Now True to Himself, A Gay Pastor Sees Potential for Black Churches to Fight HIV
by Stevie St. John
Today’s question is this: How authentic are you living? Are you living life as you are; are you living life as you want to; are you living life the way that you were meant to?…It is worth everything that it will cost you to live authentic…and once you’re free, you’re free.—Pastor Mitchell Jones, #AskPastorJones video
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]reviously an anti-LGBT minister, Mitchell Jones came to accept himself and divorced his wife of five years. But he still had secrets: specifically, the five men he’d had affairs with during his marriage.
For Jones, inauthentic living caused pain to himself and to his family. Still “Pastor Jones,” he ministers in a different way. He left the pulpit—though he has plans for an LGBT-affirming church—but continues to lead Bible studies and minister to others. He also started a social media-based advice column, “Ask Pastor Jones,” which he uses to respond to questions about faith and sexuality.
And as Jones has stepped out into the light of authenticity, he cast light on how a religious environment steeped in homophobia can foster not only secrets and pain but also the spread of HIV.
A Double Life
In September 2015, Jones wrote an opinion piece for Advocate.com called “The High Cost of the Black Church’s Homophobia.”
“The black church is deceiving itself and its followers. By rejecting and isolating gay church members, it’s simply forcing individuals to live in the closet, and enabling them to engage in secretive, risky sexual behavior.
“Strong, God-fearing believers often lead double lives….It’s a cosmic deception, whose consequences affect not only the gay person’s life, but everyone he or she touches. Well, the black church’s homophobia comes at a costly price tag.…
“The incidence of HIV and AIDS consistently rises within our community because we refuse to admit that we indulge in intimacy with the same sex. We hide in the closet or remain on the down low in a desperate effort to preserve our faith, protect our loved ones, and gain acceptance as a normal man or woman, according to the expectations of our church and community.
“But like the Bible says: What’s done in the dark comes to light.”
Jones sees the potential for the black church to play an important part in HIV prevention—by ending taboos and judgment and offering education.
“They don’t believe in having sex before marriage so to talk about sex…they think they’re giving permission,” he said. But Jones pointed out that people don’t need permission to have sex—and if sex is discussed openly, there are opportunities to educate people and to prevent HIV and unplanned pregnancies.
“It is happening in your community. It is happening in your congregation,” he said. He noted that many congregants seek out ministers when they find out that their children are pregnant or HIV-positive—showing that premarital sex is happening and prevention opportunities ignored.
“We only hide what we feel judged for and what is not accepted,” Jones said. “Education and acceptance will go a long way in prevention of HIV.”
Jones himself lived a double life. It began with self-deception. Growing up in a black Baptist church, which had “a conservative view and a non-tolerant view of homosexuality,” Jones thought his same-sex attractions were “a phase” and something he had to fight to avoid eternal punishment. At one point, he believed that he had been “delivered” from homosexuality. In denial, he wed a young single mother named Tiffany, and the couple had more children together.
Ultimately, Jones deceived not only himself but also his wife, having affairs with men. His religious views evolved, and he eventually told his wife he was gay. The couple separated in 2009, and they finalized their divorce last spring. But Jones continued to keep his infidelities secret—until making a very public act of confession.
Telling the Truth
Jones owned up to his infidelity and deceit on the OWN network series Iyanla: Fix My Life, in which author and inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, according to the show’s website, “goes behind closed doors and deep inside people’s lives for emotional, riveting conversations.”
It started with a letter Jones wrote to the series. One day, the producer called him and they talked about Jones’ story. That was the beginning of his and Tiffany’s participation in the episode “Fix My Secret Life as a Gay Pastor.”
In a candid conversation with Jones, Vanzant drew circles representing and connecting Jones, his ex-wife, the men he had affairs with, and other members of the family. She emphasized the effects his actions had on others and urged a sobbing Jones to confess all to Tiffany—who would later have her own tearful on-screen moment.
“Tell the truth about what you did,” Vanzant insisted. “Speak on your own pain, and that is what gives people permission to stand in theirs. The truth will set you free. You think this is your business? This is God’s business.”
Previously, “I preached that it was sin because I wrestled with it myself,” Jones said. And now: “My spirituality is a lot different.”
“Because my faith was settled, I was able to become the gay person I’ve always been,” Jones said. “My faith is what drives my action.”
Many of Jones’ former flock did not understand his new spirituality, a spirituality in which he no longer sees homosexuality as a sin.
“Nobody gets up and walks out,” Jones said, but some parishioners privately told him they would leave his church. Some asked questions and tried to understand—but “their actions speak because you don’t see them again.” In a small town where people are not well-traveled or learned, Jones said, what they have heard about homosexuality is from Christian TV that has a “black and white” perspective the does not speak of inclusion. For an LGBT person, Jones says, that fosters the perception that “it must just be you.”
But now Jones knows that is not the case, and he strives to live an authentic life. And he encourages others to do the same.
After his appearance on Iyanla: Fix My Life, a lot of people reached out to him. They were “conflicted in their faith and had lots of questions.” Does God love me? Am I going to hell? Am I gonna go to heaven?
As an advice columnist, Jones does not want to simply say what he thinks but to encourage those who seek his guidance to consider their own opinions and values—otherwise, “you’re walking in my truth” rather than your own.
Jones plans to share his own truth in a book called Coming Out: The Journey to Authenticity, which will include biographical and self-help elements. In addition to sharing stories from Jones’ life, the book will discuss principles he applies to living an authentic life. He hopes readers will “find something they can apply to their own lives.”
“Being gay is a small part of who I am, but my focus is for people just to be themselves and do what they were meant to do,” Jones said. “To be you, to do you, and to be successful—successful, meaning to please yourself, and authentic, meaning true to yourself—that’s the real message that I want to convey, and it just happens that I’m a gay man.”
Stevie St. John interviewed HIV advocate Precious A. Jackson in the February issue.