In a time when the Reject Referendum 74 campaign is ramping up its use of “Us vs. Them” rhetoric, a prominent voice in the Baptist church is speaking out against this misleading tactic. The Reverend Percy “Happy” Watkins, pastor of Spokane Washington’s New Hope Baptist Church, has long been a central figure in the community’s activist efforts and Referendum 74 is just one more platform upon which the Reverend preaches a gospel of radical inclusion.
Those opposed to marriage equality have positioned the debate in a way that not only suggests, but rather claims outright that one must choose between a Christian and queer identity. They assert the same holds true for straight allies. Reverend Watkins’ disagrees. “Jesus never talked about lesbians and gays,” he explains, “unless you are putting words in his mouth.”
While the Reverend’s perspective is certainly not new among people of faith, and clergy more generally in Washington State, he does acknowledge that he is a trailblazer in his denomination. Anyone who has gone to a Baptist church knows that the denomination isn’t exactly known for being open and affirming to lesbians and gay men. In fact, in an interview with Shawn Vestal, writer for the Spokane Statesman Review, Watkins recalled a time in the not too distant past in which the “purging” of gay and lesbian congregants was almost an imperative among black pastors.
Still, Watkins remains firm in his convictions. “I’m tired of folks boxing God. They make God small. This is what I think God would say. This is what I think God would do.”
Of course the Reverend is not ignorant to the fact that opponents have begun to wage a campaign aimed at reaching those undecided voters who may be susceptible to Biblical untruths. Even in a state that is known for being “unchurched,” those who would urge voters to reject Referendum 74 have called in Rick Santorum, “a man who finds homosexuality categorically similar to intercourse with dogs.” Santorum will speak next week to a private invitation-only group of pastors in Spokane about how Referendum 74 will force them to begin conducting same-sex weddings. Though this is not true whatsoever, this ironic “protect your religious freedom” stance is what the opposition is betting on at the polls this November.
A gathering of local religious leaders on the side of marriage equality is planned to coincide with Santorum’s talk. Further, to combat the myth of a required choice, Washington United for Marriage has, over the past several months, published dozens of affirmations from clergy in support of marriage equality. In one recent post on Facebook, Reverend Erik Wilson Weiberg, pastor of Ballard’s First Lutheran Church declared, “Be not afraid!” is one of the Bible’s favorite challenges. This is a moment to celebrate faith in our gracious God; faith in the One who authors love and commands us to love one another. So, be not afraid. Celebrate love. Vote for marriage equality, approve Ref. 74.”
Watkins agrees with Wilson Weiberg, but also feels that regardless of which way the vote leans, the social landscape has already changed such that there is no turning back. At 70 years old, Watkins grew up in a much less permissive era, but even in the Bronx in the 40s and 50s, he knew gay and lesbian and people and because of this, learned not to fear or hate them. For the Reverend, it’s simple, “Here’s where the rub is: Who is my neighbor? When it boils down, the Scripture just says love your neighbor as yourself. That’s huge!”