Some Christian leaders reject LGBTQ people, but Bishop Tonyia Rawls is fighting for their rights and giving them a safe place to worship. She said it’s her divine calling.
“I think that a career, [a] vocation, it picks you," Rawls told NBC OUT. "And I believe my work, I’ve been called to do it."
The 58-year-old black lesbian bishop is the founder and executive director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice. It’s an organization that works on justice issues at the intersections of faith, race and classism as they relate to the LGBTQ community.
Rawls learned early on the unique challenges marginalized communities face. Born and raised in the Newark, New Jersey area, she was just a child when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She remembers waking up to the sound of gunshots as riots broke out in her neighborhood after his murder. When things quieted down, Rawls’ mother took her and her sister for a walk through the destruction of broken glass and overturned vehicles.
“It startled us … [My mother said] that people were in pain and were angry, but the thing she wanted us to remember was no matter how upset you get, you never tear your own stuff up … You don’t tear yourself up. [You] change the world. Make it a better place,” Rawls said.
Rawls grew up in a conservative Christian community where she was taught that being gay is a sin. She realized she was a lesbian early on but got engaged to a man to live the life that was expected of her. Before the wedding, she said she heard God’s voice telling her “I want you to use your authentic self to my glory.”
“So you can imagine me hearing these things, and for someone who had never even heard anybody whisper that it was OK to be gay,” Rawls said.
“When I look at our church today, my heart swells with happiness and joy and gratefulness and gratitude to a God that would make this possible."
Rawls broke off the engagement after discovering her calling and has been an out lesbian in her faith-based community ever since. She later met her wife, Gwendolyn, whom she married in 2002. Rawls said falling in love with her wife was one of the the most profound things that has ever happened to her.
“I had loved before, she had loved before, but when you really meet your soul mate there is a knowing, there is a ‘welcome to the familiar’ that only soul mate relationships I believe can bring,” she said.
Rawls’ early struggle with her sexuality was motivation to help LGBTQ communities of faith. She moved to North Carolina where she was commissioned to open the Unity Fellowship Church in Charlotte. The church’s inclusive community welcomes LGBTQ worshippers and people of color.
“When coming to North Carolina, the thing that amazed me so much was the length people would go to and go through just to get to a safe space to worship for an hour and a half,” Rawls said.
She said some members drove four hours each way twice a week for Sunday service and Bible study on Wednesday nights just to be in a faith community that accepted them.
“When I look at our church today, my heart swells with happiness and joy and gratefulness and gratitude to a God that would make this possible,” she said.
Rawls later founded a new church, the Sacred Souls Community, also in Charlotte.
Rawls is working to convince religious communities to be more accepting of LGBTQ people. She said the Freedom Center’s Do No Religious Harm Pledge has more than 2,500 signatures. It’s a national campaign that gets interfaith leaders and others to pledge they will do no harm to LGBTQ people based on interpretation of religious text
“I know some people question why [I] keep working with traditional black churches and why [I] engage with people who are so fundamentalist in their views. And the point is because that’s also my family. We’re all part of the same family, and so I can’t be OK if my neighbors aren’t OK,” she said.
Rawls said she hopes next generations can build on the work she has done.
“I want to do my part. Those things that are uniquely mine to do for the time that I have left to do [them]. I want to lay my bricks well. And I want them to be rooted and grounded in a way that somebody else can climb up a little higher than where I got to in my lifetime,” Rawls concluded.
OutFront is a weekly NBC OUT series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.