Rev. Kevin E. Taylor runs a church in Newark, New Jersey, that’s agenda is to transform lives of its congregation, and moreover, its community. Rev. Taylor shakes things up. Having a Catholic background and later being raised Baptist, Taylor has tasted a lot of different styles of church. He remembers having an incredibly transformative experience with a pastor, who challenged, encouraged, and inspired him every week, and showed him the immeasurable, incredible, unconditional love of God. That is, until there was a change in church leadership and Taylor had a more negative response to a new pastor in town.
After sharing his experience with his mother, she encouraged him to try one more time. As it turns out, this was the week the pastor preached about the “wrongness” of homosexuality. Taylor’s response? He stood up, and his mother turned and said, “Bye baby!” Taylor walked backwards down the middle aisle towards the exit. After he “dropped the mic,” he was committed to doing church differently from that of traditions many in the LGBT community have seen as negative.
Taylor shares many of his formative experiences: escaping death, finding God, leaving a church, going back to church, and being harassed by people on the street for his appearance as a gay man. He ties it all back to his confidence in who he knows himself to be. And God knows who he is, too.
At one point, Taylor worked for BET. He was scheduled to fly with Aaliyah on the flight where she met her tragic death. Just two weeks later, he was booked on a flight that was changed due to a schedule conflict. Seventeen years later, we remember that flight on 9/11. Rev. Taylor is confident about how God feels about him, and he’s taking feeling to the streets of Newark.
Peace be with you! That’s how we start, right?
Rev. Kevin E. Taylor: And with you as well!
You have a vibrant following and lasting impact on the community in New Jersey. What are you working on?
KT: Growing the church in a new space and expanding our outreach ministry with a men’s ministry and a couple’s retreat. I also run a women’s and children’s shelter in Irvington. We’re planting the seed and helping it bloom and blossom! I’m working on two books I hope to have out by the end of the year. One on people who are “spiritual” but not “religious.” The other is a book called Who Do You Think You Are, unpacking what it means to be selfish.
Tell us a bit about your background.
KT: After I left the Baptist church, I became a young political advocate and community organizer. I tried to find every way that I could to be of service — without being in church. Then I went to college in North Carolina. In my junior year, an African American history professor invited me and some other African American students to church for Easter. Her pastor preached a sermon called “What to do when you don’t know what to do.” It shifted everything within me. It got me back to God. But I didn’t think I needed to go back to church. I could be here [a Quaker college in NC] with God. I was good through the rest of the 1980s and early part of the 1990s. And then one day after moving into my job as a budget analyst for the D.C. government, I stood on the street corner and had a conversation with Bishop Kwabena Cheeks, a spiritualist that started a Unity Fellowship Church. He caught me on that corner, with eight bags of groceries in my hand. I stood there and listened to him talk for two hours. It wasn’t long after that I started attending the Unity Fellowship Church. In 1996, I was ordained a Deacon. In 1999, I became an ordained Minister while working as a producer for BET. After moving to New York in 2000, the Archbishop called me in January 2001 and said “Son, the Lord has commissioned you to work in New Brunswick,” so I said “Oh… ok.”
Have you had any experiences you can recall about being judged for your homosexuality?
KT: I’m 6’2, a baritone, long dreadlocks, a stocky 270. I’m a big dude. I’m mindful of my male privilege, my masculine privilege, and my size privilege. I’m not the dude to be messed with on the street. One time this car with two couples drove by. I had leather pants and pointed black boots and this really cool Chanel sweater that draped, and my locks were up. This guy called out, “look at this faggot ass” and they got stuck at a light. I walked up to the car, opened the door, grabbed him by his throat, and pulled him out. I said to him, and you may record this, “I appreciate that your punk ass had to say something, but you couldn’t figure out what to say in front of your wife. So, ma’am, I want to be clear that when he bangs you out tonight and you’ve had the best sex of your relationship, it’s because he’s thinking about me and these leather pants.” I put him back down on the ground and walked away.
The church pushes back on the LGBT community. While there are many that represent inclusion, most have a “We love you, but…” mentality. How do you feel about that?
KT: I land somewhere different in this than some people. I get called to do radio shows to do the whole “Gay and God” talk all the time. In the Bible it tells you not to “bear false witness.” I didn’t come out as gay to make you uncomfortable, I came out because the Bible said not to lie. I came out because the church taught me to stand in my truth. I think there’s something across the spectrum of faith, to the authoritarian side of church, that likes to have it’s foot on people’s throats, that take the Torah out of it’s Sacred place, read a little bit of it, tell you what the Lord said, and put it away. But, there’s the “Christ” of it all. The “knowing God for yourself.” There’s a “Jesus call” of the LGBT community to stand up unabashedly because we are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If we can stand in that, I’m going to stand as this tall, dreadlocked, gay black man who knows God the way I do. The church can say whatever they want, but God knows who I am.
There’s a great work for us to do in the LGBT community about how we feel so beaten down by faith, especially when attached to family. We get one or two pieces out of church, and it only beats down again the stuff we have at home. So, we run from all of it. The truth is, Jesus never said a single thing about homosexuality, and he talked about Sodom and Gomorra!
Often in our community people we say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Do you think this is because of the way churches have marginalized our LGBT family?
KT: Yes. I think people who say this think that it indemnifies them from fellowship, the need to be in the hall with anybody, a house of worship, the need to be in anybody’s congregation. Where this is a slippery slope for me is I have found from this seat all sorts of people who say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” practice no spirituality. They have no prayer time. They have no meditation time. They do no reading. They just say, “I’m hoping that if I’m a good person that ultimately I won’t go to hell.” It’s this circle of nothingness that can lead you to a bad place.
If you ever have an emotional slip and don’t know how to get out of it, if you find yourself over-indulging and can’t find focus, if you’re not meditating or practicing “retreating” or “being still,” then you’re going to find yourself going further and further down the slope that may have gotten you into a place of struggle. That’s what faith does for us. It’s not that I have to be in church six days a week. Faith is the “centering” of me, it gets me to a place where my humanness doesn’t take me.
For those of us “spiritual, but not religious” folk searching for more, what would you say to encourage us to become connected to a community of faith?
KT: In this age of social media, simply go looking. You can find most houses of worship or faith in social media. Many of them have online live streaming presence. Just allow yourself the space of pushing the button. I’m very quick in my personal practice to have a day, and I’ll give stuff that looks intriguing ten minutes. In eight minutes, I might say “Oops, not for me,” and with others I look up and I’ve gone through a whole season and say, “there’s something about this that I really like.” I know a number of people who say that they’re searching and they always end up posting the Joel Osteens or the Joyce Meyers and they’ve found what they needed. I think that sometimes we forget the vulnerability of fellowship. The idea that something might pierce your heart and you get to cry, and an usher comes and brings you a tissue, and that’s it. There’s something about being in the kindredness of fellowship.
For those of us “spiritual, but not religious” folk who choose not to connect to a church but to their faith privately, in what ways can we leave lasting impacts on our New Jersey communities?
KT: As those people who decide to do faith privately, I think the quest in that is still finding the call in your life. If that practice has you writing, or teaching, composing, or serving in some fuller capacity, each of us are here on purpose. Sometimes, the magnanimity of church makes people think they’re supposed to do “big” stuff, and you’re like, “Oh wait, I can’t quit my job and go to Africa.” God’s like, “I’m talking about the family next door to you that doesn’t eat well.” So, offer them a plate. Each of us is commissioned with that same call.
Think universally, but serve locally. That same person who says, “How do I give back?” gives back the same way that everybody else does. What do you do one on one? Where’s your faith when you go into the McDonald’s and they say “hey, today we have two meals for one!” Are you ordering the second meal for later, or do you go in search of the person who is homeless and hungry and say, “Hey, please receive this.” I don’t care how big your title, or how lofty your faith, if you leave someone hungry you haven’t done a damn thing.
How can we help you and your team?
KT: I’m so glad to be with Out in Jersey. I’m glad to see Queer publications make space for faith conversations. I think God’s ok with the fact that we are “multi.” The same person who wants to know about the show, or the artist, or the festival, might possibly be the person whose a little bit closer to needing fellowship, and might find that in the pages of your magazine. We have to allow for the full spectrum of experience. We have to be wonderfully aware of how we provide exposure to our community.
How do we stay connected to you?
KT: Just type in Rev. Kevin E. Taylor in the search bar of social media and you’ll find me, I’m the black one.