Ishmael at the Table of Abraham

Black Queer Religious Hermeneutics and Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ Evangelicals

in Religion and Society
Author:
Andrea S. Allen Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Canada as.allen@utoronto.ca

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Abstract

Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals stand betwixt and between as negotiators with evangelical and LGBTQ communities in Brazilian society. Finding full acceptance in neither community, these religious actors engage in interpretive endeavors that represent the ‘wonky’ potentiality of ‘Black queer religious hermeneutics’. At a LGBTQ-led evangelical church in São Paulo, Brazil, Afro-Brazilian believers’ theological orientations reveal how they can disturb queer theoretical frameworks that emphasize ‘resistance’ and ‘empowerment’. Such emphases can foreclose analytical possibilities in a myopic attempt to focus on queerness as the orienting experiential framework of sexual and gender minorities. Instead, this article offers the possibility for understanding the roles of religiosity and materiality as the primary grounds of analysis, eschewing an overreliance on abstraction and subversion as analytical frames.

Hagar is a biblical figure who has inspired much discussion within academic and theological communities across the Abrahamic religions. This enslaved Egyptian woman of Sarah, wife of the Hebrew Bible patriarch Abraham, has been positioned as ‘the other’, ‘the oppressed’, ‘the marginalized’, and ‘a survivor’ (Simopoulos 2007; Trible and Russel 2006; Williams 1993). Yet, in the summer of 2016, I heard a sermon given by Pastor Flávio, a Black gay man in São Paulo, that essentially described Hagar as a ‘talented breeder’. As I sat listening to his sermon in the storefront church that was located in between an auto mechanic shop and a sex shop, I kept asking myself if I was correctly understanding this minister's sermon. A sermon, I described in my fieldnotes, that entailed “an ‘interesting’ hermeneutical approach that completely elides Hagar's personhood.” Three years later, I received confirmation that my comprehension of the sermon was accurate when I conducted a wide-ranging interview with Pastor Flávio; the sermon did center on Hagar as a talented breeder.

The genesis of this article is my quest to understand how Pastor Flávio—a self-identified gay man who is the descendent of enslaved peoples—could apparently support the rape of an enslaved woman because it was her God-given talent to be a surrogate for her mistress's husband. With this sermon as the catalyst, I argue that Pastor Flávio's sermon is characteristic of Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ1 evangelicals’ beliefs and experiences: they reveal the “wonky” (Ahmed 2006) potentiality of Black queer religious hermeneutics within the context of LGBTQ-led evangelical churches in São Paulo, Brazil. On one hand, LGBTQ Afro-Brazilians attempt to reconcile a literalist approach to biblical interpretation with their belief in an inclusive theology that accepts same-sex sexuality and transgender and transexual identities. Yet, as I will illustrate, this Black queer religious hermeneutical approach can produce ‘difficulties’ for those believers who attempt to negotiate with traditionalist understandings of biblical mandates related to sexuality and obedience to God's will. Furthermore, these purposeful negotiations reveal how LGBTQ Afro-Brazilian evangelicals can disturb queer theoretical frameworks that emphasize ‘resistance’ and ‘empowerment’. Such emphases can foreclose analytical possibilities in a myopic attempt to focus on queerness as the orienting experiential framework of sexual and gender minorities. Instead, this analysis of Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals offers the possibility for understanding the roles of religiosity and materiality as the primary grounds of analysis, eschewing an overreliance on abstraction and subversion as analytical frames. Since Afro-Brazilian Christians stand betwixt and between as negotiators, it is necessary to use a dexterous framework that is rooted in their theological and material realities to analyze their experiences.

Black queer scholars have offered frameworks of analysis that underscore sexuality, race, gender, and religion as co-creative and co-constitutive in identity formations for Black queer populations and communities in the Black diaspora (Alexander 2005; Crawley 2008; Gill 2018a; Strongman 2019; Tinsley 2018). Black and other queer scholars of color have also been acutely attuned to the lack of focus on racialized experiences and identity formation in mainstream queer theory (Cruz and Manalansan 2002; Ferguson 2004; Johnson 2016; Muñoz 2009; Tinsley 2008; Walcott 2016).2 Even when racial and class structures are discussed, the engagement can be superficial, with either a primarily theoretical—not experiential—focus (A. Allen 2015; Gill 2018b; Rubin and Butler 1994; Weston 1998) or an overemphasis on subversion and rejection (Weiss 2016; Wiegman and Wilson 2015). Thus, centering Black queer interlocutors, particularly as ethnographic subjects, “renarrativizes” anthropological discourses and queer theories that have otherwise elided blackness and queerness (J. Allen 2016). This article, building on these interventions, provides a framework for understanding how Black LGBTQ evangelicals navigate their own understanding of their sexual desires and gender identity in light of their continued alignment with a religious community that has traditionally denounced same-sex sexuality and transgender identities in no uncertain terms. Instead of a desire to reject these traditional communities or spaces, Black LGBTQ evangelicals engage with them on their own terms, illuminating that their ‘material reality’ of being Black and LGBTQ in Brazil may be rooted in religious, and not racial or sexual, subjectivity.

The religious experiences of self-identified LGBTQ individuals and sexual and gender minorities invites careful consideration of the inclusion or exclusion of these populations within religious contexts. Social-scientific and humanistic approaches to the study of LGBTQ Christians’ experiences have focused on race (Lewin 2018; McQueeney 2009; Sumerau 2012a), gender (Moon et al. 2019; Sumerau 2012b; Sumerau et al. 2015), the formation of religious and sexual identities (Garrigan 2009; Hunt 2016; Shore-Goss et al. 2013), theology (Golomski 2020; Sumerau 2017), activism (Chan 2018; Klinken 2019; Mikulak 2019; Seitz 2017), and the ex-gay movement (Bjork-James 2018; Erzen 2006; Hackman 2018; Robinson and Spivey 2015; Wolkomir 2006). A common thread throughout scholarship about LGBTQ Christians, especially those who attempt to remain within evangelical traditions, is their inability to participate fully in their church homes. As evangelical spaces are phenomenologically identified as heterosexual spaces, another consideration is to understand them as often being white spaces that are oriented toward and around white racialized bodies. In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed theorizes that “bodies become orientated by how they take up time and space” (2006: 5). When bodies are queered, whether racially and/or sexually, they disrupt the conventional orientations of spaces and produce disorientation, which can lead to “wonkiness” (173–174). I have been particularly drawn to Sara Ahmed's use of ‘wonky’ to describe ‘queer effects’ in white and heterosexual spaces because it is an evocative term that invites a consideration of not just physical instability, but mental and emotional as well.

As I argue for the inadvertent ‘wonkiness’ of Black queer religious hermeneutics in Brazil, I recognize that this argument is an outgrowth of my own ‘wonky’, unstable, and unmoored reaction to hearing Pastor Flávio's sermon. As I listened to the sermon and interviewed Pastor Flávio, it was impossible to disconnect my own background and family history from this ethnographic process. I am a Black woman, born in the United States, and I have ancestors who were already enslaved in the US in the early eighteenth century.3 I also grew up in the Black Baptist tradition as the daughter of a pastor, and as a queer woman, I am quite familiar with traditionalist, conservative, and evangelical biblical stances related to same-sex sexuality and gender-expansive identities. Accordingly, the theoretical choices I have made as I conduct research about Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicalism, and how I have interacted with and communed with Black LGBTQ evangelicals are indelibly intertwined with who I am and what I have experienced. At the same time, however, I assert that a focus on wonkiness is worthwhile because it is generative in how it allows for careful articulation of the negotiations and not always seamless reconciliations that factor into Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals’ theological understandings. In this article, I particularly focus on these evangelicals’ beliefs about sexuality, especially fornication, evangelism, and bibliocentric homiletics.

To lay the foundation for these arguments, I must describe the social, political, religious, and racial landscape in Brazil and then discuss one of the church settings for this ongoing research project: Comunidade Cristã Nova Esperança Internacional (New Hope International Christian Community—CCNEI) Church in the city of São Paulo.4 Next, I delve into ‘inclusive theology’ as the foundational theological framework of CCNEI and how LGBTQ congregants at the church interpret biblical verses related to sexuality. In particular, I focus on Jorge, a Black gay congregant at the church, and his eventual ‘queering’ of biblical stances on sexuality.5 Jorge's evolving responses to questions about sexuality directly relate, I argue, to the ‘difficulties’ that Pastor Flávio, a Black gay minister at CCNEI, had in discussing his sermon about Hagar in an interview with me. Both Black gay men's negotiations with Christianity, specifically evangelicalism and conservative or traditional beliefs about sexuality, duty, and submission—whether they intended them to or not—represent ‘wonky’ hermeneutical approaches that illustrate the disorienting effects of Black queer evangelicalism and even evangelicalism as a whole.

Queer Transformations, Evangelical Resistance, and Inclusive Churches

The political process of integrating LGBTQ Brazilians into Brazilian society began in the 1970s during the military dictatorship when LGBTQ activists began to protest homophobia and discrimination (Facchini 2005; Green 1994). As a result of these ongoing efforts, the relationship between the federal government and its LGBTQ citizens has undergone numerous transformations in the last 10 to 15 years, including the ability for LGBTQ citizens to marry (Moreira 2017). Even though Brazil, which has a population of roughly 213 million (IBGE 2021), has surpassed many nations in its expansion of rights, privileges, and protections granted to its LGBTQ citizens, they continue to experience everyday discrimination and high rates of physical violence, including mutilation and murder (Gastaldi et. al. 2021). Integral to Brazil's evolving—and at times devolving—relationship with its LGBTQ citizens has been the influence of evangelicalism in the social and political life in the country.

While Brazil is considered a Catholic country, toward the end of the twentieth century, social, economic, and cultural factors led to a Protestant expansion, and more specifically, an expansion of evangelicalism (Baptista 2009; Campos 2011; Fonesca 2008).6 Evangelicals, who make up 73 percent of the Protestant population in Brazil (García 2009: 51), generally identify as ‘born-again’ Christians who believe in biblical literalism. Of Brazilian evangelicals, many identify with Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which emphasize ‘prosperity gospel’ and ‘gifts of the spirit’, specifically, the gifts of glossolalia, prophecy, and healing.7 Brazilian Protestants, including evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals, were estimated to constitute roughly 5 percent of the population in 1970, but their numbers had risen to 30 percent by 2018 (Balloussier 2019). In contrast, Roman Catholics were 92 percent of the population in 1970, but by the 2010 Brazilian census, only 65 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic (Altman 2012: 1124). As the Protestant population in Brazil has grown, so too has the political power of evangelical leaders at the state and national levels (Smiderle and Mesquita 2016). This increase has been exemplified by the significant influence of the bancada evangélica (or the evangelical political bloc) in the National Congress during the regime of Jair Bolsonaro. Evangelical political power has also had consequences for Afro-Brazilians who make up a sizeable portion of the evangelical population (Burdick 2005). The legacy of enslavement, governmental ‘whitening’ projects, and a lack of concern for the poor have led to much inequality, discrimination, and injustice for Afro-Brazilians (Schwarcz 2001). Consequently, there are political, economic, and social divides between the 43 percent of Brazilians who identify as branco (white) versus the 9 percent who identify as preto (Black) and the 47 percent who identify as pardo (Brown).8 Accordingly, any discussion of the experiences of Afro-Brazilians who self-identify as both LGBTQ and evangelical or Pentecostal must reckon with how such individuals straddle communities who are ostensibly in conflict with each other.

One major consequence of the outright condemnation of LGBTQ Christians by the larger evangelical community is that the former have established their own churches—igrejas inclusivas evangélicas (inclusive evangelical churches), which are rooted in evangelical, Pentecostal, and neo-Pentecostal traditions (Natividade 2010, 2017; Natividade and Oliveira 2013).9 Among these churches is CCNEI, an inclusive evangelical church group that Pastor Justino Luiz de Oliveira founded in 2004; in 2019, CCNEI had at least five thousand members and nineteen churches/communities.10 That year, CCNEI as a church group disbanded, but former CCNEI churches around Brazil continued to have informal bonds with each other (Santos 2022: 67–70). Additionally, Pastor Justino and his husband, Pastor Flávio—the minister who preached the Hagar sermon—left the headquarters church that year to minister at a former CCNEI church in the São Paulo region. Eventually, they would leave this church and start their own. The former headquarters church of CCNEI, now known as Nova Esperança Central (New Hope Central), was in the Centro neighborhood of São Paulo. At this downtown location, I conducted six and a half months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2016 and 2023, including church service attendance, interviews, and interactions with congregants and the leadership staff. During this period, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 CCNEI members, including Pastor Justino and three other ministers. I also attended one to three church services on a weekly basis while in São Paulo. Interviews averaged between 90 and 120 minutes and included topics related to racism, sexism, homophobia, religious background, theological beliefs, and political perspectives. Of these interlocutors, 14 were of African descent, and 10 of those identified as Black. All participants self-identified as lesbian, gay, or transgender; the majority of whom were gay men. Considering the size of the church, I will not provide further specifics on the exact number of lesbian women, gay men, and transgender women and men I interviewed11 Additionally, all interlocutors ‘assumed’ an LGT identity in some capacity in their everyday lives.12 Participants ranged in age from late twenties to early sixties.

The headquarters of the church group in the Centro neighborhood, where I attended services, had three to four hundred members. Congregants of the downtown CCNEI Church tended to be in their thirties or forties and a mix of Afro-Brazilian and white. While some were employed in high-paying salaried positions, such as in the health care industry, others were unhoused or poor. The church was located on a street that included small businesses such as convenience stores, restaurants, and gas stations. After ascending a flight of stairs, one entered the main room or sanctuary, which could fit roughly a hundred chairs. On the far-left side of the sanctuary, facing the pulpit, was a small table filled with audiovisual equipment and a laptop that was used to project songs, Bible verses, and announcements on a screen at the back of the pulpit. The pulpit was a small platform that was raised about a foot from the floor in front of a row of chairs. One could tithe or donate by using portable debit and credit card machines. CCNEI could be described as somewhat low-tech even though they used small strobing lights during services and projected song lyrics on the pulpit wall. Although the music of CCNEI invites comparisons with secular spaces, the LBGTQ evangelicals I encountered considered themselves separate from the larger LGBTQ community even though they were not accepted into the mainstream evangelical community.

Inclusive Theology and ‘Difficult’ Negotiations

A significant departure of inclusive evangelical churches from mainstream evangelicalism in Brazil is their espousal of ‘inclusive theology’. A foundational belief of inclusive theology is the notion that salvation is for all.13 Pastor Justino said: “Based on the Bible that we teach, Jesus does not exclude anyone. So our position is that we include people, independent of race, color, ethnicity, sexuality, independent of where you are from and your connections. It includes everyone.”14 Since inclusive theology as understood in inclusive evangelical churches is also an evangelical theology, it must address questions about specific biblical verses, from Leviticus and Romans, for example, that appear to prohibit same-sex sexual activities. In interviews with the ministerial staff, they generally argued that evangelicals, and traditionalist Christians overall, have misinterpreted these verses in the Bible, or they said the rules and admonishments discussed in Leviticus and Romans were culturally bound and not relevant in the present day.15 Thus, the verses in Leviticus that address prostitution and sex rituals were prescribed because of concerns about reproduction and the need to demarcate boundaries between the Israelites and their foreign neighbors.16 As for Romans, ministers emphasized the historical context, arguing that Paul wrote this epistle when pagan worship was rampant. The verses reflected the patriarchy of the times, and Paul was not focused on relationships that involved love and mutual respect between people of the same sex.17

While it is important to document institutional responses to questions related to sexuality, one of the objectives of this research is to understand the beliefs of CCNEI congregants, not just about same-sex sexuality but also about sexuality in general. Many CCNEI interlocutors provided responses to questions about same-sex sexual activities that were similar to the ones discussed by the ministers. More than half initially said they believed premarital sex was a sin, mainly because of their interpretation of biblical texts. The most intriguing responses focused on the belief that fornication was a sin not because of the biblical rule against it but because of the spiritual dimensions of sexuality. Since they considered sex an act of intimacy, affection, and a representation of love, they argued that sex should occur only in marital relationships. There were also those who fundamentally believed that sex was permissible in stable relationships; this was a broad category of adherents who either immediately stated this belief or eventually arrived at this position. Some interlocutors expressed beliefs that encapsulated all three interpretations and, over the course of their conversation with me, eventually settled on the interpretation that sexual activities were not inherently sinful outside of marriage. Thus, their initial condemnations of premarital sex often needed additional unpacking and at times led to a subsequent disavowal of this as the conversation progressed.

I will provide one illustrative example of this interpretive shifting. Jorge is a CCNEI congregant whom I interviewed for almost two hours. He is a Black gay man and a professional. A clean-cut man with dark brown skin and a serious face, Jorge was raised in a religious household by his mother, who had been homophobic throughout his life, even after he had ‘assumed’ a gay identity. While his husband's mother did not officially know that he was married to her son, Jorge said that she would make up one bed for them when they would visit her house. The journey from growing up and still dealing with a homophobic mother to sharing a bed with his husband at his mother-in-law's house was not a straightforward path. Ever since he was an adolescent, Jorge knew he was attracted to his ‘same sex’ and was convinced that he was going to go to hell:

Look, I, for a long time, I thought that I was going to hell, because since the age of 10, I was attracted to my same sex. In my head, going to Catholic church, I already knew that this was wrong. So, in my head, I was going to hell. ‘Ah, I'm going to burn in hell, I'm going to burn.’ So this theology when it would emerge, it was a mountain.

Attending an inclusive church fundamentally changed how Jorge understood (same-sex) sexuality because the church taught him how to understand and interpret the Bible in an affirming fashion. He said, “So knowledge about the Word, this opened our horizons in demystifying for us, clarifying our doubts, understand?” After Jorge stated his beliefs about how it is important to understand Leviticus and Romans within the context of when they were written, I asked him if he thought the Bible stated that any sex before marriage was a sin. He said, “Look, if it is a sin, I've done it . . . Today I am married, but there was a time I was sinning, understand?” When I asked Jorge why he thought sex before marriage was a sin, he responded: “Because we need to be pure in order for God to purify us, understand? This rule exists so that you are prepared for marriage, to prepare you. Then, if you do that, you are distancing yourself from God. So then I think it becomes a sin.”

Jorge's initial response was not atypical, and at this point in my fieldwork experience, I had developed a follow-up question that attempted to tease out the ramifications of simultaneously interpreting the Bible as pro-same-sex sexuality but anti-premarital sex. I asked Jorge: “Some evangelicals think that there is a rule against fornication and there is a rule against sex between two people of the same sex. What is the difference between these two rules? If you follow the rule about fornication, why do you not follow the rule prohibiting sex between two people of the same sex?” I must be honest that when I asked this question, some people were hesitant in their response, which I attributed, in part, to a lack of consideration of the potential problems that could arise from such a theological stance against premarital sex. My goal was not to produce a ‘gotcha’ moment or antagonize Jorge and the other interlocutors who had so graciously provided me with their time and thoughts on very personal matters. However, I could not ignore the tension between a fundamental belief in God's Word as true and the roadmap for their lives—thus premarital sex is a sin—and their contention that God's Word needs to be read within a broader historical and cultural context in regard to its prohibitions against same-sexual activities because the exact words in the texts do not sufficiently convey God's intent for our lives in the present day. Jorge responded:

In reality, so, I am influenced by a religious culture that since I was a child, I was raised in that way, you understand. So I have been influenced by it, today, in my opinion, deep down, deep down, I think the following: a person that is with someone else of the same sex and is faithful to them, I think that they are not committing sin. That is my opinion. That is not committing a sin. However, look, if we are talking about someone who is 16 years old and has not yet matured, I would say that they have a lot of things to learn and is not a full adult, I would view that as fornication . . . It is very difficult to talk about this, you know . . . Hey, life, it's difficult.

Jorge's declaration of “it's difficult” exemplifies some LGBTQ evangelicals’ negotiations as they assert the need to contextualize biblical verses that are related to same-sex sexuality while they simultaneously denounce premarital sex as sinful, as decreed by the Bible. Therefore, even in their attempts to adhere to biblical teaching, LGBTQ evangelicals participate in queer hermeneutical approaches to biblical exegesis. Jorge's emphasis on maturity, romantic commitment, and adulthood echoed sentiments like those stated by Pastor Justino, who told me that there only needed to be an aliança (commitment), and not marriage, when I asked him about premarital sex.

Although the inclusive theology espoused at CCNEI is a queer theology that strays from dominant evangelical understandings of sexuality, from the perspective of CCNEI ministers and congregants, it is mainstream evangelicalism that has become misaligned from Christianity's true mission. This critique of mainstream evangelicalism is fascinating in light of the fact that same-sex sexuality and transsexual/transgender identities are not associated with evangelicalism and, in fact, are perceived by many to be anathema to the Christian faith. Consequently, many of my interlocutors had been estranged from Christianity because they experienced rejection and ostracism from their supposed Christian kin. Like Jorge, many were raised to believe that same-sex sexuality was a sin and that they were going to hell because of their sinful natures. Thus, inclusive theology provides LGBTQ Christians who identify with evangelicalism or Pentecostalism with—to use a well-worn metaphor—a seat at the table. Yet, these Christians do not come to the table empty-handed. Instead, by merely claiming not just Christianity but evangelicalism and/or Pentecostalism as an identity alongside or inclusive of a nonnormative sexuality identity or gender, LGBTQ evangelicals can transform evangelical spaces or even reveal the wonkiness of these spaces themselves.18 Their claims may produce unavoidable and perhaps ‘difficult’ issues as they strive to orient their theologies and bodies into evangelical spaces even as they critique mainstream evangelical understandings of same-sex sexuality and/or sexuality in general.

For more than a few of my interlocutors, they needed to unpack how they can believe in the sinfulness of fornication while they assert a biblical acceptance of same-sex sexuality. This hermeneutical process was intriguing and revealing because they attempted to orient their bodies into dominant evangelical spaces through an emphasis on traditional biblical exegesis even though some of those same interpretations were so often used against them. Despite these attempts at a traditional orientation to evangelicalism, they also simultaneously engage in queer hermeneutics because of their reinterpretation of biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexuality and gender-expansive identities. Queer hermeneutics, fascinatingly, allows for both traditional and queer spatiality, as LGBTQ evangelicals enter these traditional evangelical spaces that they then ultimately queer through their very participation in them. Thus, there is this juxtaposition between traditional evangelical textuality and spatiality with queer textuality and spatiality for LGBTQ evangelicals. Therefore, their ‘wonky’ hermeneutical claims are also fundamental to their ‘intrusion’ into evangelical spaces.

Hagar, Servant and Surrogate

My fieldwork indicates that the way in which Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ congregants of inclusive evangelical churches engaged in queer hermeneutics, even more so than white LGBTQ evangelicals, encompassed a delicate navigation of biblical narratives and their potential ramifications. This may be related to the realities of living their lives as Afro-Brazilian and Christian. Jorge, the congregant just discussed, provides one example, but an even more suggestive example of this Black queer religious hermeneutical approach was Pastor Flávio. During one Sunday service I attended, the minister gave a sermon about Hagar, alternately called the handmaiden, servant, or more aptly ‘slave’ of Sarah, wife of the biblical patriarch Abraham. In the book of Genesis, Sarah is described as being unable to bear children, and thus she ‘gives’ Hagar to her husband for him to impregnate because Abraham has had to designate a nonfamily member to be his heir.19 After becoming pregnant, Hagar then becomes dismissive of Sarah, who is then given permission by Abraham to punish Hagar for her behavior. After being mistreated by Sarah, Hagar flees to the desert and encounters the “angel of the Lord,” who convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah. Hagar returns and bears her son, Ishmael. Later in Genesis, Hagar reenters the narrative, and now it is her son whom Sarah sees as a threat to the standing of her own son, Isaac. It is Isaac, and not Ishmael, whom Sarah considers the true heir of Abraham, a stance the book of Genesis shares. At the behest of Sarah, and with God's blessing, Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael to the desert once again even though Abraham has misgivings. As the mother and child struggle to survive, the angel of the Lord tells Hagar that he has heard her son's cries and will “make of him a great nation.” With God's help, they survive the desert, and eventually Ishmael marries a woman from Egypt, his mother's homeland. Genesis identifies Ishmael as the forefather of the Arab peoples (Genesis 16:1–15, 21:8–20, NRSV).

Hagar's experience of surrogacy as described in Genesis was the foundation of the sermon Pastor Flávio preached at CCNEI Church. After Pastor Justino led the praise section of the service, Pastor Flávio preached, and as he described the situation of Abraham and Sarah—Sarah's barrenness and the couple's hope for a child—it became clear that he was quite sympathetic toward the couple. Presumably, Pastor Flávio also thought God was sympathetic to Abraham and Sarah because he said Hagar was specifically designated to be the carrier for Sarah. He preached that it was Hagar's duty to be a carrier, which was her talent and gift from God and, most importantly, for God. Fundamentally, it was Hagar's responsibility to fulfil her duty to be a surrogate. But Hagar, in his estimation, did not fully accept her responsibility, lacking the humility she should have felt. He described how Hagar was ‘uppity’ toward Sarah, seemingly justifying Sarah's mistreatment of Hagar even though it had almost led to her death. Pastor Flávio's message for the congregation concentrated on the notion that, like Hagar, our talents are given to us by God, and we should not forget, ignore, or dismiss them because it is our duty to accept God's will for us. Consequently, Hagar should have been happy to use her God-given talent, to be the surrogate, the breeder, for Abraham and Sarah.

Three years after I heard this sermon, I had the opportunity to interview Pastor Flávio, the husband of Pastor Justino. As a light-brown-skinned man, Pastor Flávio has the choice in Brazilian society to identify as moreno (brown-skinned) or by the official census word pardo; instead, Pastor Flávio self-identifies as Black. In his mid-thirties and from Maranhão, Pastor Flávio was raised in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic schools. Like Jorge, Pastor Flávio always knew he was gay, and unlike his gay brother, he never felt the need to come out to his parents. In 2008, Pastor Flávio attended his first service at a CCNEI church in the Maranhão capital, São Luís; he was captivated seeing young people who were singing, raising their hands, and closing their eyes. He understood in an intimate way that he wanted to feel what they were feeling. He began his ministry in São Luís, then moved to São Paulo, joined the headquarters church, and began a relationship with Pastor Justino.

Pastor Flávio and I talked one Sunday in August 2019, after the morning service in a small storage room next to the main worship space, unavoidably hearing the choir singing in preparation for the afternoon service. We discussed his journey from Catholicism to evangelicalism, and I asked him about his Hagar sermon: “Three years ago when I was here, I remember that you preached about Hagar. I don't know if you remember this sermon. For me, it was interesting to think about her. Could you talk about what the significance of Hagar is for you?” Pastor Flávio knew exactly which sermon I was talking about and responded: “Hagar was a wonderful experience in my life. Hagar for me today, if I could summarize, is about obedience. For me it is about obedience because we have to seek out living the gospel, especially those of us who preach the Word.” In response to a question I asked about sexuality and Hagar being obedient, Pastor Flávio looked at his cell phone to find his sermon notes. He said: “I began speaking about the question of appreciation, because sometimes when we look at Hagar and in the Bible itself, it mentions, it identifies Hagar as a slave . . . She is a slave, and that and much more . . . I began to appreciate her because this ability to reproduce has a certain importance.”

While noting that Hagar was being obedient to the will of God, he did mention a connection between the poor treatment of domestic workers in Brazil and Sarah's mistreatment of Hagar. Pastor Flávio argued that Hagar could have responded differently: “So you see that even though she knew that she was having a child who was for Sarah, she still obeyed because she could have done a little something even though she was a slave. ‘I am going to do a little something to not give that pleasure to my mistress who mistreats me’, you understand?” Thus, for Pastor Flávio, Hagar was not helpless, because she could have prevented a pregnancy and not give Abraham and Sarah what they wanted: an heir. Yet, Hagar's agency was limited in that she still was an enslaved woman who did not have a choice about having sexual relations with Abraham. I asked Pastor Flávio: “Since Hagar was a slave, how is it possible for Hagar to have freedom? So between obedience and freedom, what is the situation, what is the choice for Hagar?” In response, Pastor Flávio said he didn't understand my question, so I asked my question in a different way. Grasping to understand, Pastor Flávio stated, “So you are asking is it possible for her to choose freedom when in reality she is a slave and does not have the power to make decisions?” “Exactly,” I said. Pastor Flávio then sort of laughed and said, “Look, it's difficult . . . ”

In both Pastor Flávio's sermon and in his interview with me, he employed a traditional evangelical hermeneutical approach: Hagar's duty is to obey the will of God, and her obligation of surrogacy is a reminder that our bodies are not our own but rather, in essence, the property of God, and that fulfilment of His will for us and our bodies is paramount.20 Thus, even Hagar, an enslaved woman, has the ability to choose and therefore obey because she could avoid pregnancy as a vindictive response to Sarah's mistreatment of her. However, it should be noted that Pastor Flávio referenced only Sarah's behavior toward Hagar and not the fact that regardless of Hagar's ability to prevent pregnancy, she was still required to have a sexual relationship with Abraham, her mistress's husband. Thus, obedience, and not sexual violence, was the focus of Pastor Flávio's sermon and interview comments. On one hand, CCNEI is an inclusive church rooted in evangelicalism, and this Hagar exegesis ‘lines up’ with dominant evangelical conservative or traditional theologies that emphasize obedience and faithfulness. Yet, it is also necessary to consider the ramifications of this exegesis within the historical, social, and cultural context of a LGBTQ-led church in Brazil.

In this country, enslaved African women were raped and forced to breed for their Portuguese masters (Aidoo 2018), and the minister's body bears this legacy of rape and exploitation. The parallels between Hagar's experiences as a slave forced to breed for her master and enslaved African women's experiences as breeders for slave masters in the Americas is quite evident. Fundamentally, Pastor Flávio's disregard for the humanity of Hagar is like, as Hortense Spillers (1987: 67–68) so adeptly notes, the “ungendering” of captive African women in the New World. There was a lack of protection afforded to Black female flesh because African women were not treated as human beings who had bodies. As such, the fungibility of Black flesh was a feature of the transatlantic slave trade, precluding the possibility of Black motherhood because enslaved African women could not “claim” their children (80). There is, however, an important distinction between Hagar and enslaved African women: Hagar was producing an heir, while enslaved African women were breeding property. Despite this major difference, all these enslaved women, regardless of the era, experienced states of dispossession and displacement.

Unfortunately, the sexual violence and commodification of Black and Brown women in Brazil did not end with slavery in 1888. In considering the Brazilian “afterlife of slavery,” it is quite reasonable to argue that slavery there “established a measure of man and a ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone” (Hartman 2007: 6). As João Vargas argues, anti-Blackness continues to be pervasive in Brazil, negatively affecting the political, social, and economic outcomes for Afro-Brazilians (2018). An explicit racial and gender hierarchy exists in this country, giving the lie to “the myth of racial democracy” (Pravaz 2008). This myth centers on the idea that Brazil is a racial paradise instead of a land of “three sad races” (Haberly 1983). According to this historical fantasy, Portuguese/European settlers, enslaved Africans, and indigenous populations lived harmoniously with each other with a Portuguese patriarch leading the country. In this not quite explicit fashion, the exploitation—sexual and otherwise—of Black and Brown women is an intrinsic aspect of Brazilian nationalism, illustrating how the fungible state of Black and Brown womanhood extended beyond the plantation. In addition to racial and gender discrimination that Black and Brown women in Brazil experience in Brazilian society overall (Caldwell 2007), there is continued sexual commodification and exploitation of them as domestic workers (DeSouza and Cerqueira 2009; Ribeiro Corossacz 2019).

Thus, within this historical context, Pastor Flávio's sermon upheld a sexual, gender, and racial hierarchy in which a man in a position of authority had sexual power over a foreign woman who was positioned outside the “traditional symbolics of female gender” (Spillers 1987: 80) as a mother / not mother. Accordingly, Pastor Flávio's statement that he is focused on the divine call for obedience clearly indicates that he was not interpreting the biblical narratives surrounding Hagar through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade and the anti-Blackness of Brazilian society in any conscious way. Therefore, his statement of “Look, it's difficult . . . ” reveals the wonky possibilities that arise when bodies and minds that are queer as well as Black engage with evangelical orthodoxy. Pastor Flávio's wonky hermeneutics contrast with Black theologians’ harsh critique of white Christians’ interpretation of biblical enslavement narratives and the Bible's role in the ‘theologization’ of the transatlantic slave trade (Reddie 2016). Regarding the Hagar narrative in particular, it is regrettably notable that Pastor Flávio's exegesis echoed that of white slaveowners who also focused on obedience when applying lessons learned from Hagar's experiences (Junior 2019: 49–56). While nowadays mainstream evangelicals certainly do not support slavery, an emphasis on obedience, duty, and God's will is an integral aspect of mainstream evangelicalism, as I have already noted.

This contextualization invites a discussion of the misalignment between Pastor Flávio and dominant evangelical theology in that mainstream Brazilian evangelicals readily reject LGBTQ Christians, as he most certainly knows. Despite Pastor Flávio's Hagar exegesis and his mostly traditional evangelicalism, his very identity as a Black gay man implicitly reflects his failure to embody fully whiteness and heterosexuality, the orienting ideologies within Brazilian evangelical spaces. While Pastor Flávio appears to ‘line up’ with traditional evangelicalism through this homiletical performance of conservative homonormativity, he admitted that it is ‘difficult’ to explain Hagar's freedom amid enslavement. It is this difficulty that illustrates the instability or wonkiness of his theological approach to interpreting Hagar's plight, which elides Hagar's rape and expulsion and focuses on the glory of God and obedience to his will.

Conclusion

A Black gay man preaching a sermon that extols Hagar as a willing and obedient surrogate refuses simplistic explication. My interviews with informants and the services I attended demonstrated that Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals are not inherently subversive agents who strive to dismantle Brazilian evangelicalism and white supremacy from inside the master's house. If we recognize that not “all agency is resistance and not all deviance is intentional” (J. Allen 2011: 83), then we can formulate an understanding of how Black queer religious hermeneutics are produced in both euphonious and cacophonous registers that belie the monotony of mainstream registers of queer theory. Furthermore, the erasure or dismissal of the experiential aspects of living and acting in bodies that are queered in multiple ways can produce effervescent theories that neglect the fact that “real fists hit actual flesh” (J. Allen 2016: 622). The pervasive and persistent racism, homophobia, sexism, and white supremacist forms of structural violence in Brazilian society has real material consequences for the Black LGBTQ evangelicals I encountered. However, despite these material realities, Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals who orient themselves toward and around evangelicalism can experience a ‘wonkiness’ because their attempts to adhere to evangelical and conservative Christian theologies are enfleshed in Black queer vessels. As such, I argue that there is an impossibility of their Black queer attempts to ‘line up’ with mainstream evangelicalism, invoking ‘difficulties’ for Jorge and Pastor Flávio.

Unintended ‘difficulties’ erupted when Jorge discussed his beliefs about sexual behavior and Pastor Flávio articulated—and defended—Hagar's duty of surrogacy. Although both Jorge and Pastor Flávio used ‘difficult’ in response to perhaps vexing questions or observations, I would contend that word is employed in similar as well as disparate ways for each interlocutor. For both, ‘difficult’ represents a tension between, I would argue, traditional evangelical doctrine and experience, whether Jorge's sexual experiences or Pastor Flávio's experiences as Black gay men in Brazil. Moreover, for Jorge, part of the difficulty of holding a strict demarcation between chastity (ordained sexual activity in marriage) and fornication seemed to be not the Bible but his own reasoning about sexual propriety. In contrast, for Pastor Flávio, there was a difficulty related to how he explained or elided—as I wrote in my field notes—Hagar's personhood. Moreover, Pastor Flávio's hermeneutical approach reflects, I suggest, “a negation of the materiality of the Black body” (Reddie 2008: 91). While Jorge ultimately concludes that experience and discernment are integral aspects of sexual ethics, Pastor Flávio does not seem to intimately incorporate the Brazilian context—or his Blackness—as fundamental aspects of his theological orientation. Together, their Black queer religious hermeneutics illustrate the potential outcomes that can occur for Black religious actors who strive to inhabit spaces that are oriented toward whiteness and heterosexuality. Even the inclusive theology of LGBTQ churches in Brazil may not be able to address the messy reality of a believer's positionality, especially that of a Black gay man who is a Christian. Instead of merely attempting to ‘poke holes’ in these Black gay men's theologies, my intent was to ascertain how they negotiated in spaces where sexual conservatism and racism are so readily manifested within them. Furthermore, their negotiations elucidate the possibilities of Black queer religious hermeneutics as an interpretive endeavor that can inadvertently reveal the inherent wonkiness of evangelical as well as other religious spaces—the evangelical table is always already wonky.

“You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son,” Genesis says of Hagar, “You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16:11–12). Like Ishmael, who was both an insider and outsider within his own family, Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals occupy a liminal space in Brazil as Afro-Brazilians and in Brazilian evangelicalism as queer believers. While I do not mean to imply that Afro-Brazilian LGBTQ evangelicals are a “wild donkey of a people,” their existence as racialized sexual and gender minorities in Brazil and their insistence on being recognized as evangelical, Pentecostal, or inclusive Christians results in their being in a constant theological, social, and cultural battle with those around them. Yet, like Ishmael, they persevere, carving out a space for themselves, making an appearance at the family table, and ultimately, queering Brazilian evangelicalism.

Acknowledgments

I thank the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund, a program of The Reed Foundation for their support of this research project. In addition, I extend my gratitude to Tracy Lemos, Katie Kilroy-Marac, Cassandra Hartblay, Christina Sargent, and Jessica Newman for their thoughtful commentary on various drafts of this article.

Notes

1

The acronym LGBTQ will be used throughout this article, as these sexual and gender categories are used by scholars, activists, and/or ‘everyday’ Brazilians (Facchini 2005; Grossi and Fernandes 2018). The ‘T’ can serve as the umbrella ‘trans’ term to include those who identity as transexual, transgender, or travesti (Massa 2018).

2

Walcott (2016) also has trenchant critiques of Black studies and its relationship, or lack thereof, with Black queer studies and Black queer populations in the Black diaspora.

3

I have conducted genealogical research on my maternal lineage.

4

In this article, I focus only on interlocutors who were members of the downtown CCNEI Church. However, I have also conducted ethnographic fieldwork at Cidade de Refúgio (City of Refuge) Church in the downtown neighborhood of Santa Cecília. City of Refuge was founded by a lesbian couple, Pastors Lanna Holder and Rosania Rocha, and in 2019 had eight satellite churches and approximately five thousand members. Currently, City of Refuge has 20 churches, including one in Lisbon, whereI conducted ethnographic fieldwork in 2022 and 2023. I have conducted 54 interviews with City of Refuge members and ministers.

5

Jorge is a pseudonym.

6

For discussion of evangelicalism as a global phenomenon, see Coleman and Hackett (2015); Hutchinson and Wolffe (2012); Robbins (2004).

7

For interdisciplinary approaches to the study of Pentecostalism in Brazil, see Caldeira (2011).

8

For recent analysis of the relationship between economic, political, and social inequality and ‘color’ and racial differences, see IBGE (2019). Depending on the situation, a pardo (official census category to identify someone with African and white European ancestry or Indigenous and white European ancestry) could be perceived as moreno (brown-skinned) or preto (official census category to identify someone as Black) (for more discussion of racial politics in Brazil, see Caldwell 2007). Therefore, to be inclusive and cognizant of this complexity, I will use ‘Afro-Brazilian’ to discuss broadly Brazilian people who are of African descent. I will also employ the word Black (negro), which is a social, cultural, and political category in Brazil (e.g., Black queer religious hermeneutics).

9

Other LGBTQ Christians in Brazil have gravitated toward the Metropolitan Community Church, a nondenominational Protestant church founded by LGBTQ Christians in the United States who were not accepted in mainline Protestant denominations (Maranhão Filho 2011, 2016; Natividade 2010; Soares 2019).

10

For the history of the CCNEI Church, see Ferreira and Santos (2015); Oliveira (2014); Santos (2022).

11

Pastor Justino noted that in general more women are congregants at CCNEI churches in the suburbs of São Paulo than at the downtown location because often they are unable to afford to live closer.

12

I specifically use ‘assume an LGBTQ identity’ because it is primarily LGBTQ activists who use phrases such as ‘coming out’ and ‘coming out of the closet’ (A. Allen 2015: 47–50).

13

The belief in an ‘inclusive theology’ is espoused by LGBTQ Christians throughout the world, including those who do not identify with evangelicalism or Pentecostalism (Shore and Goh 2020; Thatcher 2011). One of the most well-known proponents of inclusive theology is Reverend Yvette Flunder (2005), founder of the City of Refuge Church of the United Church of Christ.

14

For how CCNEI ministers and members and their colleagues interpret the Bible, inclusive theology, and Christianity, see Santos (2015).

15

For other LGBTQ Christians’ exegeses about the Bible and same-sex sexuality, see Helminiak (2000); Tabb (2017); Vines 2014.

16

Queer hermeneutical approaches to understanding sexuality in the Hebrew Bible (Stewart 2017), especially as discussed in Leviticus, at times contrast with historical analyses (Greenberg 2004; Hollenback 2017).

17

Scholars of the New Testament Davies (1995) and Townsley (2011) have considered the historical and ideological contexts of Paul's discussion of sexuality in the first chapter of Romans.

18

For a discussion of queer religious spaces, see Browne et al. (2010); Gorman-Murray and Nash (2014); Rodriguez (2020).

19

In ancient West Asia, the children of enslaved women could be designated legitimate heirs for a head of household (Peled 2019: 77–80).

20

While the relationship between evangelicalism and submission is often associated with women's subordination to male authority (Griffith 2000; Maddox 2013), the duty to submit and be obedient to God is also a significant aspect of evangelical theologies (Bloesch 1987; Reuschling 2005).

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Contributor Notes

ANDREA S. ALLEN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto. Email: as.allen@utoronto.ca | ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2532-199X

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  • Shore-Goss, Robert E., Thomas Bohache, Patrick S. Cheng, Mona West, Robert Everett Shore-Goss, Thomas Bohache, Patrick S. Cheng, and Mona West. 2013. Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians. Westport, CT: ABC-CLIO.

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