose and Evolving) Center to provide free mental health and therapy services.
The HOPE Center is just a few blocks away from FCBC. Photo by the author.
He tapped Rev. Frazier in 2016 to spearhead the organization. The two first met in 2012, and their professional admiration and relationship grew from there.
Before accepting the position, though, Rev. Frazier knew she needed to come out to Rev. Walrond. “He made it clear that it wasn’t an issue,” she says, explaining that Waldron embraced her and saw her sexuality as a gift instead of a problem. He believed she would be able to advocate for the Black, queer people of Harlem who felt unseen in their churches.
Rev. Frazier continues, “For him to believe in me and trust me to have autonomy to create mental health space was huge and empowering.”
The center works with those who have experienced or are experiencing religious trauma, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and/or chronic spiritual abuse.
“I remember going to the church and people telling me I didn’t belong,” Tanzania Stone, a queer FCBC member recalls. “It was heartbreaking. I loved God, but they made it out to seem like God didn’t love me because of who I love.”
Stone went through several periods of time when she wasn’t engaged with the church.
“To be a woman of color and to constantly know that you’re being oppressed in society, you want to find refuge in a church,” she explains. “And to go to this place that you’re being told is a refuge, but when they find out who you choose to love, you find out you’re an outcast or an abomination? That hurts.”
Tanzania Stone often participates in FCBC outreach. Photo by the author.
Stone eventually found her place in FCBC and HOPE. “To finally be in a place where I’m being told, no, you are a child of God, you’re worthy of God’s love, it was so liberating,” she told me.
Rev. Frazier says her own experiences with dissenting family members and frustrations in the church motivate her work.
“My goal here is to create a space for people of color,” she explains. “The stigma has been so great for Black and Brown folks seeking mental health services; this space is truly designated for us.”
And she says this is just the beginning. A ministry for LGBTQ people — just like there are for men, women, married couples in the faith — is an essential next step to affirming the group.
Frazier hopes that FCBC will be an example for other churches across the nation because, historically, churches have failed to provide a safe space for queer communities.
Rev. Frazier knows role likely couldn’t have happened 60 years ago (much less 10), given the fraught history of queer people in Black history.
Bayard Rustin — one of the most brilliant and strategic minds of the civil rights movement — was virtually erased from history books about the era because he was gay. Though his influence was often kept behind closed doors, it’s documented that Rustin was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most trusted confidants.
Even outside of the church, the work of queer Black leaders and thinkers such as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin were somewhat ignored and not brought to light in mainstream history until recent years due to pervasive, deep-rooted homophobia.
Churches like FCBC are working to change that.
With roughly 79% of Black Americans identifying as Christians — the largest group of Christians in the country — it’s a crucial time for religious organizations in Black communities to support their most vulnerable.
“We take the teachings of Jesus seriously,” said Rev. Frazier. “Black churches have historically been involved in politically challenging times, and we must continue to do so. We can do that by clothing and feeding others and giving them the support they need to move forward.”
Charles and Rev. Frazier often work together at the church. Photo by the author.
As FCBC continues to grow and find ways to not only be more inclusive, but also more affirming, it’s clear that the pastors aren’t afraid to try ways to include people who’ve previously been left out of communities of faith.
Rev. Frazier puts it this way: “Understand that working towards inclusion is a matter of who’s growing, not who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s how you move forward.”