BOSTON — Eziah Karter-Sabir Blake swiped the play debit card through a plastic reader during a game of Monopoly recently. Another multimillion-dollar sale. The buyer, Giftson Joseph, rubbed his hands together, a glimmer creeping in his eyes as he playfully nudged the Rev. Catharine Cummings.
The three — one gay, one transgender, one straight — sat around a table at a new youth drop-in center at Union United Methodist Church, a historically black congregation in the South End, the heart of Boston’s gay community.
Simply by being there, the trio was straddling a divisive line between the gay community and the black church, where many gay and lesbian minorities have long felt ignored or unwelcome in the pews.
“It’s a big risk they are taking in the black community,” said Joseph, an 18-year-old African-American college student who is gay. “There’s already enough stigma in the church. But this is a church that is accepting of all races and sexual orientations.”
Union United Methodist leaders say the Youth Space drop-in center is an extension of their open and affirming mission to follow the teachings of Christ and serve all people, including those in the margins of society and those who have been disenfranchised.
“Most churches are not willing to put themselves out there ... because it conflicts with their theology,” said Cummings, who then evoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Youth Space program, which targets gay and straight 13- to 18-year-olds, comes at a time when black churches are coming under increasing pressure from advocates for gays to be more accepting. The topic remains so controversial in many black churches that clergy are reluctant to publicly discuss it.
Union United has a long history of bucking tradition. In the 1800s, black worshipers walked out of their segregated Beacon Hill church home after whites grew uncomfortable and complained about their vibrant, African-style of worship. In 1818, members founded the May Street Church, which became a stop on the Underground Railroad, according to the church’s website.
In 2000, church member Hilda Evans pushed Union United to again change course, and the church agreed to defy United Methodist leaders by declaring itself an open and affirming congregation to gays and straight people alike. It held its first gay service in June 2007 at the height of the state’s same-sex marriage debate.
Cummings, who is straight, said blacks and gays share similar struggles of intolerance.
“Many years ago it was not so popular to serve the African-American communities because of our second-class status,” said the 28-year-old associate pastor. “Not wanting to oppress others, we have opened the tent wider and wider.”
The Youth Space program, held in the church’s basement, does not focus on religious activities. It is open space, with chairs stacked on one side and large tables for the participants to sit around. A computer lab is in the back, a lounge is being renovated, and a stage is available for poetry slams or singing. Volunteers are available to help with homework, test preparation, or anything else.