Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who is gay, was among the speakers at today’s televised Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Lesser is a social justice activist and leader of Congregation Bet Haverim, a gay-founded Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta. He may be the first openly gay speaker at the Ebenezer service, according to friend Glen Paul Freedman, also a longtime gay activist in Atlanta.
Lesser gave a scriptural reading from the Biblical book of Isaiah.
"It’s a passage that basically says religious or political practice without embodying it is meaningless," Lesser said in an interview this afternoon. "More than ritual, what God wants is challenging oppression, not exploiting other people, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and standing for justice."
Gay rabbi: Speaking at MLK Commemorative Service was ‘an honor,’ but ‘not easy’
This year marks 25 years of the King Day national holiday. Ebenezer Baptist Church was King’s congregation, and the annual commemorative service routinely draws national and local political leaders.
Organizers of the event invite a rabbi to read from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, as part of the scriptural readings that open the service, Lesser said. He was selected this year by Kim Goodfriend, the daughter of Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, who gave the reading for years but passed away in 2009.
Lesser said his participation was limited to reading the scripture, so he did not get to specifically address LGBT issues. He did, however, wear a pink yarmulke to the service.
Gay issues were referenced at least three times during the lengthy service, to mixed reactions, Lesser recalled.
Although audience members clapped frequently during the service, when a speaker mentioned sexual orientation in a litany of issues, the church was mostly silent.
“I was the only person clapping on the dais, but I was like, this is my amen moment,” Lesser said. “I wasn’t going to not clap, when everyone was clapping for what moved them.”
The keynote speaker at the service was Martin Luther King III, King’s son. Lesser said King’s speech included the need to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, to a similar lack of response.
Lesser said he also heard someone yell out “but not gay marriage” after a reference to gay equality.
“My friend who came with me said he didn’t hear it, but I heard it pretty clearly,” Lesser said.
In a less inclusive moment, Lesser recalled how another speaker, Rev. Willie Bolden, described how he first met Martin Luther King Jr. at a pool hall in Savannah, then came to Atlanta to hear the civil rights leader speak.
“And folks, I felt something that a man should never feel for another man,” Bolden said, according to Lesser.
“That got this big hoot and laughter and clapping, and that was unfortunate,” Lesser said.
Still, Lesser’s participation in the commemorative service was a far cry from 2009, when the keynote speaker was Rev. Rick Warren, a mega-church pastor who supported Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned gay marriage in California.
LGBT activists protested outside that service, which took place the day before Warren gave a prayer at President Barack Obama’s inauguration that also angered many gay rights supporters.
“It was an honor to be there and I don’t want to take that lightly,” Lesser said of his experience today. “At the same time, it was not easy to be there.
“I was one of the people who protested two years ago outside,” he said. “I am someone who has said very strongly that we have to walk into places that we are not fully welcome, and today I was welcome, but not fully welcome. We have to inhabit that space with as much integrity as possible.”
Political leaders speaking at this year’s MLK service include U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Sen Johnny Isakson, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal.
Conservatives like Isakson and Deal likely also did not agree with all of the remarks from the stage, Lesser noted.
“If Nathan Deal and Johnny Isakson can stand there and be uncomfortable for a very different reason, then I can do that too,” he said.
The rabbi noted that he has worked for many of the social justice issues that were referenced from the stage, including healthcare, the need for a living wage, and affordable housing.
“The truth is that 90 percent of what was said, I am 100 percent on board with,” Lesser said. “So I am interested in trying to bridge that 10 percent, and if I or someone else is not there, that is not going to happen. You just have to keep showing up and develop those relationships.”
Overall, Lesser said, his experience was positive, and he was left with the message that “we still have a lot of work to do as LGBT folks to build some of these bridges.”
He also described his experience in real time via Twitter and on his Facebook page, noting that he stood next to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), hugged Rev. Bernice King, and greeted Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who was inaugurated last week.
“’Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter,’” Lesser wrote on his Facebook page, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Today I have the honor of participating at the MLK Jr. Day service at Ebenezer Baptist church. Let’s pray for the soul of our country,” Lesser wrote.