Darryl L. Foster was near suicide after leaving the church.
He was gay, black and Christian.
"I was left thinking I was going to hell with no other options," he said. "The gay community is attractive when the church turns its back on you."
Years later, he went on to found Witness Freedom Ministries in Atlanta, which attempts to lead men and women out of homosexuality.
Foster says the loneliness he suffered in those years was a product of the pervasive denial of homosexuality in black churches.
The Rev. Charles Goodman, the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, has never preached on the subject, but says he might have no choice now that Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a mega-church in Lithonia, Ga., has been accused of coercing four young men into sex.
"It's birthed out of our community, where it's taboo. We've just taken a position that we would rather not talk about it. We know it's there," Goodman said. "Now we'll have to talk about it. The church ought to be involved in the conversation."
In the mid-'90s, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice organized the National Black Church Initiative to break the silence in the church surrounding sexuality.
The group conducts an annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality, which draws hundreds and sometimes thousands , said Marjorie Signer , the director of communications for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
One program of the initiative, Breaking the Silence, challenges black churches to move from a state of denial into healthy, inclusive, faith-based dialogue.
"There's been this real tendency in the community to reject the idea of homosexuality because it undermines the family, and it undermines men. It threatens masculinity," Signer said. "There are so many factors reinforcing the silence."
Church members are often unclear about where sexuality fits in their lives as believers. Often, Signer said, the only time the church speaks on the subject is in the context of condemnation.
Blacks, on average, are much more likely to think that homosexuality is morally wrong (64 percent) than whites (48 percent) or Hispanics (43 percent), according to a 2009 Pew Forum poll on same-sex marriage.
Homosexuality is more widely accepted among mainline Protestants than members of historically black Protestant churches. Some 56 percent of mainline Protestants said homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society, compared with 39 percent of black
Protestants, according to the Pew Forum's 2008 Religious Landscape Survey.
Sexuality in general is a more frequent topic of conversation in white evangelical churches, where "Porn Sundays" encourage conversation about the effects of pornography, and pastors author books about improving the sex lives of married Christians.
There's a need for frank conversation within all churches, but especially black churches, said the Rev. Jeff Pullium of the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer in Augusta, which welcomes homosexuals.
"There's definitely a need, particularly in an O ld South environment where it's difficult to be out for anyone. Nationally, the statistics always say the hardest group to live on any level of outness is the African-American adult male."
If you combined all the gay, black and Christian men in churches around Augusta, Pullium said, "they would be a sizable church all by themselves."
For those who would doubt his math, Pullium said, "There are gay people in every church. It's just a matter of what level they're out at."
His own congregation is majority white. On an average Sunday, maybe five black men or women attend in a congregation of 70.
Many gay black Christians choose to remain in historically black churches instead of seeking out gay-affirming churches such as Metropolitan Community Church, Pullium said.
"The black church has a rich tradition," he said. "They don't want to give that up."
The black church, as a result, is in a unique position to speak to gay Christians, said C. Virginia Fields, the president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.
"The role of the black church in the black community is powerful," Fields said. "It's a place people go not only to get spiritual guidance but advice and information."
The commission has joined with churches across the country to address the epidemic of AIDS.
"They are allies," Fields said. "They're engaged in efforts to create awareness, encourage testing, and establish HIV ministries."
The numbers of those affected by AIDS are staggering, as are the issues surrounding the disease.
Oprah Winfrey took on the subject of black sexuality after she saw a headline declaring AIDS the leading cause of death for blacks ages 25 to 44. The 2004 show described the phenomenon of black men living on "the down low" or, in other words, having sex with other men while otherwise living a straight life.
The pulpit, Fields said, has the power to drag taboo issues into the light.
Churches in large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, where the commission is based, are already carrying on the great tradition of the civil rights movement, which cemented the black church's role in social change.
"It's the role the church has always played," she said. "Who better to create awareness?"
The church, however, shouldn't be content to stop at awareness, Foster said. It must also offer solutions.
"I met the Lord, and he changed my life," said Foster, who lived as a gay man for 11 years before rejecting homosexuality. "I felt the need to reach out to others. I need to provide the support for them that the church is not providing."
He was 19 when he left the church. "I was tired of the hypocrisy. I was tired of trying to be something other than I was."
Homosexuality, he said, was talked about in the church, "but only as a problem. The terms are always of condemnation. There are no solutions offered. You're left to figure it out on your own or suffer in silence."
Today, his ministry offers testimonies by those who have left homosexual lifestyles, in addition to workshops, fellowship and discipleship programs.
"We alleviate the pain by offering a solution - Jesus Christ himself," Foster said.
He says thousands of men and women have come to find freedom since the ministry was launched in 1996.
Bishop Long's situation, while unfortunate, might inspire more to come forward and speak out, Foster said.
"He's forced sexuality out into the open. That's a good thing."
"I think the issue is going to open up the conversation of sexuality, not just homosexuality," he said. He said the conversation will be uncomfortable, but it also will be helpful.
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or email@example.com.