By age 16, the Rev. Everett Mitchell already had spent a year preaching at black Baptist churches around his native Fort Worth, Texas.
He’d felt called by God to the ministry as a high school freshman, yet some tenets of his church’s theology troubled him.
Women couldn’t be pastors, although when he looked around, most of the church’s members were women, and they were providing most of the funding, spiritual direction and labor.
“I felt if the male leaders of the church were wrong on that, what else were they wrong about?” he said.
Mitchell, now 38, would go on to question other religious principles, something he’s doing in a big way as pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Madison. He supports same-sex marriage, and last August married two female church members in the church’s sanctuary.
In taking this position, he is bucking strong cultural and religious traditions in the black community. Although support for same-sex marriage in the U.S. is at a record high of 57 percent, a slight majority of black citizens still oppose it, and black Protestants remain especially resistant, with just 33 percent in favor.
While other black Baptist pastors may preach about inclusion, it is exceedingly rare to find ones willing to perform same-sex marriages in their churches.
Mitchell’s church is loosely affiliated with the National Baptist Convention USA, which bills itself as the largest organization of historically black churches. Spokeswoman Jerlen Young-Nelson said she is unaware of any of the denomination’s other 33,000 member churches that backs gay marriage, although she could not definitively say that’s the case.
Even in liberal Madison, Christ the Solid Rock is the only church in the 20-member African American Council of Churches to back gay marriage, according to the Rev. Harold Rayford, the group’s president.
To those who share Mitchell’s position, his work is heroic, even life-saving.
“For me, every angle of despair throughout my religious and cultural life comes out of not being accepted for my sexual orientation,” said the Rev. Christopher M. Long of Madison, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is gay and describes his race as African-American Chinese.
Long, who is friends with Mitchell, grew up attending black churches and said he often was made to feel unworthy of God’s love because of a homophobic environment inside and outside the church.
“If I had heard Everett’s message growing up, that closet of despair around my sexuality would never have existed,” he said.
A busy life
Many people have come to know Mitchell this year for his work with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, the group at the forefront of protests related to the police shooting death of Tony Robinson. Mitchell has served as something of a mentor and adviser, appearing alongside coalition members at events and speaking out forcefully against racial disparities.
It is a measure of his ability to multitask that he does this while leading a congregation of 400 adults and children and also working full time as director of community relations for UW-Madison. The campus job is the larger of his two paychecks, he said.
His home life is busy, too. He and his wife have two children, ages 10 and 2.
“If you consider everything he does as simply a job, you would wonder where he gets the energy. But that misses the point,” said Barbara McKinney, a deacon at Christ the Solid Rock. “He’s living out his calling, and that’s different. That’s energy not of himself. Even if he tried to walk away, he couldn’t.”
Mitchell’s calling led him two years ago to address homosexuality from the pulpit. He was preaching about how God’s love must extend to all people, not just to those of our choosing. In listing examples, he included people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual.
“Looking back on that, it was kind of crazy,” said Mitchell, who had been the church’s pastor for only a year. “I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone else to do it.”
Yet there was nothing rash about his comments, he said. He had never believed homosexuality was a sin, even though he grew up in a church that blamed homosexual behavior on the devil.
“This was not an evolution for me,” said Mitchell, who has two sisters who are gay. “I had gay family members growing up who I thought were the most beautiful people in the world. The idea that God would exclude them because of that never seemed rational to me.”
Those in the sanctuary on the day of Mitchell’s sermon remember a mostly positive response, although the congregation’s journey ultimately would prove more difficult.
‘It hit the spot’
One of those in the audience that day was Renee Hall, a retired African-American factory supervisor who is gay and in her 70s. It was her first time at the church, and she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“It hit the spot, like something you’d taste for the first time,” said Hall, who had come that day with her partner of 43 years, Sharon “Shay” Frazier.
Sensing an opening, Hall approached Mitchell after the service.
“I told him, ‘I can’t be a part of your church until I tell you what’s really going on. I’m gay. This is my wife.’ He opened his arms and hugged us.”
The two women were not officially married yet. That would happen on June 9, 2014, during the brief window when gay marriage was first legal in Wisconsin.
By then, they had joined the church. Mitchell officiated at a low-key ceremony on the steps of the City-County Building. The couple then decided they wanted a church wedding in August. That’s when things got complicated.
“It was one thing for me to marry them at the courthouse, but marrying them in the church? There were a lot of people who didn’t think that was right,” Mitchell said. “It became tense.”
Hall remembers feeling a chill set in as more and more church members realized she and Frazier were a couple.
“At first, everyone loved us,” she said. “Then they found out the pastor was marrying us, and they divided. But he kept pushing.”
Mitchell addressed concerns with “a whole bunch of one-on-one conversations” and a multi-month Bible study series. He said he sought to show members that the passages in the Bible used to justify anti-gay rhetoric were no more legitimate than those once used by theologians to justify slavery.
Hall said some church members initially told her they would not be able to attend her Aug. 17 wedding to Frazier in the church sanctuary because they opposed same-sex marriage. Yet, to her surprise, most ended up in the packed church that day.
The couple has now been together 45 years and shares the surname Hall.
Katheryne Johnson, a founding member of the church in 2003 and a board trustee, believes a majority of church members now embrace their pastor’s thinking on the issue, although she said there will always be dissenters. She knows of five members who left the church over it.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Mitchell hopes they will conclude there is.
In being outspoken on the issue, he acknowledges he has advantages some pastors don’t.
The National Baptist Convention USA allows each church to be autonomous in its decisions. So even though the denomination opposes gay marriage, Mitchell is not in danger of being disciplined.
Also, his resumé is deep and diverse, offering employment flexibility. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and religion from Morehouse College in Atlanta, two master’s degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a law degree from UW-Madison Law School.
“The risk for me is different, definitely,” he said. “A lot of my clergy friends who may believe as I do would never risk their livelihoods. A part of me knows that if the congregation doesn’t like it, that’s fine. I’m moving on. But if they appreciate it, we can grow together.”
The issue has been difficult but not divisive among his fellow pastors in the African American Council of Churches, Mitchell said.
“I love them for where they are, and I can understand where they are, so I have compassion for them and always will,” he said. “But my having compassion for them doesn’t mean I have to be silent on issues important to me.”
Rayford, the council president, said he could not speak to the issue on behalf of the group. But personally, he said he and Mitchell have had an extensive conversation about gay marriage and remain close friends despite their differences.
“We’ve agreed not to let this be an issue that affects us or gets in the way of working on other issues affecting our congregations and communities,” said Rayford, pastor of The Faith Place Church in Sun Prairie.
Mitchell exudes confidence most of the time, but he admits his path on this issue sometimes has been a lonely one. When he first started publicly voicing support for gay rights, he said he searched unsuccessfully for other pastors at historically black churches in Wisconsin and the Midwest doing the same.
“The difficulty is that you don’t have an immediate community (of other pastors) to support you,” he said. “And as a straight man, I don’t fit in either world. It makes you an easy target.”
Still, he intends to keep pushing.
Last Sunday, he baptized an openly gay member of the congregation, the first time congregants could remember that happening. This September, he is scheduled to officiate at a second gay wedding of two congregants.