Pastor Jamie Frazier is the founder and pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago, a Black Christian congregation centralized in the Uptown neighborhood. “Passionate about Jesus” and “Serious About Justice,” the organization strives to be not merely a safe haven for Christians who are not always welcomed by the larger church, but a catalyst for justice in Black queer communities and beyond.
I sat down with Pastor Jamie to talk with him about the history of the Black Church, social justice theology, and the role of spirituality in the struggles of Black queer communities. Here are some highlights from our discussion:
rad fag: How was Lighthouse founded? What led to its being realized?
Jamie Frazier: Since I was a junior at Vanderbilt College in Nashville, I knew I was called to start a church and that it would be called the Lighthouse. Now, who I would be as a pastor, or who and what the congregation would look like, that has changed over time. But what has remained consistent is that I would speak prophetically as a pastor to social justice issues, that I would be committed to the cross, and that it would be a place where folks could come and find a home. Those things have remained consistent.
When I moved to Chicago three and a half, almost four years ago, I came out as a same gender loving man, and found that there were few to no spaces where I could come into a religious faith community and be all of myself. And I figured if I was having that struggle, there were other people who were having that struggle as well. I began meeting with folks in the community one on one, asking them to share their own stories. ‘What’s your spiritual journey been like? Let me tell you about mine, Let me tell you about the vision of Lighthouse church.’ And it were these meetings, some of which only happened once, but others which grew into counseling sessions, bible study groups and more, that helped lay the foundation for our congregation.
April of 2013 we started having Thursday Nights Together, and our three founding cornerstones were passionate worship, engaging conversation and an inspiring message. My hope was that this would be an African American congregation steeped in the Black church tradition of social justice activism, one that helps to restore the Black family in all its iterations, and by that I mean that I see this as a church where Black heterosexuals and same gender loving and trans folks can come together, and also invite our allies together and really build a spiritual home.
rf: Many might think of a queer, Black, Christian space as a contradiction. Can you talk about the history of the Black church as a social justice institution?
JF: The Black church is birthed, as we know, in the crucible of slavery. Many African American denominations, like the Black Church of God and Christ, the National Baptist Convention, the Progressive Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, these were denominations that helped represent what we now think of as the Black church—spaces comprised of sons and daughters of the African diaspora who have an ear, a heart and an eye to justice for Black folks.
Now, I think there is a difference between the “Black Church” versus a church of Blacks. The Black church, when I speak about that, has a devotion and dedication to justice and to activism. Now, there are lots of churches filled with Black people, who don’t necessarily do any justice work. But when I talk about the Black church, I’m talking about a tradition and a legacy of social justice and activism.
Richard Allen, who started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, left St. George’s Methodist Church because of the stigma and segregation he saw Black people being met with there, and its inability to address the daily struggles in Black lives. So there is a tradition in the Black church of wanting justice and equality, and also a willingness to create new spaces in which we can experience justice and equality. So what the lighthouse is doing a. by pursuing justice and b. by creating new space is very much consistent with the tradition of our ancestors.
rf: Given a long history of theology that sees queers as a threat to the family, and of queer struggles that denounce the nuclear family as an oppressive institution, what does ‘restoring the Black family’ look like at Lighthouse?
JF: Let me address family from three different perspectives: First, historically in Africa, second, in slavery, and third, in scripture.
Many of our West African ancestors, before they were forced through various routs into slavery in this hemisphere, did not have last names. This notion of last names is very European. People were known by tribes. And I always underscore that for people, because many of our forbearers had a tribal, a village understanding of family. Everyone is interconnected, everyone matters, everyone is tied to one another. This notion of, my family is over here and yours is over there, is a very white Eurocentric notion of division, separatism and individuality. Black folks have always had a collectivist understanding of family. And I think that offers hope when it comes to the inclusion of same gender loving, queer and trans folks, because African folk have always had a creative understanding of family. A child did not belong to a nuclear, one many one woman, family. The child belonged to the community, and the community belonged to the child. I think that offers us some openings for rethinking how we understand family. Too often for us family is Eurocentric, it is individualistic, it is limited. What we need to return to as Black folks is our beautiful interconnectedness, a tribal understanding of family.
Secondly, I think of slavery. In many cases, slavery worked to re-inscribed gender roles and oppressive social norms. It divided men from women, parents from there children. I think the only way Black folks were able to survive was this oppressive structure allowed us to demonstrate the very kind of collective understanding of family we had experienced before slavery. On plantations, there were young people who would call older women their mothers, or elders in the community their grandfathers whom they didn’t necessarily have a biological link with. Some people call these “fictive kinships.” I call it chosen family, that’s the framework I use. I feel we were able to pursue that avenue of chosen family because we had a history as sons and daughters of the diaspora of creatively constructing family. So when I hear some Black preachers rail against queer members of the community, and say, ‘The Black family is being destroyed, it’s one man and one woman,’ I ask, “When was that ever the case?” It wasn’t the case before slavery, during slavery, or post slavery. We’ve always had a capacious understanding of family, and we need to remember and celebrate that.
Finally, I don’t feel these arguments are biblical, either, and I offer several examples: When Jesus is hanging on the cross, he sends his mother not to live with is brother, but to live with John—a disciple he loved. Mary and Jesus’ brothers stand outside of a house in which Jesus is ministering, and the folks in the house say, “Jesus your mother and brothers are waiting outside,” and Jesus replies, “Who is my mother? Who is my father? She, he who lives out the will of God.” So for me that means family is whoever helps me to live out and lean into my authentic identity, the person God has created me to be. So don’t tell me family is one man and one woman in the context of marriage. It’s not consistent with our ancestors in Africa, its not consistent with slavery, and its not consistent with our experiences in its wake.
rf: What does Black queer worship look like at Lighthouse?
JF: Let’s go general and move more particular. Generally, I think Christian worship is centered on a high view of Christ. A view of Christ as liberator, as a force for inclusion, a view of Christ as loving. Authentic Christian worship does those things.
I think what the Black iteration, or example, or strand of worship does is it is open to spontaneity, to emotional outbursts or release. It is open to the ring shouting, the leaping, the dancing of our African ancestors. All that comes into the room. I think Black folks are rhythmic people–and when I say rhythmic people, I don’t simply mean given to dance. I mean we are able to bend and to sway in the midst of oppression and injustice, and dancing becomes a way of living in the world. So what I’m trying to work out here is that when Black folks worship, its similar to how Black folks live. We become a people that learn how to be flexible and agile, because we have to deal with this duality, with codes switching. We have to be one thing often in front of white folks and another thing in front of our own people. We know what it is to dance, and the kind of dancing we do in culture and in society is the kind of dancing we do in worship. Sometimes its literal dancing, but more than that it’s the capacity to be open and flexible to the mood of the moment, the content of our culture, and the voice of God.
Now, when we’re talking about Christian worship that is Black, that is queer, that is same gender loving and trans affirming, it is those things. It is worshiping Christ as liberator and loving and inclusive, it is flexible. But then next thing it is after that is peculiar. What I mean by that is the worship of Black trans and same gender loving folks is subversive and it is transgressive, it is capacious and it is restorative. What it does is it acknowledges the woundedness we have experienced as Black folks, as queer folks, as gender non-conforming folks, as trans folks. It recognizes that we are a people under assault, and yet we dare to create a space that embraces, loves, affirms and can hold us. And in creating that space, we are radical, we are revolutionary, we are peculiar. And it compels us to address in and among ourselves what we face, because in the other spaces we are a part of we aren’t able to tell our actual stories. So it becomes a storytelling space, a restorative space, a place where we acknowledge the pink elephants in the room. And for those reasons and more it is peculiar, because where most churches are silent, we dare to speak.
rf: We’ve talked about the role of social justice in the Black Church. What is the role of spirituality in our movements for social justice?
JF: Let me first acknowledge that religion has in some cases, when executed by oppressors, been a tool of enormous pain and subjugation. And let me also acknowledge, at the vanguard at the call for the abolition of slavery, for an end to segregation, for gender equality, for TLBGQ inclusion, there have often been religious voices. I think the role of spirituality in justice—speaking from a Christian tradition since that’s what I’m grounded in—justice is at the core of who Jesus is. The trajectory of liberation is deeply a part of the scriptures, so to be Christian is to pursue liberation. There is no separation of the two. To follow Jesus is to be engaged in justice.
The role of spirituality, and Christianity more particularly in social justice pursuits, is that we have some eschatological, some eternal hope. Let me explain what I mean by this: You can do a lot of justice work, and still there’s going to be injustice. You can fight all day to feed the hungry, and still at the end of the day some will still go without food. What the Christian tradition offers that is distinct is that the good that we do will find its fulfillment in the second coming of Jesus Christ. As Revelation 21 says, “God will wipe every tear from every eye, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” Heaven and Earth will actually be joined into one. There will be healing, there will be reconciliation, there will be restoration. If all I was was a justice advocate, I don’t know how I could continue to fight. Because I am Christian, I can continue to fight for justice because I recognize that my fight will find its fulfillment in the second return of Christ. And this does not immobilize me, it doesn’t lead me to be this fatalist who says, ‘Well, Jesus is just gonna figure it all out.’ It encourages me to participate with Christ in this work of healing and reconciliation.
At a recent Thursday night service I preached about the second coming of Christ and what that means for us now. At several places in the scripture it talks about Jesus as “a thief in the night.” What Jesus is going to do in his second coming is commit the greatest heist in history–to steal suffering and brokenness and death and grief and loss out of the world. And in the same way that we are to image Christ in his life of justice, we must also image Christ in his second coming, which will be burglary. We have to become coconspirators in this holy heist. We have to look for where there is brokenness and loss and grief and shame and poverty, and we have to steal some of that out of the world. And I think this will be one of the only heists where the victims will be glad they were stolen from. What I think preparing for Christ’s coming means is doing now what Christ will do upon his return. Wherever there is dis-ease, in any of its iterations, we need to be speaking to it and fighting it.
Throughout the scripture, Jesus is very clear that we got shit to do, and we have to be about that. But I am always very clear that at the Lighthouse, we are not just a social justice organization. We are a church. For me that means, yes we do social justice work, but that work grows out of our passion and worship of Christ. It’s fueled by it, guided by it, and it finds its completion in the second coming of Christ.
rf: What are the questions you receive most frequently as a queer pastor doing this work?
JF: Many news sources, but also many members of my own congregation, come to me and ask, “Pastor J, is it a sin to be gay? Is it a sin to be trans?” And that question is really wearing on me. I understand when you’ve been told it’s a sin for so long, then you come into a space that says it isn’t a sin, it’s a part of what God wants you to be, you have to do some reconstructing of what you’ve heard before. But the very question itself is so limiting, because it forces us into a construct, a conversation, a pattern of thinking in which we have to legitimate or have legitimated for us our very existence. Tell me why it’s okay for me to exist? That’s what the question really looks like, and that’s a sad, disempowering question to ask.
A better question is how do I as a Black queer person participate in my own human flourishing? That’s the question we want to ask, not is it okay for me to exist. But that question reveals that many of us have been told that its not okay for us to exist, or even that we don’t exist at all. What my goal is as a pastor is to interpret scripture in ways that are inclusive, celebratory and focused on Christ’s message of love. Anything else is a history lesson, and should be treated as such, not as a guide for our lives. Our relationships with each other and our relationships with Christ’s message of justice and inclusion are what guide us into the present.
The Lighthouse congregation meets for services Sunday mornings at 10:30am at Uptown Underground, located at 4707 N. Broadway. All are welcome!
You can find more information about the congregation at their website.