The following interview features the Rev. Bojangles Blanchard. Blanchard, an ordained minister with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is also an LGBTQ advocate and a founding co-moderator of the CBF’s Affirming Network.
[Progressive Southern Theologians] Can you start us off by talking a little about your work and ministry? What projects are you currently involved with?
[Bojangles Blanchard] Well, my primary job is with Humana Health Insurance, where I work as a learning consultant. In addition to this, though, I helped found and now co-moderate the Affirming Network in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which was just initiated in the summer of 2018. So far, Derek Henson, the other co-moderator, and I have formed a coordinating committee and an advisory board. The coordinating committee is made up of a mix of LGBTQ and straight folks. They’re the people who are helping implement the goals and initiatives that we have before us as a group. The advisory board is a group of pastors, professors, and ministers serving in non-parish ministries. They’re helping us by advising on ways to get things done, how to raise financial support, and giving us eyes and ears in places we’re not yet welcome. They empower us to be in those spaces and to form new relationships. I’m really pleased that we finally got those groups together.
We’ll also be conducting our first working session this June at the CBF’s General Assembly in Birmingham. Additionally, I’ve put together a workshop presentation for the General Assembly on LGBTQ inclusion. This will be the first time that any out minister has ever been allowed to speak - nevertheless lead - a workshop at the Assembly. I’ve been pulling ideas and information from peers and other LGBTQ folks and their experiences and have been building that into the workshop so that it can be as authentic and life-giving as possible.
I’m also excited that, on Pride Sunday, June 16, here in Louisville, Highland Baptist Church has invited me to preach, which is the first time any out gay minister has been allowed to preach on a Sunday morning at the church. That’s shocking to a lot of people because Highland has been known in CBF life as being increasingly LGBTQ affirming and for officiating same-sex weddings. Nevertheless, they haven’t had an openly gay minister preach on Sunday morning, so I’m grateful for that opportunity and think this is very important.
[PST] How would you describe the goals of the Affirming Network?
[BB] One of our main goals is to create a safe space for LGBTQ ministers within CBF life. We’re trying to create a welcoming environment where folks with scars from LGBTQ exclusion can be reminded or told for the first time that God affirms and loves them for exactly who they are. Further, we want to work with these individuals and mentor them to become the ministers and leaders and servants that they want to be. That’s our primary goal.
This has been a challenge because, after the Illumination Project and the hiring policy and the implementation plan, a lot of our people left, and I cannot blame them one bit. So trying to gather these folks back or gaining new people has been a challenge, but it’s something we’ll continue to work for.
Secondly, we’re going to provide or connect LGBTQ ministers and students with mentors who are already doing ministry to help guide them as they begin or continue on their leadership journey.
Third, we also want to provide resources for churches who are beginning, or in the middle of, or trying to start the LGBTQ inclusion conversation. If churches are genuinely interested in or looking for assistance, we can provide them with testimonies, workshops, reference lists, videos, or even go meet with them personally to give them an array of options for how to speak to their specific faith community about LGBTQ inclusion.
Part of this project includes the creation of a welcoming and affirming certification process for congregations, similar to a program in the Disciples of Christ denomination. It’s helpful to codify and set out the criteria for congregations to become known as welcoming and affirming, especially so that LGBTQ individuals and community members can expect consistency in what they would experience if they chose to be vulnerable enough to engage with one of these congregations.
Lastly, we’re going to offer spiritual guidance and tangible support for LGBTQ folks coming out within CBF life. This would include helping individuals find housing, employment, transportation, etc., because so many people suffer alienation from churches and families when they choose to make known this aspect of their identity. So often it’s the case that no one else is there to support them, so we want the Affirming Network to be an advocate for them.
[PST] You’re an openly gay minister, ordained by a Cooperative Baptist congregation. Would you share what that process was like?
[BB] Sure. I was ordained in May 2012. I was still in seminary at the time. I was about halfway through the program because I was having to go in the evening and work full-time. My husband [Dominque] and I started attending Highland Baptist [Louisville, KY] in 2007, and we became very active there. Highland, at the time, was more of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” congregation, but we and other LGBTQ members were welcomed. Still, in 2007, ordination of LGBTQ individuals was not discussed and hosting/officiating same-sex weddings certainly was not entertained.
When I started to ask about ordination, a few years later, some people voiced their concerns, saying it wasn’t because I was gay but because they didn’t know enough about me. The senior pastor, Joe Phelps, and I were confused because I was pretty involved in church life. Rev. Phelps [Joe] encouraged me to keep working through the process although the board initially voiced their concerns. Before this conversation about ordination, though, I had been discussing the possibility of launching an LGBTQ affirming ministry at the church. So Joe proposed that we start the ministry and then revisit ordination a few months after that was off the ground. So, that’s what we did.
We started the ministry - True Colors - in 2011, which was a space for LGBTQ individuals who had been harmed by the Church to start exploring the possibility of engaging with a congregation. It was a chance for them to dip their toes into the wading pool before committing to showing up at a Sunday morning worship service - which could understandably be a traumatic experience. At our True Colors gatherings, we could work together and help folks move in that direction should they so choose.
I’ll never forget the leadership shown by Joe at that time. He told me, before we walked into the deacons’ meeting to discuss starting True Colors, that we were not asking for the board’s approval, but rather their blessing. And, to their credit, the deacons did give their blessing. So we started the ministry and, months later, I came back for ordination and the process went very smoothly.
The church had a congregational meeting on a Sunday afternoon to vote on my ordination. At some point, they asked me to please step out before they held the vote. Stepping out in the parking lot, I got emotional because for so long in my mind I could hear the voices of folks - especially my granddad - that told me that I was abomination because of my sexual identity and how should I never expect God to love me. They told me all of the things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. But here I was, getting ordained, being affirmed by a Baptist congregation in my attempt to follow what I felt strongly was God’s calling. The church voted to approve my ordination and we had the service on Pentecost Sunday. I can tell you, it was one of the most sacred times of my life. It was a very, very powerful experience.
[PST] After your ordination, you and your husband began to seek a marriage license. This was before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the country. What happened as you applied for the license, and would you share a bit about how this led to your participation in that landmark Supreme Court case?
[BB] First, I want to share what led up to all of this. It’s important to tell the full story and not give the impression that we just woke up one day and decided to start a case and take it to the Supreme Court. It wasn’t like we woke up and said let’s go protest.
In early January of 2012, a couple of weeks before we eventually applied for a marriage license, a couple who were part of True Colors experienced something tragic on multiple levels. One of the men in the relationship, Buster, was deaf, and he was in his 60s. He had been partnered with another man, Kevin, for at least six years. One day, Buster had gone to a deaf-in, a space for deaf individuals to gather and socialize, but Buster never came back home. For several hours, Kevin couldn’t get any response from him. Finally, later, Kevin discovered that Buster has been in a terrible accident and that he was at the University Hospital. Kevin was scared to death, so he rushed there and, after arriving and telling staff that he was Buster’s partner, they wouldn’t tell Kevin one single thing about Buster’s condition because they wouldn’t recognize Kevin as family.
For over three hours Kevin had to sit there, not knowing anything about the love of his life and the man with whom he had built a home and made a family. Finally, Buster’s grown son gets to the hospital. It’s only at this point that the doctor will say anything about Buster’s condition, and he tells the two men that Buster had passed away two hours ago.
As Kevin is telling me this on the phone, I’m nauseous, I’m crying, I’m just overwhelmed with anger. Kevin’s voice couldn’t possibly get more broken than it was. As his partner lay dying, he couldn’t be with him. And Kevin told me, “Reverend, we have to do something. I can’t go through this anymore.” So I prayed about it and felt led to do a similar act that Gandhi or King would have organized. That’s what led us to the marriage protest (or pray-in) outside of the courthouse and going in and applying for the license.
So, in January of 2013, Dominique and I applied for a marriage license and were - as we expected - denied that license. We held a peaceful pray-in at the clerk’s office on that day - January 22, 2013. We were arrested and charged with trespassing and later went to court. During the initial proceedings, I’ll never forget how the jury seemed to look at us like we were zoo animals. After a 45 minute trial, and after 2 hours of deliberation, the jury returned to deliver their verdict.
The jury pronounced that they found us guilty. And we were. We knew that. Our lawyer had explained why we had pursued the particular course of action that we did. The judge then asked, “What is your fine?” The max amount they could levy against us was $250. Amazingly - the spokesperson for the jury responded, saying, “One penny each.”
Now, remind you, this was a group of white, conservative Kentuckians, and they charged us each a penny. That, indeed, felt like a major moral victory. They waived the two cents for time served in the jail, so we walked out of there very proud of what we did, very proud of the jury for maybe not agreeing with what we did, but for recognizing why we had to do it.
In 2014, we then sued the state for being denied the license. It bounced back and forth through an appeals process, and in 2015, it got to the Supreme Court. Our case was picked up and included in a larger group of litigants for our regional court’s jurisdiction. In April of 2015, we drove to Washington with the other plaintiffs and went to the Supreme Court while they argued our case. For the following two months, the case was discerned by the justices, and in June they made the decision - the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, in which the court voted 5-4 to legalize same-sex marriage across the country.
It’s been incredible, I have to say. I’m just so grateful to have been part of it.
[PST] Throughout that court process, what were people’s reactions like as you made it clear that you were not only a gay man but also Baptist clergy?
[BB] Well, the pray-in on January 22 made the news very quickly. Some people were very grateful. We wanted the press coverage so that other LGBTQ folk would know there were people like them, including clergy, who were willing to be arrested in the struggle for equality. I hoped this would inspire them to fight alongside us, and I felt like we accomplished that.
And there were others, of course, who felt like I was an abomination. As we were doing the pray-in outside of the courthouse, people were driving by and screaming epithets [like the f-word] at us, which the news station had to bleep out of the program when they aired it later that evening. And I thought, at first, how humiliating. And then I thought, no, that’s good. I want the straight public to see and to hear what we have to deal with on such a regular basis. I want them to taste discrimination and hate as much as they can.
Funny enough, some of the members of our church didn’t like what we did. They went to Rev. Phelps talking about having my ordination revoked. But Joe said in no uncertain terms, “Hell no.” He reminded concerned congregants that Jesus and Paul and Martin and Gandhi had all been arrested for following God’s will, and he insisted that I did nothing inappropriate - I didn’t curse and I didn’t fight back during our non-violent pray-in. Rev. Phelps was completely behind me.
I also got death threats... after the pray-in and also when I was ordained. I got ordained on a Sunday, and on Monday when I went to the mailbox, there were 3 bullets (rifle rounds) with a note that said, “No f***** is going to be a minister, so help the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I was also followed/stalked for a few weeks. After the pray-in, the threats started up again, this time coming from across the nation. I’m telling you, some of the meanest people I know claim to be Christians.
As far as the gay community goes, when the case got picked up, in regards to my being clergy, I was pretty much shunned by some of the other plaintiffs. I think their history with the Church and the pain it brought them made them feel like I was a traitor or playing some part in their ongoing discrimination, which was in no case true.
That was a particularly interesting part of the journey, and it highlighted how I’ve always been too gay to be completely accepted by the church and too religious to be completely accepted by the gay community. It’s always been a sense of perpetual alienation for me.
[PST] In light of this, on difficult days or in difficult seasons, or even when things are difficult, what sustains you, what gives you hope, what keeps you going?
[BB] Primarily, what sustains me is the realization that God is with me – not the thought that God will deliver me, but that God is nevertheless always walking with me. As isolated as I may feel sometimes, I have to lean into the knowledge that God journeys with me throughout life.
Secondly, my family sustains me. My son, my husband – they remind me of what really matters. At times I feel overwhelmed or scared or unsure, and they remind me that the bottom line is that we’re together and we have a son and he’s healthy and happy and, thankfully, it’s all legal. Knowing that these relationships are legally protected helps me a lot.
Thirdly, I rejuvenate my spirit by getting outdoors, whether I’m fishing in the swamp or hiking or doing something else outside. Those three things – God, my family, and the outdoors – they are really what keep my sanity in place.
[PST] Can you speak more to the distinction that you drew between realization that God is with me but not that God will necessarily deliver me?
[BB] Well, so the fundamentalist little boy that still lives inside of me, he grew up understanding that there’s a checklist that you needed to follow to be loved and blessed by God. And I learned those things – many of those things we talk about today – attending church, always reading the bible, not doing this or that, certainly not being gay.
My little mind was so ingrained with that theology that whenever I would be in trouble, I’d pull out that little checklist in my mind and say, “God, look, I’ve met all these requirements…check, check, check…now where are you? Where are you, I need you? You were there for the Israelites, for so many others in the Bible… where are you for me?”
And, to this day, when things get hard, the little boy in me goes back to that, and I say, “I need you here, God.” But as I’ve grown, and as those questions echo and seem never to be replied to, I realize that God is not the Santa Claus that I was raised to believe in the beginning...that If I’m good enough, God will swoop in and save me. It doesn’t work that way. Not for me it doesn’t.
I have to lean into the truth that God is with me and suffers with me and anguishes with me, and that God works with me to get back up again to keep trying, and that has to be enough for me.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
But for me, God’s presence is in the journey. It’s not simply in the ending place of heaven. I have so much needed God along this journey every day. God’s in the journey for me…not just out in a future heaven.
There are bad days, and there are good days, and God has fortunately given me more good days than bad.
Here’s an example from a sermon my dad gave one time about Jesus being on a boat with the disciples. Jesus was sleeping and the disciples were nervous due to a storm that blew in. In Jesus’ response, we see him trying to move the disciples to reckon with the fact that he’s not always going to be physically there to calm to the storm.
For me, just even sharing this idea now, I get emotional, because I feel God bringing that reality to me daily, saying, “Bojangles, I’m not always going to be tangibly there to calm you or keep your son safe or do this or that, but I want you to know that I am with you.” That truth - I tell ya - has continued to age and ripen and sweeten for me as I’ve moved into my 40s.
[PST] Last question for you. Imagine you were speaking to a group of seminarians who were about to graduate. What would you say to them? In light of their future careers and sense of call, what’s one thing you’d want to say based on your own experiences?
[BB] I think I’d say: Prepare yourselves for the unforeseen, and remember to always preach and live God’s inclusive love. These two things are intimately connected. Often times, living out and proclaiming the inclusive gospel that we’re called to preach can lead your career into the unforeseen or along paths you may not have imagined.
The inclusive gospel is often not the most popular thing to proclaim, such that for some of us this calling in life won’t result in our leading a large or well-established, big steeple church. There can be consequences for preaching that type of inclusivity. So even though certain career options may not come to fruition for many like us, it’s still best to always live out the inclusive love of God that knows no stranger. Remember that this calling will still be life-giving. Whether or not you ever pastor or get the recognition that others will get, I hope your commitment to that calling will sustain you and give you life. That’s proven to be what sustains me and keeps me going.
Bojangles Blanchard is an ordained Baptist minister who is married to his wonderful husband. They have a two year old son named Josiah. Bojangles has worked as an LGBTQ activist for the past twenty years and he and his husband Dominique were two of the Kentucky Plaintiffs in the landmark SCOTUS 2015 Marriage Equality case. Additionally, Bojangles has fought for LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation within the (CBF) for many years and now serves as co-moderator of the newly established Affirming Network.