A tale of two brothers

Jan 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

We live in a world that has narrowed into a neighborhood before it has broadened into a brotherhood. —Lyndon B. Johnson


Sunday morning. Time for church. The first heavy snowfall of the season seems to be keeping most of the congregation at Imani Ministries at home.

The small house of worship, located on Eight Mile Road near Tracy in Detroit, shares block space with a strip of adult bookstores, a moral reminder to patrons who might choose porn over praise. Inside, the two parishioners who have shown up at the church so far sit and participate in a Christian education class. The course takes place every week, just before the 11 a.m. service.

Pastor James Kevin Jackson, 44, leads the class, as usual. If he’s discouraged by the small turnout this morning, he doesn’t show it. He figures that those who have come are the ones who are supposed to be here. He says the church is growing — looking to build anew in the near future, actually — although its members seem to come and go. Nonetheless, the 10-year-old Sunday ritual at Imani goes on, quietly and studiously.

As Pastor Kevin’s Christian education class commences, another spirited service is set to begin just two miles northeast of Imani. The congregation at New Covenant Assembly of Justified Believers, on Livernois in Ferndale, sings, claps and beats on tambourines supplied by the church.

Pastor Joseph Karl Jackson, 50, Pastor Kevin’s older brother and New Covenant’s founder and spiritual leader, emerges from his own weekly Bible school session, ready to lift his voice and join in the congregation’s jubilant praise and worship.

Pastors Kevin and Karl, who are addressed by their middle names, are both making efforts to increase the size of their churches, but they wouldn’t know that about each other. They don’t make much effort to stay in touch.

Both are Christian preachers, and their churches are separated by a mere five-minute drive. Age differences and clashing spiritual philosophies, however, may as well set them on different islands.

They disagree on whether an individual can be gay and Christian. Kevin, who is straight, believes it’s impossible. Karl, who is gay, believes otherwise.

Face to face

As the New Covenant faithful make their joyful noise through song, shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Thank you, Jesus!” ring through the room at random. Women and men dance in their seats. Some speak in tongues, the indecipherable language that issues from some Christian mouths when they get filled with the Holy Spirit. A woman told that she may never walk again following an accident less than a year ago now runs up and down the aisles, praising the Lord.

Pastor Karl, who started New Covenant about five years ago in his Pleasant Ridge living room with the support of his partner of 10 years, David, sings harmony at the top of his voice. The two were legally married in August, in Canada.

Sunday at New Covenant feels like any traditional church service. Aside, that is, from the two male parishioners sitting arm-in-arm in front of me during the announcements, and the transgender man who stands up to testify.

Kevin and Karl have never talked with each other about their churches, and they’ve hardly discussed their divergent views on being gay in the Christian church. Yet they grew up in the same house, played together as children, and know each other well. Their distance from each other was fueled by the roles they have chosen as adults.

Both men agreed to sit together with Metro Times for a first ever in-depth conversation about their differences and their relationship.

Karl says they had one brief exchange about the issue last spring, after Kevin showed up at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for a town hall meeting on black homosexual boys. FOX2 News anchor and WJLB-FM morning show host Charles Pugh, who publicly declared his homosexuality last January, moderated the forum. Kevin caught wind of the meeting, grew curious and went.

Karl, surprised to see his younger brother there, says he called him later that evening. They talked, Karl offering his opinion that there’s a place for gay people in the Christian church. He based his argument on biblical references, like the one that says if a man believes in his heart, and confesses with his tongue, then the blood that Jesus shed for all mankind’s sins saves him.

Kevin offered Scripture as well, referring to biblical law, including one from the book of Leviticus that condemns men who lay with men as women, and calls the act an abomination.

“Once we gave our opinions, he said, ‘OK,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and we hung up,” Karl says.

Both say they respect the divinity of the Bible, and saw no point in arguing about their individual interpretations. The talk may have lasted five minutes.

The brothers say their differences are not personal or judgmental, and they don’t dislike each other.

Both seem initially lukewarm, however, about the idea of getting together for another talk, content to respect each other’s space.

They agree, after some conversation, that several hot-button national issues are reflected in their family dynamic. Some of these topics — gays in the church, gay marriage — played a high-profile role in last year’s presidential election.

Locally, some believe that the church’s oft-critical stance on homosexuality intensifies in the black church. Curtis Lipscomb, who operates KICK — a support network for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender African-Americans — says the black church’s condemnation of homosexuality is ironic, because it’s well-known that gay African-Americans are “all up in the church.”

We meet at the George Fadiga Community Pride Building, which houses New Covenant. Karl, a stout, caramel-complexioned man who stands about 5 feet 8 inches, greets us. Kevin, who’s an inch or two taller, and is of similar complexion but stockier build, arrives minutes later. The bespectacled younger brother and his sibling take each other’s hand, and then engage in a brief, what-the-hey hug before taking their seats.

After some breezy small talk, Kevin sits up, asserting himself. He says he likes to be forthright when discussing serious matters. He sees Karl’s sexual orientation as being in conflict with the Judeo-Christian beliefs that govern their religion. He questions whether it’s correct for a Christian to act upon feelings that go against God’s teaching. Human inability to figure out God’s infinite wisdom, he argues, is no excuse, no matter how deep the emotion.

“I think we ought to look at ourselves as children,” Kevin says. “Sometimes, when a parent puts out instructions to you, he doesn’t really care whether you understand. I have a 4-year-old, and I could care less what he understands. I’m trying to protect and guide him. As long as he’s in my house, in a position where I have that authority over him, I’ll exercise it. I’m not going to sit down and explain everything.”

Karl says he agrees with Kevin’s point, and stresses that this is why he never acted upon his feelings prior to marrying David. He says he denied his feelings until one night 10 years ago. He went to dinner at Red Lobster with choir members from the church he was attending. The religious group’s conversation turned secular, and then sexy, at the table. Sex became the topic, and people began exchanging fantasies. Karl remained quiet, afraid of isolating himself by sharing the truth about his own fantasies.

He says he went home, cried and prayed. He had felt attracted to men all his life, but he hadn’t done anything. Yet, as the Bible says, “as a man thinketh.”

After a great deal of soul-searching, he admitted his homosexuality. He’d later come to terms with what he believes God’s Word says about it.

He argues that the word “homosexual” does not appear in the Bible. When asked if the good book has to mention the word to speak about the act or lifestyle, and whether his thoughts about passages that speak directly to — and in condemnation of — same-gender relationships, he says those parts of Scripture are often taken out of context.

“I decided a long time ago that the church thing wasn’t working for me,” says Karl, whose church is nondenominational. “I wanted to be a Christian, and the best Christian that I could possibly be.” He couldn’t do this in the traditional church because of its anti-gay stance, so he moved on.

As the two continue to talk, they often preface their opinions with concurring thoughts. Kevin applauds his brother for establishing a place where members of the LGBT community can express their spirituality.

But then he adds, “I have a problem with you saying you want to be a Christian. I always liken it to me saying, ‘Hey, I want to be in the [Ku Klux Klan]. They’re not going to have it, because there are certain things they are about, no matter what I say. I can put on a robe, get a chapter, hang a picture of David Duke and say I’m with it. I can pay my dues, and Duke will take my money. But the ideal of what they are, what they’re about, is not going to allow them to be fully accepting of my membership.”

Kevin continues his argument, making his points similar to the way he says Jesus did. Jesus never answered a question directly, he says, but told parables, stories meant to teach a lesson.

The point of the Klan example, he says, is that the believer has to make the right decision based on what he or she knows. When you know right, you do right. He wouldn’t try to join the Klan because it would be inappropriate, and against that organization’s philosophy. So why would Karl try to be a Christian, a religion that he believes opposes homosexuality?

Kevin says his brother has tried to make God fit into his own understanding, instead of fitting into God’s will, based on what he knows. Kevin spins a parable of his own about the custodian at Imani Temple, telling how the custodian has used the wrong trash bags to line a church trash receptacle for seven years. The man is cheap, Kevin says, and will only buy a certain kind of thin bag — too small to hold to the edges of the container — from a dollar store down the street.

When the weight of tossed trash yanks it away, and people continue to throw things away without fixing the bag, the custodian gets angry. Kevin, who keeps a roll of properly sized bags in his desk drawer and sometimes goes behind him to switch them, says the custodian’s “sin” is in knowing what to do, but not doing it. Karl, he suggests, has known and denied the right thing for years. His denial, according to Kevin, plays a role in creating the distance between them.

“If you look up in the sky, and you see a flock of geese, and they shit on you — excuse my language — and you keep looking up in the sky every time a flock of geese flies by, then I’m going to separate myself from you.”

Karl: But I’m not trying to make God fit into my understanding. It was never for me to try to get God to fit into my understanding. My understanding was to fit into what God said. Scripture says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature!” I had heard that all my life but it never meant anything to me until that night [after Red Lobster]. So for the first time it dawned on me. I am a new creature! His Word does not change because I’m gay. I’m still sanctified, still clean, even though I’m gay.

Kevin: Let me just say this. Everything you said is great. The only problem with your understanding, and the way you said it, is that if everybody were to come to that clearing the way you did, all chaos would break loose. People—

Karl: Well, I can’t—

Kevin: Well, hold on! Hold on! People would say—

Karl: But I can’t just—

Kevin: People would say, “Hey, but I’m in Christ!” But — let me finish. I’m going with what you said, now. And you know what? I agree, there are carjackers and mass murderers and thieves who are in Christ. And they are new creatures. But they’ve got to stop doing what they’re doing.

Karl: But I wasn’t doing anything.

Kevin: It doesn’t matter. You are now.

Karl: No. What am I doing? What do you know that I’m doing? Just because I say that I’m gay, you don’t know what I’m doing. See, people have an idea of what being gay is.

Kevin: I agree. The assumption’s made, when you say you’re gay, that I understand it. Hey, there may be some people who are gayer than you, who don’t practice it. Whatever that means.

Karl: Let me give you an example. In my church, I teach against fornication. That means I have gay people in my church who are not having sex. They are following the Scriptures, because I teach the word of God. So just because somebody is gay, that does not mean that they’re sleeping around and having sex. That’s why I say you have to know me before you start judging me.

Kevin: But isn’t that what gay is? Doesn’t it have to do with sexuality?

Karl: Gay is your orientation. It’s who you’re attracted to.

Kevin: It’s your sexual orientation.

Karl: It’s who … you’re … attracted to. You can be attracted to somebody and do nothing.

Metro Times: Is it possible, then, to be gay, having sex with someone of the same gender, and be a Christian?

Karl: The Lord said if you believe in the Lord, you can be saved. That’s what I believe. I’m like you. I 100 percent agree with you. There are some things people have to stop doing. People who believe. There’s right and there’s wrong. If Scripture says don’t, you don’t.

But understand where I am. I don’t believe that homosexuality is sin. There’s nothing in the Bible that says it’s a sin. I have researched the Scriptures, and never heard Jesus speak about it. Does it say it’s a sin, or does it not? If that was clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. This conversation could go forever.

To everything, a reason

Before sitting down with his brother, Karl said his family’s history in the Baptist church is important to understanding his brother and him. It’s a far-reaching timeline. Pastors, preachers and deacons run in the family. As he begins to tell it, his tone is almost innocent, his voice friendly, like a parent might talk to a child.

Their grandfather pastored a church in Birmingham, Ala., and their father, also named Joseph, was a minister of music at Gospel Temple on Detroit’s West Side when they were growing up. However, Karl says, Dad spent some years “backsliding. That’s what we call people who haven’t been in church for a long time — backsliders.”

The elder Joseph would often read the Bible to his children at home, even though he didn’t attend church himself. His wife, Patricia Upshur — the two divorced when Karl and Kevin were young adults — was never an avid churchgoer.

Karl was the one who brought his father back to the church. One day, as a child, when he attended service on his own, Gospel Temple’s pastor, J.E. King, mentioned the church’s need for a music minister. Karl told Dad. Dad visited church, joined and attended until his death several years ago.

As Karl flashes back, Kevin says this story is all new to him. He was very young during the years that Karl reintroduced their father to church. By the time Kevin was old enough to be aware, Dad had settled into the religious routine. So, to Kevin, service was just a way of life.

At some point — neither can remember the year — they began attending Greater Ebenezer Baptist Church, also in Detroit, on Fenkell. Karl and Kevin grew into their teens, entered the ministry and preached their trial sermons there.

This transition took place before Karl turned 20, and it was during this period that he first questioned whether God had truly called him to the ministry. How much his sexuality weighed on his uncertainty, he can’t say. But given his claim that he’s been gay all his life, it was at least a peripheral reality.

“The traditional church believes homosexuality is a sin, so I never followed up on my attraction,” Karl says. “You know how you hear about guys doing things behind closed doors? That wasn’t me.”

Still, he told Greater Ebenezer’s pastor, Dr. William Murphy, about his uncertainty. Murphy told him he’d lied to God by being unsure. Because he believed that a church’s pastor was the mouthpiece for God, he took the chastisement to heart, left and joined the Church of God in Christ. A few years later, at age 26, he joined a then-fledgling congregation called Word of Faith, and stayed for the next 14 years.

Ironically, Word of Faith’s leader, Bishop Keith Butler, is now one of the Detroit area’s most outspoken opponents of homosexuality, especially within the church.

Kevin, an intellectual who smiles when he talks, comments that Karl’s congregation-jumping over the years suggests he’s never held fast to one form of teaching. Karl says Kevin’s sentiment is understandable. He never told Kevin why he left Greater Ebenezer. “You have to remember,” Karl says. “We’re separated by six years. So if I’m 16, he’s 10.”

Kevin eventually joined the military. He still didn’t know about Karl’s attraction to men. That Karl married a woman during this time further distanced the notion of his homosexuality. But the marriage didn’t last; he wasn’t physically attracted to his wife. He treated her too much like a friend, and too little like a lover. They divorced while he was in his 30s.

Still, it would take a while for Karl to openly acknowledge his homosexuality. Even after the crossroad at Red Lobster that led to his admission, he laughs now at how he publicly pursued his new lifestyle without telling his family.

“I put an ad in the Metro Times.” The brothers erupt in laughter. “I’m like, what do I do? How do I get a life?” He soon met David, who became his first and only partner. The two are still together.

Most of the family began to wonder if Karl was gay sometime near Thanksgiving of that year. Their first hint came when his grandmother, who’d been staying with a relative, decided to move back into her old home. She offered Karl the opportunity to live with her rent-free. All he had to do was help out around the house.

David had made the same offer at the same time, but not rent-free. Karl decided to live with David, and the family decided something was up.

Come Thanksgiving, one of his four sisters pulled him away from the family and flatly asked if he was gay. He waved her off, but remembered the promise he’d made to himself about keeping secrets. He came clean with his sister, with the understanding that she could tell the family. But, by that point, it came as no surprise.

Kevin, who by now had returned from the military, was married and had a life of his own. But he didn’t find out about Karl at Thanksgiving. Karl sent him a letter explaining everything.

Kevin says he didn’t find out so much as Karl fessed up. Kevin had his own suspicions.

“Let’s just say, uh, you know how they say. You see, uh, tendencies. I receive the letter. And I sit on the edge of my bed. And I kind of smile and tell my wife, ‘Read this.’ And she says, ‘Oh.’ And I said, ‘Well, if he was in the closet, the door’s been open a long time.’”

Church politics

The larger dynamic that feeds into Karl and Kevin’s impasse is the two-pronged stigma with which homosexual African-Americans contend — the rejection of the black heterosexual community and separation from the white gay community.

KICK’S Lipscomb says black homosexuals feel an increased sense of isolation because of these realities. Going back to the “all up in the church” example, he says it’s difficult if you’re the gay director of a church choir and the pastor, with full knowledge of your lifestyle and the benefit of your professional expertise, is in the pulpit preaching against gays. If you’re black, you’re bound to feel rejected. But a warm embrace from the white mainstream gay community is something many gay African-Americans will find just as fleeting. “If I’m gay on Fenkell and Hubbell, my lifestyle will be different than someone who lives across Eight Mile,” Lipscomb says.

When Bishops Butler, Andrew Merritt, Wayne Jackson and the Reverends Marvin Winans and Edgar Vann came forward at the beginning of the presidential campaign last year to voice their support for a joint resolution to amend the Michigan Constitution to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman, it foreshadowed dark days for gay citizens throughout the state.

After all, these were the leaders of some of the most influential black churches in Detroit, a city purported by the Council of Baptist Pastors to have the largest number of African-American Christian churches in America.

Butler said then, and maintains now, that homosexuality is a lifestyle that’s neither normal nor natural.

Proposal 2, as it appeared on the Nov. 2 ballot, passed. Karl fought for the proposal with the Faith Action Network, a multidenominational activist organization that supports gay rights issues.

Ironically, Karl says his style of biblical teaching, with the exception of his sexual orientation, is identical to Butler’s, who founded Word of Faith. Karl attended the Rhema Bible Institute, where many Word of Faith ministers go for theological training, and still teaches according to its doctrine.

As Karl and Kevin’s exchange continues, they pick up the issue of Christian church politics. While Kevin holds fast to his point about understanding God’s instructions, he admits that the church is unbalanced in the emphasis it places on homosexuality over other sins.

“It’s political,” he says. “As long as I can keep the light on somebody else, it takes light off of what I’m doing. It’s real simple.”

Both brothers say the Bible equally condemns sins like fornication, murder and adultery, but the church does not. Homosexuality is another matter. In this, Karl and Kevin agree that the church is hypocritical.

Kevin says the Bible teaches that the greatest example of righteousness is balance and fairness. Yet, all unrighteousness is sin. The church often screws up that notion, he says. “The churches are the people, the ones who come together to hear from God. And that’s where the problem comes in. You got side conversations going on while God’s talking, and we get influenced by people more than God.”

Karl adds that churchgoers often judge some sins more harshly than others because they develop relationships with other people, but not God.

Kevin says he’ll defend the right of Karl’s church to exist, despite their disagreement.

“It does represent a particular understanding of the Scripture, and lends a balanced understanding [based on what they know and believe]. Those who have ears, let them hear. By that, I mean some are going to get it, and some are not.

“I believe you are a minister,” he says to Karl. “But I’ll condescend this much. I bet you there’s some stuff that you don’t get. And I think it’s a danger when we share things that we really don’t get ourselves.”

Karl says he doubts he has any lack of knowledge. He is clear. The only difference between his life now, and his life 10 years ago, is that he’s now at peace with his lifestyle.


MT: You two are having a civil debate about this issue, but it’s a much more vicious discussion in the real world. Yours is also a unique situation because you’re brothers. What good do you think your talk will do for others?

Kevin: I don’t know what you believe, but the Bible says that none of us are going to reach our intended point until we come together into the unity of the faith. It doesn’t matter what I do. Whoever believes, I’m confident that in the end, Jesus will bring us all around to where we need to be. In the end, everybody will shed some things.

Throughout this conversation, both brothers make a concerted effort to base all of their opinions on Scripture. When asked if they’re hiding behind faith to avoid confronting the human emotions that exist between them, Karl sits up. He says he remembers the first time he saw “the Holy Spirit working in Kevin’s life,” drawing him more and more into the work of the church at Greater Ebenezer. He also recalls the period when Kevin decided to start going to church without anyone’s urging.

Kevin says he remembers the Batman Club he and Karl had as children. It was a very innocent, brotherly time that he remembers fondly. His smile widens, and he quotes another passage of Scripture, the one that asks how a man can love God who is in Heaven, and hate his brother who he sees every day.

“Cane and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Throughout the Bible, brothers go in different directions. But they always seem to meet up and take things to the next level, regardless.” Somewhere, somehow, he says, he and Karl might become brothers free of difference.

It’s an interesting dynamic — two men who rarely see or speak to each other, moving from discussion to debate, and then to perspective, like two uneasy friends.

Kevin says he sees signs that society is drawing closer together regarding acceptance of groups and individuals whose lifestyles are different from those of mainstream society. He feels that, out of this ebb and flow, different types of churches will emerge, especially as new generations grow increasingly disillusioned with the rigidity of the traditional church.

“Supposing our whole view is wrong,” he says. “Suppose Sanskrit is right. Just because this is my brother, we may not end up in the same Heaven. That’s the reality of beliefs.”

Karl says, “I would hope that people would read this interview and say there’s something bigger than church and religion. I think it’s the true love of God, and it goes much deeper than this topic of homosexuality, church and all of this stuff.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter to me. This is my brother. I love him. That’s what God is.”

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]