Filled with the Spirit

Sexuality, Gender, and Radical Inclusivity in a Black Pentecostal Church Coalition

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Ellen Lewin
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , April
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226537207.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is surprising, given the strong focus on intersectionality in anthropological and other social science research, that there are only few studies that bring together issues of religion, race, sexuality, and gender in a profound way. Filled with the Spirit addresses this gap, presenting an ethnographic study of a remarkable religious phenomenon called The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM). TFAM is a fruit of the vision of the charismatic Bishop Yvette Flunder—herself a descendant of prominent black Pentecostal figures—who in 1991 established a black church in San Francisco centering around the notion of “radical inclusivity.” Founded in 2001, TFAM has developed into “a coalition of like-minded churches—mostly African American, LGBT, and Pentecostal in worship style” (5). It is now comprised of between thirty-five and forty member churches and congregations in the United States, with some members in Mexico, Africa, and Southeast Asia through TFAM’s global ministry. Ellen Lewin has been following TFAM for more than ten years, attending regional meetings and conferences as well as services in various member churches, and interviewing about forty leaders, pastors, and members. In the book resulting from this multi-sited research, she examines “the seemingly paradoxical relationship between TFAM and traditional black churches, particularly focusing on how congregations and individual members of the coalition both reclaim the worship practices of these churches and simultaneously challenge their authority” (6). 

Filled with the Spirit consists of five chapters, preceded by an introduction (titled “Invocation”) and a conclusion (“Benediction”). Chapter 1 explores the double consciousness of being black, LGBT, and Christian. It provides a historical overview of the black church in America and discusses the challenges faced by LGBT people yearning for acceptance, but usually experiencing rejection in these communities. Chapter 2 focuses on TFAM founder and leader, Bishop Flunder, specifically discussing the form of charismatic leadership that she presents. According to Lewin, Flunder’s charismatic power “reveals both continuities with the traditional black churches that TFAM members come from … and the ways in which TFAM is vastly different from those institutions” (54). The discontinuity that Flunder’s charisma presents is in the message of “radical inclusivity” that she not only preaches but authentically embodies. 

Chapter 3 explores how the notion of coming out operates in the context of TFAM. It argues that the main feature of black Pentecostal religiosity—spiritual fulfillment experienced through embodied and ecstatic worship—is the key through which the fellowship helps members to integrate their “authentic” sexual, religious, and racial selves. The iconic notion of coming out in LGBT circles centers around political visibility and recognition, yet in the context of TFAM coming out has a different valence: it is said to be enabled by the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit. Thus coming out is related not only to a “mandated resistance to heteronormativity” but also to the “embrace of tradition,” and it is TFAM’s “unique accomplishment” that it combines these “two seemingly contradictory routes to achieving a sense of dignified personhood” (114). The question of how to make sense of this seeming contradiction theoretically—the ways in which embodiment, sexuality, and faith apparently interact—and its implications for sexuality and queer studies, could have been probed a little further. 

Chapter 4 examines the invocation of memory—specifically black memory—through which TFAM as a mostly African American fellowship builds a collective identity and sense of community. This memory is partly of a religious nature, as the devotional and preaching practices in TFAM recall those of “traditional” black churches, allowing members to have an authentically black experience of worship. Yet black memory is also reflected in styles of music, food practices, and hair styles. Invoking a range of pleasant and troubling memories, TFAM may step into nostalgia, but fundamentally reminds members that their race and skin color are as essentially part of them as their sexual and gender identities. 

Finally, chapter 5 explores TFAM’s vision of “radical inclusivity,” arguing that it is an aspirational narrative generating an imagined community that is all-embracing. Initially, the notion of inclusivity was applied within TFAM to categories of people excluded from black church life: LGBT members, sex workers, people living with HIV, people suffering from substance abuse, and so forth. More recently, however, inspired by Flunder’s radical interpretation of the biblical Pentecost event, this notion has been expanded to include “the potential inclusion of all people, regardless of race, sexual/gender identity, and religious background” (146-47), as well as symbols and rituals derived from Native American, African indigenous, and other religious traditions. Lewin critically asks whether this radical inclusivity may not, in fact, potentially challenge “the very foundation of a cohesive church” (149).

The conclusion puts TFAM in the broader context of “Bible-believing” conservative (evangelical and Pentecostal) Christianity in the United States. Black Pentecostal churches in general struggle to meet the criteria of evangelical Christianity in the US, as they may be theologically conservative but often are not politically so. TFAM is a further divergence as both theologically and politically it hardly classifies as “conservative.” At the same time, with its roots in black Pentecostal religiosity, TFAM is different (in its worship, theology, and spirituality) from the mostly white liberal Protestant denominations in the US. Clearly, the fellowship takes a unique position in the American religious landscape, and Lewin’s book provides a rich and empathetic ethnographic account of this. What remains unnoticed in the book is how TFAM frames its work in the US, as well as its emerging ministry in Africa (the context where I learned about the organization myself), in explicit opposition to conservative white evangelical Christianity. This gives a racial dimension to the American culture wars about issues of sexuality as it aims to promote a progressive black and pan-African Christianity. 

Exploring the complex interconnections between racial, sexual, and religious dimensions of identity, Lewin convincingly demonstrates that “the powerful experience that the Fellowship offers speaks to the continuing importance of the yearning for spiritual wholeness and rectitude” that many black LGBT people experience (26). Particularly fascinating is her argument about how Pentecostal religiosity—often associated with a conservative stance on matters of sexual diversity—can actually spiritually enable an empowering embrace of non-normative sexual identities. Written in an accessible style, the book is also exemplary in the way the author narrates her own experiences during the research and performs self-reflexivity with respect to her position as a white secular Jewish anthropologist who “never expected to study religion” (1). Her side comment that she tended to leave TFAM services just before the serving of Holy Communion (157) could have been unpacked more, as it raises fundamental questions about the limits, both of TFAM’s aspiration of “radical inclusivity” and of the ethnographer’s commitment to participant-observation or, as Lewin calls it, “the anthropology ministry” (18). All in all, this book makes a significant contribution to scholarship on African American religion as well as religion and sexuality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ellen Lewin is Professor of Anthropology and of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa.

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