On the Road to Refuge
By Pete Muller


A radical church reaches out to queer communities.
“You, and everything about you, is welcome in this house of God,” Pastor Kendal Brown declares as he removes thick-framed glasses to wipe sweat from his brow. “Welcome home.”

His outstretched arms wave before him, palms open and extended toward a crimson crucifix at the front of the church. Members moved by the Holy Spirit run circles around pews filled with teary-eyed worshipers. Organs and drums invade the air with deafening force as members cry out in Pentecostal tongues.

Each Sunday, in the desolate town of Lanham, Maryland, north of Washington, Brown preaches the controversial doctrine of Radical Inclusion, an emerging trans-denominational philosophy that aims to provide safe, affirming space for those wounded by “oppressive,” traditional religion. His church, the City of Refuge, reconciles this concept of GLBT-focused, “affirming” worship with Pentecostalism, a branch of Christianity known for a conservative doctrine as well as intense worship styles, like speaking in tongues.

Under Brown's bold words, the church's wooden pews are growing warmer every week.

“For centuries, the church has been an integral aspect of African-American culture,” Brown explains. “Throughout our history, the church has served as a place of worship, community and organization.” For Black people of alternative sexual orientations, however, the conventional church, and many of its followers, pit faith against self-acceptance.

“There are so many congregations across the Washington, D.C. metro area where GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] persons are forced to check an essential part of their being at the door, while their gifts and talents are exploited Sunday after Sunday,” he says. In the City of Refuge, his passionate weekly sermons indicate that this ain’t your granddaddy’s Pentecost.

The City of Refuge's doctrine of Radical Inclusion casts a wide net around the castaways of conventional churches. On a typical Sunday, the turnout reflects the church's targeted base: the poor, same-gender-loving and transgender people, people living with HIV and AIDS, recovering drug users, and the formerly incarcerated. Many members arrived in Lanham only after years of painful searching for a place that fit.

“Pentecostalism, the notion of holiness and living in strict codes of behavior, [does] not have a lot of flexibility for same-gender-loving persons,” says Associate Pastor Cedric Harmon, a spry and energetic St. Louis native. City of Refuge's progressive concept of “being affirming” he adds, “was a watershed for many people who never thought that they could be part of a Pentecostal environment and yet remain true to who they are.”

The City of Refuge leadership actively reaches out to local Black communities, many of which trace their roots back to historical migration from the Deep South, where traditional cultures of worship prevail.

“Most affirming churches... don’t offer the celebrated forms of worship that are grounded in the African-American tradition,” says Brown, referring to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and gospel-singing that define Sunday services at the City of Refuge. Brown believes that many same-gender-loving Black Christians would feel out of step without “participatory” worship. “Affirming churches that lack traditional African-American worship,” he says, “set up yet another dynamic where [Black] GLBT persons have to leave another part of them at the door.”
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