Generous Space Retreat in Orillia, ON. Michael is a member of the Order of Ministry in the United Church of Canada and serves the General Council of the United Church of Canada as Executive Minister of the Church in Mission Unit.
Wendy Gritter: Canadians often seem more connected to U.S. history during Black History Month than our own context. What are some uniquely Canadian realities that we should reflect on this month?
Michael Blair: We tend to go to the States because we are not aware of our Canadian story. In many ways the Civil Rights movement did not happen in the same way as it did in the US, and we certainly didn’t have the same kind of leadership, like that of Martin Luther King Jr. Many of us know the story of Rosa Parks, but not the story of Viola Desmond, Nathaniel Dett or the circumstances around Africville.
In the Canadian context, racism is very ‘gentle’ and ‘passive,’ not like the US where it’s blatant. So euro-Canadians are often unaware of the subtle expressions of racism, like when they ask Black Canadians, “Where are you from?” The fact remains that 57% of kids of colour don’t complete high school, and there is major employment inequity around salaries. The issue of carding and the prison complex system are also just a few expressions, among many, of racism in Canada.
WG: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a Black, gay pastor?
MB: I lived in hiding for most of my life; in my early years of ministry, I lived constantly with the fear that somehow I would be found out. So it was quite a relief when I was able to name myself and my identity. Since then, I have lived with an enormous sense of freedom. In many ways I consider myself to be fortunate. Since I came out and my relationship with my congregation was severed, I have not worked in a local congregation. I served as the Executive Director of a community ministry, where my sexual identity was not an issue; during that process I transferred my credentials to the United Church, where the issue of my sexual identity was not a problem.
I think my identity as a Black pastor in a predominantly white, middle-class church is more of a challenge. When I go to visit and preach in congregations, I am usually the only person of colour in the congregation. Many folks initially speak to me on the phone and they can’t tell that I am Black, and later when they see me in person, they are usually surprised.
WG: What lessons can LGBTQ+ Christians learn from the ongoing struggle for civil rights and justice for Black people?
MB: It is important for LGBTQI Christians to keep their eyes and ears open to the cries and struggle of outer marginalized communities, and not to become insular, nor just to be conscious of only sexual identity. I think Dr. King’s statement in his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963 still holds true: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The challenge for the LGBTQI community is to be aware of the injustices that Blacks and people of colour face; you can hide your sexual identity but you can’t hide your racial identity, and the way Blacks are perceived in the broader society is a challenge. Also be conscious of how Blacks are marginalized even within the gay community. It is important especially for LGBTQI folks who are euro-background to be conscious of white privilege, without feeling guilty, but becoming aware of how privilege plays out in employment, economic resources and access to power.
WG: I’ve often lamented that the conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality tend to be pretty “vanilla” in a lot of contexts. I’m aware that we are impoverished without the voices of our LGBTQ+ Christian siblings of colour. Can you share with us how you see the LGBTQ+ conversation developing among Christians of colour?
MB: There is certainly a place for what I call courageous conversations, which allow everyone to put their truth on the table, live with the possibility of not resolving anything, and to be open to multiple perspectives, making it normative. LBGTQI folks of colour can feel invisible in the LGBTQI community …they are perceived in terms of their “equipment,” or whether or not they fit the sexual preference of some euro-folks, but the multiple complex negotiations they have to do are not always recognized.
Particularly, focusing on Blacks – the Black church tolerates the presence of LGBTQI folks, as long as their identity is not named or spoken of. At the same time, the rhetoric is one of condemnation; Black folks thus are not entirely safe in the black church, in the Black community, nor in their families. They also have to deal with the stereotypes and prejudices of the dominant culture, so it comes at them in many ways. Any conversation must come with an understanding of these complexities.
It will require (a) an awareness of the fact that LGBTQI and Black experiences have some similarities, but are very different. The race challenge is quite different from the sexual identity issue. (b) a willingness to check privilege; (c) openness to listen without judgement, and (d) a recognition that church/faith and an understanding of the bible has sustained Black folks for centuries. To undermine their understanding of scripture is to totally dismantle a worldview that might have a long term impact on their mental health.
So it will require a “gracious” patience to build relationship, and a mutual partnership in some common struggles.