BISHOP YVETTE A. FLUNDER
LOVE IS A DO WORD!
A powerful, personal conversation with the preacher—twice-removed—who stepped out on faith and into history!
By Kevin E. Taylor
Bishop Yvette A. Flunder is a ferocious, fiery and focused preacher of the gospel of the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ. She’s spoken in the White House, from the steps of the Supreme Court and before a gathering of thousands at the 2017 Ministers March on Washington, marking the 54th anniversary of the day that Rev. Dr. King did the same. She is a theologian who doesn’t get stuck in theology, a woman who shows love by example and a change agent who has been in the fight of and for faith’s sake for more than 30 years. Raised in the patriarchy of the Pentecostal-praise infused Church of God in Christ, where she was a 3rd generation woman called to ministry. Flunder was asked to step aside, her first “removal,” so a male cousin could assume a leadership role, a request often made of women who were highly prepared for ministry but not often fully utilized in key roles. Steeped in the fight against HIV/AIDS in San Francisco as the virus was ravaging a nation, she fought for people to love themselves enough to shift their behaviors and work to save their lives. She soon left the work she was doing (her second powerful move) as Associate Pastor at the Hawkins Family-led Love Center to walk in her own truth—as a pastor and a same-gender loving woman–and she’s electrified thousands with her brand of preaching and protest that dares you to believe you can be powerful in God.
When I first laid eyes and ears on Bishop Flunder’s inimitable presence, I had gone to Rivers @ Rehoboth in Harlem, NYC, to support two people I had grown to love as friends but who had both moved into ministry. Rev. Joseph Tolton and Rev. Vanessa Brown were pastoring two different churches that they brought together and that brought them to the works of Bishop Flunder, who now oversees the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. Bishop Flunder pastors the Bay Area-based City of Refuge, which she has done for decades, while traveling the globe, speaking the gospel and speaking truth to power. Something about her aura, her light, her touch lifted me and allowed the big man of God in me to lay down some burdens and blames that come along with the work and the weight of ministry, especially to communities of people used to and often expecting trauma, drama and strife. When we speak, Bishop Yvette is spent but not tired, having ended a full day of pastoring on the personal level that must sit with family’s in loss and do so without looking at your watch. But she is emboldened by the conversation and a shared prayer for reinvigoration. She is a peacemaker in the midst of storms and for a lifetime of service, sacrifice and social justice, she had to adorn our cover for this Affirming Faith issue.
SWERV: What was the simple work of building a church, from the ground up, with the new understanding of your truth as a woman in ministry and as a same-gender-loving person?
(After leaving the Pentecostal Church, Flunder floundered, looking for a way to be used but not working through a church or a ministry. She was a free-spirit, giving back to the community in every way she could, but not really thinking about serving again)
Bishop Flunder: I got a phone call from one of the leaders at The Love Center (pastored by Bishop Walter Hawkins, the renowned gospel icon whose recordings changed the sound of gospel music) and they asked if I would come and speak for the church. Then, I hung up the phone and I was furious at myself when I didn’t even know where my Bible was. I had rolled myself a joint and poured myself a glass of wine. I was fixin’ to “expand my mind.” I wondered ‘what am I going to preach?!’ It had been so long since I’d been in that place…and God gave me a Word. From the 1st Chapter of the Book of Revelation, where John was chained to a rock on The Isle of Patmos. You can be on the island, in prison and still be in the Spirit, even while you are still chained to some of the things that have you bound. I WAS ABLE TO PREACH MY OWN SELF FREE! I was able to reconcile my spiritual self and my reality, and that those two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Being me was going to be the location of my ministry. I couldn’t understand how it was going to happen but I knew that God meant business, and didn’t intend to use me IN SPITE OF but because I was a same gender-loving person.
After a couple or 2-3 years, I became Associate Pastor. I was preaching and singing with the Hawkins Family (Bishop Flunder is the featured lead singer on the mega-hit “Thank You Lord”). Then it dawned on me, the LGBT people were not being fully affirmed. We didn’t do weddings for gay people. We preached a radically inclusive gospel with what I call The Wrong List. We would say that the Grace of God was broad enough to receive anyone, no matter who you are—ax murderer or a convict, gay or lesbian. I said “HOLD UP!” We belong on the list with Black or White, not on this list of things people do wrong. I was taught at Love Center that straight people are fragile and so we had to dumb down our salvation so that straight people wouldn’t get offended. If we free the gay people, the straight people can’t take it, just like I heard with the men in my first church.
And then I heard God say “I CALLED YOU!” I woke up in the night and I heard the words “CITY OF REFUGE.” Shirley (Miller, the lead vocalist on the gospel classic “Oh Happy Day”) and I were dating but we had not become a couple and I went to her place and I told her that God was calling me to pastor. And I asked her if she would come with me. She asked for time to pray (the Hawkins Family were her first cousins) and she took a few weeks, and she came back with a “YES.” That was the genesis of City of Refuge.
SWERV: So given the place that you and Shirley held both in the church and in the pantheon of gospel music history, was being together a blessing, a weight, a curse or a non-issue? You walked out and took gospel iconography with you!
BF: It was problematic! People got mad at us. Our family members got mad at us and wondered why we couldn’t just do it like everybody else had done it. Just take a chill pill and cut that foolishness out of trying to be…. Everybody else was fine and they were doing great so why did you have to SAY SO MUCH!? Why did you have to admit it? I have to say it in order for people like me to know that GOD LOVES ALL, that they are PART OF THE ALL; otherwise people don’t know if they are included or not.
SWERV: How did you take on HIV/AIDS when people were saying – “BE QUIET,” including some of the people who fell sick?
BF: GAY FOLKS GOT MAD AT US! They got hostile mad at me. “We don’t want to talk about AIDS.” I had more pushback from the gay community than from straight folks. Straight folks in church had basically decided it was God’s heavy-hand against gay people. Gay folks didn’t really want to talk about it because it meant a shift in behavior. To be gay, there was a certain level of titillation to be in a room, sitting next to someone you were with last night, and hold the secret and act like you don’t know who they are. Something about that is really powerful. We have so much of that in the church culture. Countless people across many denominations who had boys and girls, there were drunks, and bad habits. And what made it juicy is that they were able to get next to these people and do what they wanted, and still be on the downlow. The downlow was just too juicy. That would keep them from living in the dichotomy of keeping the culture of the church and living the lives that they wanted without the two ever having to meet and mingle. They could still sleep with who they wanted because they all held the secret and maintained the culture.
As long as you can tolerate your pastor preaching sermons against the gays. And he would say directly to you “YOU KNOW I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT YOU” and you hold the secret and the power because you know what he does WITH YOU! But I have to say this or the people will think that I’m gay OR they will find out about us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. You know Pastor Kevin, it’s tribal. We lead many churches the way a chief leads his tribe and people have a particular adoration for their leader. And there’s not too huge of a leap to feel honored to feel so enamored by the chief that you feel honored to offer him your body.
SWERV: It’s the ultimate tithe!
BF: YES! And there’s something HOLY about it. The Catholic Priest played with that for a long time! And the reason I raise that up is that when I began talking about HIV and behavior, it got me in trouble. This thing is going to kill you if you don’t protect yourself, with all your Jesus and all of your God. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care that you are James Cleveland. It’s an equal opportunity virus!
The first time I went to the GMWA (Gospel Music Workshop of America), they put me back in a corner and a few people would come and talk to me but not a lot and they would watch to see who was watching us. But I put a fishbowl on a table outside of my room at night. I filled it up to the very top and I came back the next day and there was a dead fly down in the bottom of that bowl!
I have 149 obituaries in my personal files from those days. It had something to do with the titillation of the closet and the dichotomy of what he preaches in the pulpit and what he lives in the sheets. It’s about living in the full truth of who we really are and human beings really need to understand what it means to be a human being and stop living lives with so many weighted rules and regulations. Let’s find the law of love and let’s lay that law over everything we do and let’s begin to heal.
SWERV: The truth of being able to live and lead with some real spiritual, moral and human authority includes standing on this–I am affirming of WHO YOU ARE to the point that I hold you accountable for it! I love you and I’m here to help you love you.
BF: Yes, Honey. That’s right baby! My grandmother used to say “Yvette, love is a DO word!”
SWERV: Come on!
BF: It’s not just a SAY word or a FEEL word. LOVE IS A DO WORD! It’s the truth. It’s absolutely the truth. My favorite scripture is GALATIANS 5:1 IT IS FOR FREEDOM THAT CHRIST HAS MADE US FREE. We are freed FROM something TO something! We are made free for freedom and not bondage. What does that mean? How do we interpret? And the next passage says “SO BE NOT ENTANGLED WITH THE YOLK OF BONDAGE!” Don’t just move from one bondage to another. If you get FREE, then BE FREE! Don’t be bound up by something else. That’s one of the reasons we had those conversations around HIV and then other things and before we knew it, we had pastors around the country and around the world that wanted to align with our ministry. And I’m really enjoying what’s happening on the continent of Africa where people can be killed but they are building their churches and going on! They will keep going until the lights come on and somebody’s momma or auntie will rise up with them and things will shift and change in time. This is their Pettus Bridge!
SWERV: How does it feel to be a pioneering leader as a woman of conviction in this day and age?
BF: I never pursued this.
SWERV: There was nothing in the guide book to push you to pursue this. Everything you heard along the way said PLAY SMALL and STAY THERE!
BF: No role models for that! I really do realize something that Malidoma Patrice Some’ said “We don’t have to seek what the divine has called us to; it will seek us.” The work is not in finding the will of God in your life. The work is remembering. We come here, essentially, on assignment. The problem is that life shows up and people show up and detour us from our assignment.
I thought after 35 years or so I was ready to prepare a succession plan. We didn’t know that 45 (her reference to the 45th President Donald J. Trump) was coming and now I am having to go back and pull up some of those old, tried, true and triumphant lessons for the next situation we are called to manage and I am called to share them. If we didn’t have something to pull on, we could despair, but we have something to pull on! In my old Pentecostal church, we would sing “I’VE SEEN GOD DO IT AND I KNOW IT’S WORKING OUT FOR ME!” It’s getting ready to happen!
SWERV: Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Ministers March on Washington and Rev. Jamal Bryant’s open apology to the LGBTQ community. (Pastor Bryant was the opposing voice just two years ago when I and a few affirming faith leaders were featured on VH1’s Out In Hip Hop special).
BF: You know, often, we give so much energy to praying for a thing that it becomes a ministry itself. Now, if it actually comes to pass, we aren’t ready. It’s like we’re trying to develop a cure for HIV and if we develop a cure, then all those working in HIV won’t have any jobs. My question is how badly do they really want it. When we are out there talking to people about rabid homophobia, that’s window dressing to make them appear to be more manly and more attractive. The truth is, that kind of talk makes you weak! It is because you are insecure, not secure. And it dawns on them that they don’t like to feel like that. When they change, then they are suspect! But what did you pray for? We’ve got to welcome them into the fold and KEEP ON PRAYING! Jamal needs us and that’s part of the reality!
People ask me often who wears the pants between me and Shirley and I say we both have an adequate supply of pants, but we have a wonderful wardrobe of skirts and dresses too! We are not made free to then re-stereotype. Why would we do that? If the determining principle is LOVE, then that means I will do no harm. I will not hurt you. IF THE WORLD COULD JUST GET FREE!
Learn more about Bishop Flunder and the City of Refuge United Church of Christ at @CityOfRefugeUCC.org