On a mid-afternoon Sunday in July, the event room at Siloam Presbyterian Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn is packed with black and brown queer and transgender folks. They have descended from every corner of the city to attend ReNewed Sundays, a monthly service hosted by Elpida Community Church. As the clock strikes 3 p.m., Senior Pastor Ken Alston, Jr. grabs a mic and opens the service with a beautiful rendition of Todd Galberth's gospel song, "Lord You Are Good."
ReNewed Sundays is not your typical church service. A scan of the church program shows how textured and deliberate this ministry is in highlighting the intersection between culture and spirituality. There are spoken word performances, a dance performance, and a presentation by House Lives Matter, an advocacy initiative for members of the house and ballroom community.
Seated on the front row, with a fixed smile, is Kairo Brown, the 31-year-old founder of ReNewed Sundays. During the service, he turns his head a few times to look out into the crowd, perhaps puzzled that today's service has attracted dozens of attendees. He is relieved to know that they are who he aimed to attract when he launched the ministry in Baltimore over two years ago in his best friend's living room: a forgotten bloc of Christians who are searching for a spiritual sanctuary that welcomes them wholly. The ministry now has a chapter in New York, with a chapter launching in Atlanta in late 2019.
Baby-faced, with a jovial disposition, Brown's smile never deserts him. When you hear his story, it is easy to assume that it is an instrument he uses to gloss over the pain of a traumatic childhood and adolescence. Indeed, if you could only judge a person by outward appearance, you would not know that he began this outreach ministry out of the residue of his trauma.
Leaving the Church to Find a Path Back to It
Once a devout Christian, he abandoned religion, unable to reconcile the love of God with the trauma he was experiencing. Raised in Baltimore, he is the youngest of five boys. In his house, he bore witness to the burgeoning crack epidemic of the city during the early 1990s. "My father was a functional drug addict and a bishop," he told me. "And my mother abandoned us when I was five."
At 16, due to the pressures of emotional abuse from his father because of his sexual identity, he ran away from home. "I slept on friends' couches, and then I became street homeless," he said casually. Brown reconciled with his mother 22 years after she abandoned him. He has a fractured relationship with his father, who is no longer an active bishop.
To survive, he turned to sex work, finding men on craigslist and picking up clients at the "meat rack," an area in the upper-class neighborhood of Mount Vernon, near downtown Baltimore, known for male sex work. He would later learn that he was HIV positive in 2013. "I fainted on an escalator and woke up at Howard University's Medical Center," he said. "After I learned I was HIV positive, I knew I had to keep going with my life even in my trauma."
Shortly after his diagnosis, he rededicated his life to social causes. He co-founded MEET for a Cause in Baltimore with his former partner. The nonprofit provides homeless and impoverished youth with cultural and artistic programming. Now in its sixth year, the organization offers a 24-hour safe space for youth in the Southwest section of Baltimore.
He began missing the faith he had growing up but could not find a spiritual home that befits someone with his narrative: black, gay, living with HIV, formerly homeless, and previously a sex worker. "I wanted to create a judgement-free zone and a place where people don't have to conform to the world," he said. So, he decided to forge his own path and create a spiritual and religious sanctuary that he would have liked to have found in his youth. He would soon meet Pastor Ken in 2015, an openly gay, HIV-positive minister from Baltimore.
"I saw the love of God and representation of God in Ken," he says. He presented the idea for an outreach ministry that services what Matthew 25:40 refers to as "the least of these." Pastor Ken, who Brown calls dad, helped him flesh out the concept and has been instrumental in the expansion of ReNewed Sundays. He currently leads the New York City chapter of ReNewed Sundays and serves as an advisor on the national board. Pastor Ken helped Brown choose the name of the ministry, which comes from Romans 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
Talking About Sexuality and HIV in Black Christian Communities Remains a Challenge
That ReNewed Sundays is being led by an HIV-positive young black gay man, with strategic support and advisement from an HIV-positive black gay minister, cannot go unnoticed. Historically, the black church has been absent in addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS among African Americans, much less black gay men and transgender women. Research shows that only 4% of black congregations have facilitated activities that serve persons living with HIV. Undoubtedly, the silence of many black churches in addressing both the urgent public health needs of sexual minorities, and the associated stigma related to homosexuality and transgender identity, is a factor among the most alarming public health news for African Americans: that if current trends continue, half of black gay and bisexual men are predicted to contract HIV in their lifetime. And further, an estimated 44% of black transgender women are currently living with HIV.
The black church's historical disenfranchisement of black and brown LGBTQ folks adds to the value and significance of ReNewed Sundays. The ministry is creating a spiritual home that is writing its own gospel of restoration and redemption by serving as an access point for sexual minorities; welcoming community-based organizations to promote available and affirming services and resources that helps nurture body, mind, and spirit.
In the two years since its launch, ReNewed Sundays has become a new faith movement that follows the tradition of Unity Fellowship Church, a national network of churches serving openly gay and lesbian African Americans that was founded by Archbishop Carl Bean, a leading HIV/AIDS activist. However, unlike the Unity Fellowship Church and other national church conventions, ReNewed Sundays was born out of the faith and imagination of a young man with no seminary or theological background. This fact is not lost on Brown. He relies on a network of biblical scholars, clergymen, and administrators to provide him with direction on the guiding principles and vision for the ministry.
Ultimately, Brown's vision for ReNewed Sundays is to help congregants -- the dispossessed, the unfavored, "the least of these" -- find their purpose and calling, affirming the last line of Romans 12:2: "Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -- his good, pleasing, and perfect will."