It was a meeting of opposites: 30 conservative black Pentecostals from Hope Christian Church in Beltsville dining with 30 activists from Soulforce, a pro-gay religious group.
While there was no rancor or overt anger, there also was no meeting of minds. After nearly 90 minutes of debate Saturday night, no one on either side of the question of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality would admit to changing their minds.
"It was noncombative, nonpunitive dialogue," said the Rev. Troy Sanders, a gay black pastor from Atlanta who was one of the Soulforce speakers. Soulforce members queried after the dinner said they were pleased with their reception, and several said they would attend Hope Christian's Sunday service.
Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member church, acknowledged the evening was "historic" but made no promises about any changes in teaching or policy. "We'll have to pray about discrimination issues in the gay community," he said.
Soulforce has targeted six megachurches with its gospel of "freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and all transgender people," and Hope Christian was their third stop on a six-week nationwide tour called the "American Family Outing," Soulforce's campaign to showcase gay couples with their children.
On Dec. 1, Soulforce leaders contacted Bishop Jackson, asking for a "dialogue on homosexuality and Christianity."
"Even though we disagree on the Bible," said Jeff Lutes, Soulforce's executive director, "we can relate about our kids. We're trying to reach out across that divide, make a connection and see what happens from that. Typically, fear goes down when people make connections."
Soulforce got a chilly reception May 18 from the Rev. Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston; He refused to meet with the group. The reception was better May 11 with the Rev. T.D. Jakes and members of the Potter's House Church in Dallas. Coming visits include the Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and Bishop Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga.
Bishop Jackson was chosen because of his high profile among the religious right. He heads the High Impact Leadership Coalition of conservative black church leaders, instigated the 2005 "Black Contract with America on Moral Values" and co-authored the recent book "Personal Faith, Public Policy."
The Beltsville church hosted Soulforce at a dinner Saturday night, along with a debate in which each side asked the other eight questions. The church posed queries such as "Why do you think gay marriage is sanctioned by God?" and "Why do you think pastors who preach against gay rights are bigots?"
Soulforce questions included "If your child came out to you, how would you want your child to be treated?" and "What programs do you have in place for same-gender-loving couples?"
"We have no programs," Bishop Jackson quickly responded. Rather, they use the services of the ex-gay group Exodus International because homosexuals "need ministry," he said. That comment did not go over well, judging by the stony looks on the faces of Soulforce attendees.
The bishop acknowledged he was suspicious when Soulforce first wrote him to say they were showing up, uninvited.
"Some of the history of your organization has confrontation with it," he said. "I have been threatened with physical harm by people who are openly gay."
Soulforce representatives got incensed at one question that mentioned survey data on the relative wealth of the gay community and asked why homosexuals "have hijacked the civil rights movement."
Michelle Freeman, a Houston resident attending the dinner with her lesbian lover, informed the group they could not marry, nor get tax breaks, "so in the eyes of the law, we are not equal," she added. Homosexuality "is not a choice, it's biology. So it's a civil rights violation."