It's not all that uncommon a story. Pastor leads a largely non-LGBT congregation. Pastor follows his heart and performs a same-sex wedding. Pastor then watches the backlash as he begins to lose members of his congregation in droves.
But let's go back to the beginning. Rev. Brian Ellison pastors a Baptist church on Detroit's northwest side called the Church of the New Covenant. He is also an attorney.
"My first love is the church," Ellison said. "I do a lot of domestic violence litigation and I see that as just an extension of my life as a pastor. I don't see myself as an ivory tower preacher. I see myself as a street guy. I love liberation theology and I think it's the most authentic expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ – that God has a preferential bias toward the poor and the oppressed."
Ellison, who has a master's in divinity from Virginia Union University's School of Theology in Richmond, VA, and a law degree from the Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA, has pastored New Covenant for the past 14 years.
"Since I've been there I've always had this fundamentalist, Biblical literalist wing of my church," Ellison explained. "They're not bad people. They're not good people. They just exist and we've coexisted for 14 years pretty good. I don't want to say they're wicked people. I think they are misguided. I think they are wrong and I don't think you can justify reading the old testament as history recorded. If that's history recorded we should be afraid of God."
The coexistence became not quite so peaceful starting last spring, after Ellison was approached by two young ladies who attended his church. They stated their desire to be married and, further, they stated that they desired Ellison to marry them. The pastor agreed, he said, without hesitation.
Ellison felt the need to notify his head trustee of his plans and she insisted he bring the matter up before a meeting of the joint board of deacons and trustees. That meeting was attended by 17 church leaders and took place in June.
"I had two deacons and a trustee express outrage that I would do such a thing and they stated that I was condoning sin," Ellison remembered. "They challenged me. One of my deacons brought the Bible out and we had a little battle of the Bibles at that table that night. This one deacon said the Bible says that this is an abomination. I said the Bible is also pro-slavery; the Bible also assumes that the sun revolves around the Earth: the Bible also turns a blind eye toward rape; the Bible also assumes women are property and children are property; and the Bible endorses and calls for genocide. So be careful about quoting the Bible to me."
Bothered to be challenged on the subject, Ellison continued to make his case.
"I said, 'Deacon, there are 31,000 verses in the Bible. Six of them deal with homosexuality. I don't think God cares. God doesn't care about this subject. This is not a major subject of religion. You're making it that. You're majoring a minor.'"
Undeterred, Ellison proceeded with his plans to perform the November wedding.
"I did the wedding," Ellison said. "It was packed. The church seats about 350 and there were 375 people plus in the building. It was fun. It was electric. It was a joyous, joyous occasion. I was blessed and fortunate to have been the officiant at this wedding. Everything was positive. No criticism whatsoever."
But if Ellison thought the battle was over, he was soon to find out he was mistaken. Following the wedding, letters began circulating throughout the congregation. A few members of the church were determined that the entire congregation be made aware of what Ellison had done. They called it "an abomination before God" and accused the pastor of "bringing secular lifestyles into the church."
Meanwhile, another member of the church – a prominent and longtime member – sent out an email declaring her intentions to leave.
"She said she was leaving the church after decades," said Ellison. "She went on about how she could not follow me as a pastor and that I was a man who violated Biblical dictates. She said God would not approve of what I had done and that it was sacrilegious and blasphemous. The letter was crazy. I'm like, 'what the hell is her problem?' She circulated this throughout the church and it hurt me."
Helplessly, Ellison watched as members of his church continued to make their way out of its doors for good. Ellison, however, has not given up and is still planning to take the church in a more progressive direction regardless of the letter writer's efforts.
"She was a leader in the church and she circulated the letter," said Ellison. "I'm not sure when the bleeding is going to stop but she has people's attention and I feel I needed to push back. If I have to repopulate this church with an entire congregation of LGBT people I'll do it. I am 100 percent opposed to the hypocrisy in the black protestant church.
"I've said it many times, 10 percent of the congregation is LGBT and I'm not going to shame anybody for how they're born," Ellison continued. "We accept our LGBT congregants money, they serve in every capacity and I'm not going to have a second-class citizenship in our church."
All Ellison had to do was promise never to perform another same-sex wedding in the church and the letter writer said she would stay and call off her campaign against the pastor.
"She said 'if you agree not to do this again I won't leave your church,'" Ellison said. "I laughed my ass off. I said 'I'm going to do it again. I'm not going to allow our LGBT members to live in the shadows of our church.'"
The Church of the New Covenant is located at 3426 Puritan Ave. in Detroit. Morning worship takes place at 11 a.m. on Sundays. For more information, visit http://cncbaptist.org.