Religion, Flesh, and Blood

The Convergence of HIV/AIDS, Black Sexual Expression, and Therapeutic Religion

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Pamela Leong
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     186 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pamela Leong’s Religion, Flesh, and Blood: The Convergence of HIV/AIDS, Black Sexual Expression, and Therapeutic Religion is an ethnographic exploration of Unity Fellowship Church, a predominantly black, LGBT-affirming church in Los Angeles. Archbishop Carl Bean founded the church in 1982, and attracted many congregants who could not find a home among black churches whose theologies excluded gender and sexual minorities and those who are HIV positive. Congregants were also attracted to Unity as it provided a sense of cultural community and familiar church rituals that predominantly white LGBT-affirming churches could not. Since many of the congregants joined the church after experiencing histories of pain, neglect, and exclusion due to their identities as black gender and sexual minorities, recovering addicts, and/or HIV-positive people (with estimates falling somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the congregation), Leong situates her ethnography of Unity Fellowship Church within scholarly debates about therapeutic religion.

Leong contributes to these debates by demonstrating how therapeutic religion does not necessarily detract from a sense of communal ethics. Critics of the therapeutic ethic have often described it as self-centered, narcissistic, selfish, and anti-community, thereby constructing a dichotomy between personalized religion and institutionalized religious discourse. Based on three years of field work, including interviews with congregants, analysis of sermons, and participant observation, Leong uses the Unity case study to debunk this binaristic understanding. She argues that the church’s emphasis on a therapeutic ethic—which has allowed for congregants multiply marginalized along racial, class, gender, and/or sexual lines to develop their own personalized religious doctrines—does not detract from the church’s collective religious values, which are rooted in black liberation theology and queer theologies of radical inclusion.  By emphasizing the “messiness” of the church—how it is able to hold both individualized religious beliefs and practices alongside the voices of congregants and church leaders who view the church as having a set of beliefs and practices to which individuals should be held accountable—she proves how a therapeutic ethic might exist alongside a communitarian religious ethic.

Chapter 1 outlines the book’s central concerns, with particular focus on how mainstream black churches’s neglect of those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic created the conditions for Unity Fellowship to emerge as a therapeutic religion. Chapter 2 offers a portrait of Unity Fellowship Church, founded the year after the appearance of AIDS in the US. This chapter demonstrates how the archbishop’s theology, the demographics of church members, and church rituals fit within the paradigm of therapeutic religion. Bean’s creation of rituals like “hugging” for those considered “untouchable” by mainstream black churches—HIV positive people, sex workers, drug addicts, and sexual minorities—affirms how therapeutic forms of religion develop from the lives and experiences of the parishioners. Chapters 3 and 4 describe how the church’s embrace of a therapeutic ethic allows for personalized religion, fostering a reconciliation between members’s marginalized identities and their religious ones. Personalizing religion permits freedoms such as questioning scriptures and sermons, and drawing from other faith traditions, while reinterpretations of theology at the communitarian level create a space for reintegrating sexual and spiritual identities and developing shared cultural understandings of the self and the world. Chapters 5 and 6 highlight some of the “unintended consequences” of the church’s therapeutic ethic. Interviewees expressed concerns about the church being a cruising ground and having loose standards for dress and behavior, raising questions about the church’s function as a site for fostering individual accountability and communal governance of morality. Chapters 7, 8, and 9 seek to reconcile critical concerns about therapeutic societies as hedonistic and degenerate. Leong points out some of the ways that Unity does create boundaries. For example, she shows how Bean’s sex-positive sermons affirm congregants’s non-normative sexual identities and practices, while challenging members to think of sex as part of the realm of the divine and to view themselves as whole beings rather than “sex machines” (99). According to the author, Unity’s therapeutic ethic matters, as it enables multiply marginalized members to reconcile their so-called deviant bodies and their spirits, and serves as the first step on their paths toward self- and communal transformation. Unity centers the therapeutic ethic in order to “re-socialize congregation members with respect to what it means to be religious, gay, and marginalized” and to provide alternatives to “prior religious scripts” through which they can “anchor and reconstruct themselves and their self-identities” (124).

Leong’s ethnographic analysis and thorough engagement of the literature on therapeutic religion has much to offer specialists in religious studies as well as general readers interested in the politics of a historically significant black LGBT-affirming church. While the text offers a rich depiction of this important religious cultural formation at the margins of black religious (heterosexual) identity and white LGBT identities, it has less to say about HIV/AIDS. Though HIV/AIDS is listed first in the book’s subtitle, it seems important to the study only insofar as it is central to the church’s formation and the fact that many of the church’s members are HIV positive. Additionally, as a black queer studies scholar, I had concerns about how the author deems practices like cruising in church as “cultural excess” and “unintended consequences” of a therapeutic ethic. By deploying these designations to describe this black queer cultural formation, the author uncritically reproduces the very same narratives of deviance and excess that have historically marked black sexuality and black spirituality more broadly. If more context had been offered to situate Unity within broader black church traditions, I wonder how analytics such as “excess” and “consequences” might have been reframed. Overall, the study offers an important analysis of a very important cultural site, and it makes a significant contribution to scholarly debates about therapeutic religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darius Bost is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah.

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pamela Leong is assistant professor of sociology at Salem State University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.