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If there’s one thing Rainey Cheeks knows how to do — and do exceptionally well — it’s to engage with a story.
And he has tons upon tons of stories to tell. Stories about his years managing the popular African-American nightspot The ClubHouse from its opening in 1975 to its closing in 1990. Stories about his years mastering the martial arts, culminating last April with his induction into the Tae Kwon Do Hall of Fame. Stories about founding the holistic-health-centered Us Helping Us. Stories about his 22-year-long battle with HIV/AIDS — a battle he is currently winning. Stories about the horrible, fateful day Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks is filled with stories — and each is recounted with the same degree of measured self-awe and majesty. He regales, inspires and instructs, in the way only a man of God can.
If Bishop Cheeks is sermonizing, it’s certainly deftly disguised. Fueled by a good-natured, passionate personality, he reaches in and grabs hold of the listener, offering viewpoints both sensible and intellectually challenging. He stirs up the mind and fuels the soul, questioning absolutely everything.
”I was raised Roman Catholic,” he says, recalling the fact that it was a Roman Catholic priest who told a young Albert Rainier Cheeks, ”One day you’ll be a priest.” ”I almost fell out laughing,” says Cheeks. ”I was like, ‘Oh, God would never put up with that.”’
God has more than put up with Bishop Cheeks. He has shepherded him, leading him in 2002 to split from the Unity Fellowship Church and form his own Inner Light Ministries. The small but growing inclusive congregation is ”interdenominational,” says Cheeks, ”because we have people who come from many different faiths. I call it Christ-centered, but we look at everything. That’s how you grow in truth.
”Anybody is welcome to join my church,” he continues. ”I’ll tell you the truth — I don’t know what the sexuality of anybody is, I never slept with any of them. The door is open. If you want to come in you will find a loving, embracing community.”
Cheeks, who at this Sunday’s 11 a.m. Inner Light Ministries service will present a sermon on ”Homosexuality and the Bible,” turns 56 on March 20. He kicks off his birthday a month early, as he has done since his days growing up in Northeast Washington.
”If you don’t honor you, why should anyone else honor you?” he smiles broadly. ”People go, ‘Oh, it’s just my birthday.’ No. That’s the day you came to earth. That’s the day of your existence.”
To his friends and followers, the existence of Rainey Cheeks has been a godsend. He is, within the African-American community, within the GLBT community, a potent and persuasive guiding light.
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s begin with your early life.
BISHOP KWABENA RAINEY CHEEKS: I’m a Washingtonian, born and raised here. Grew up in Northeast. My mother and father separated when I was about 10. I have two older sisters, three younger brothers — it was a big family. I had a ball growing up, but I was a rebel.
MW: In what way?
CHEEKS: I’ll give you an example. When I was in the sixth grade a teacher said to us one day, ”Everybody’s on punishment. Don’t leave out this door.” So when she walked out the room, I opened a window and jumped out. Went to lunch and later walked right in the front door [of the classroom], went to my desk and sat down. She said, ”Didn’t I tell you not to leave out this door?” I said, ”I didn’t. Ask anybody in the class.” And they were like, ”He jumped out the window.” And I said, ”You didn’t say, ‘Don’t leave the room.’ You said, ‘Don’t go out this door.”’
MW: When did you come out?
CHEEKS: I knew I was gay early, early on. I went to my mother, Omie, when I was about 17. I was prepared for her to say ”Get out.” So I go to her — ”Mama, you know I love you. I have something I need to say.” ”What is it?” ”I’m a homosexual.” And my mother stared at me and said, ”Boy, what is the problem?” And I’m thinking, does she understand what the word means? ”I’m gay.” She looked at me and said, ”What is the problem? What are you trying to tell me?” ”I like boys.” My mother said, ”I knew that when you were born. Now, what is the issue? You’re my child, I love you. Don’t do anything crazy.” I walked away from her totally perplexed going, ”What the hell just happened?” [Laughs.] But after that point, I could care less who knew. Once I was cool with my mother, the rest of the world could jump. It gave me my strength to take on all kind of fights and battles.
MW: Did you tell your father?
MW: No relationship with your father?
CHEEKS: My father was an abusive man to me. I didn’t understand why until years later. I had to live with my father for a few years. Sometimes he would come in, laughing and joking and the next minute it would be a punch in the chest or something. So I was confused. How to deal with this man? I like him, he’s my father, but at the same time, he never hit my other brothers, he hit me. One day somebody said to me, ”Boy, the older you get the more you look like your father.” And I surely didn’t want to hear that. But it registered. He wasn’t hitting me, he was hitting himself. He’s beating himself up.
I was about 13 years old when I decided he wasn’t going to hit me anymore. I was sitting watching TV and he walked in from work. When he raised his hand back to swing at me, I jumped off the couch and fought back. I was like, ”You will never hit me again.” I think I stunned him more than hurt him. And I got out and ran to my mother’s. She was like, ”Why are you here?” I said, ”Daddy beat me up again, I fought him back — and won. He is on the way.” My mother said, ”Go upstairs.” I heard my father coming and I thought, ”What is she going to do?” My mother was just as calm. He got to the door and my mother said, ”If you open that door, I’ll be the last living thing you see. You will never hit my child again.” And I was standing at the top of the stairs going, ”Open the door! Open the door!” [Laughs.] So I got my strength from my mother. My mother was like ”Fight back, never let anything stop you.”
MW: You took up martial arts and did exceptionally well.
CHEEKS: I started training in martial arts when I was 14. I won the nationals as a brown belt. By the time I was 16 I had made black belt. I went on to be on the first U.S. team that went to the world championships in ’73. I won the silver and bronze medals and was rated in the top 10 in the country.
MW: How much of your martial arts experience informed the greater picture of the man you became?
CHEEKS: Major. Major. I was training in the gym when Dr. King was killed. I was 15. They stopped the class. They said, ”Everybody go home. Martin Luther King has just been killed.” My teacher said, ”All men help the women. Make sure they are safe.” So we made sure that the women got out the building, got in their cars and then we walked through the neighborhood and made sure any women who were walking got home safe.
I remember standing at the corner of 12th and T and it was like ”This cannot be true.” I’m watching buildings burn and the riots in motion and I’m jumping in front of buses stopping the bus so that people could get on and I’m thinking, ”Okay, I need to get home and check on my family.” I remember getting home, saying, ”Is everybody here?” And my mother said, ”Yes.” I was getting ready to go out the door and my mother said, ”Where are you going?” And I said, ”I gotta go back out. There’s still some people I need to help to get home.” My mother said, ”Not this time.” This was the first time I remember my mother saying ”no” to me. And I said, ”Stuff is happening.” My mother said, ”If you go out, you won’t come back. No.” And that’s when the National Guard was coming and they were shutting down the city. I was so angry — I didn’t know what to do with the anger. I was watching TV and was like I’ve got to be able to do something, you know? So even martial arts at that time had trained me to protect, to be there for people. But the activist part of me came out of that experience.
I could never understand why would someone hate me because of the color of my skin. It never made sense to me. Often my mother would look at me and say, ”You are good enough.” And she just pressed that. So you get that one side of you being told you are good enough, be proud of who you are. And then you go other places and you’re being called a ”boy.” I’ll never forget when I was 16, a policeman stopped me and called me a ”nigger.” And I said, ”I think you need to get some help.” And he called on his radio: ”Officer in trouble.” And the police came and they put me in the street face down, knee in the back. I’m like, ”This is crazy.” I know some people my age who still have a lot of anger because of those experiences. I say, ”Don’t let that define who you are. Free yourself. Do not allow that to take you. Free yourself.”
MW: Does it make sense to you that somebody hates you because of your sexuality?
CHEEKS: Doesn’t make any sense to me, either. I always say, ”When I have an orgasm and you feel it, we need to talk. That’s the only time you need to be concerned about who I sleep with.” [Laughs.] You don’t have the power of Heaven or Hell to put me in, so how can you judge me? I am a child of God and God made me and I don’t have to answer to anybody. Anybody growing up goes through that struggle: Is it right? Is it wrong? And early in, I just said, ”God, if this is wrong, then do something about it. But I know I am attracted to men and I hear what the church is saying. This isn’t working for me. And I can never lie because if I lied, you’d know the truth anyway.” [I realized] it was okay with the God of my understanding. I always tell people if your God cannot make someone gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, let me introduce you to a bigger God. I know one who can.
MW: There are some who say the gay civil-rights movement is not the same as the African-American civil-rights movement, that the two should not be compared.
CHEEKS: You know, that for me is like splitting hairs. As an African-American gay man, I cannot separate my sexuality and my race and culture. When I walk in the door, it all walks in the door. So, when you say civil rights, I walk in the door. Gay rights, I walk in the door. I can’t separate those.
The object is how do we free everybody? How do we create a culture that is accepting to everybody? I don’t ask you to agree with me, I ask you to give me the space so that I can exist in a healthy way. I don’t agree with everything in the gay community. But what I have learned to do is stand back. If it’s not right, it won’t last long. It’ll dwindle, it’ll fall away. So I always pray to God before I join anything: ”God, is this something I should be giving my energy to? Is your blessing on this?” If it is, I jump right into it. If it’s not and if I don’t understand it, I don’t attack you, I simply stand neutral and watch because it’s not in my path. If you’re building something and I don’t quite understand it, I don’t have to attack it.
That’s one of the things I’ve fought very, very hard for. I talk to some of the other ministers about that — that we have to learn how to support each other and if somebody is doing something that you don’t agree with, you don’t attack it. We have enough of that. We have enough people attacking us. We don’t need to attack each other. So I don’t understand when gay folks — white and black, male and female and transgender — attack each other. That means those folks who don’t want us to succeed simply go, ”I don’t have to do very much. They’ll kill each other in a minute.”
It is hard sometimes even for me to grasp just how far we’ve come. To be an openly gay man preacher. I had a minister once say to me, ”Rainey, just hear what I have to say. If you were to cut your hair and if you didn’t wear the African clothes all the time and don’t say that you’re gay, you could go a lot further.” I said, ”Oh, really. And are my locks making the anointing slide off? And who am I preaching to in a suit and tie that I’m not preaching to now? How far am I supposed to go? I refuse to play by your rules.” This is called Liberation Theology. I fight for the rights of everybody. I fight for justice everywhere. If you were walking down the street and somebody attacked you, I have got to jump in the fight. Freedom is that important to me. If everybody is not free, nobody is free. I cannot be quiet.
MW: Are you a Barack Obama supporter?
CHEEKS: Yes, I am. I have some friends who are Clinton fans. And I say ”Go for it.” Again, think about this. We are in an era that we have a female and an African American who can honestly win to become president of the United States. I love it when people go, ”Oh, I’m not looking at her gender, I’m not looking at his race.” That’s a lie. That is a lie. When people say to me, ”I don’t look at you as an African American,” I say, ”That’s an insult. I am 6 feet tall, I am 225 pounds, I have locks down past my shoulders and you don’t see an African-American man? I must be doing something wrong.”
So let’s acknowledge she’s a female. Let’s acknowledge he’s an African American. On top of that, they are qualified. Barack is talking about doing something new. Think of this: Hillary Jones — we wouldn’t know who the heck she is. People are voting for her because they’re voting for Bill Clinton. When she says, ”I’ve been there,” I say, ”No, you weren’t in the White House. You weren’t making any decisions.”
Now, I think she is a brilliant woman. The country is ready now to accept that they can possibly have a female brilliant enough to run the country. And I give her credit for that. I just like the way Barack is going.
MW: Recently there was controversy at the Mount Calvalry Baptist Church, as an anonymous member outed everyone he or she perceived to be gay in the choir. This is already a church with a minister prone to homophobic rants, Bishop Alfred Owens. What is your take on the situation?
CHEEKS: It’s hard in one way because I know a lot of [gay] people who go to Calvary. But it perplexes me as to what keeps them there. It has a good ministry, the service is a Pentecostal service so there’s good music. I was talking to a friend the other day and he said ”Well, you know, Rainey, it’s not that easy for some people to leave.” And I said, ”What do you mean? Just get up and walk out the door.” I said, ”That’s true internalized oppression, and people who stay there, well, it’s like having a bunch of doo-doo in the middle of the room and you dress it up and call it art. It’s doo-doo. Call it what it is.” If you follow something and it stinks, call it what it is.
It tears at me to know that I have friends who go there and say that they are okay with the church. And then you have things like this that happen. And whoever this person is, did not have enough courage to sign their name to it. So if you say you’re doing this because you really have a problem with the church and you’re willing to out everybody, why didn’t you have enough courage to sign your name? If you want to call me a name, at least look me in the face and call me the name. So you’ve outed some of these people who have done nothing to you.
I know it puts Bishop Owens in a strange place because he’s done so much gay bashing, it allows everybody under him to gay bash, so what can he say? I’ve told everybody in our church, ”Keep that church in prayer.” But I love my freedom so much I tell people that if I had to climb a tree and pray by myself, that is what I would do before I come under any form of oppression. And that’s why I give my members the right to question me.
MW: Do you think of yourself as an inspirational person?
CHEEKS: I try to be. I will be your biggest cheerleader. I believe that’s my calling, even in ministry. My mother said something to me one time. She said, ”Don’t ever tell me you can’t do it. And if it hasn’t been done, be the first one to do it.” And I was like ”Whoa!” So I know that one of my gifts is to inspire people. And I try to live that every day, even when I go through difficult times, I don’t hide, I still hold my dignity. My partner died four years ago. His name was Rodney Taylor. And I said to everybody at church around me, ”I am in a place of mourning. I loved him. And if I feel like crying, I’m going to cry in front of you. If you can’t handle it, you need to move away from me, but I’m not going to hide crying.”
We hide who we are, we hide our feelings. I don’t hide it. If I died right now, there’s no one I need to say ”I love you.” I will call people just because and say, ”I love you. I need you to know that.” I try to live my life with no regrets. And it’s why I do what I do.
When I teach, I draw a circle and write the word ”God” in the middle. We all sit at this round table and we have direct access to God. Even me as your pastor, I am not in between you and God. I am only giving techniques and trying to guide you how to get there. I’m the cheerleader going, ”I know you just got knocked down. Come on, get up! Round Two! Ring the bell!” That’s my job as the pastor, the cheerleader to inspire you.
MW: What’s an example of an inspirational message you impart to people?
CHEEKS: Crystal glass or paper cup — I say God always gives you a choice. If you don’t understand the value of a crystal glass you’ll always settle for a paper cup. So in one of my speeches I say, ”Have you ever seen a 220-pound black diamond? You’re looking at him. Can you afford me?” And that means I honor me.
So fall in love with yourself. People know how to fall in love with everybody else, but do they know how to love themselves? Because you can’t give away what you don’t have. The second part of the Commandments says, ”Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The key is ”as you love yourself.” At church we greet each other by saying, ”I see the God in you.” I tell my members all the time, when you get up in the morning, look in the mirror, look at your own face and say, ”I see the God in me.” Look in your own face. You’re made in the image and likeness of God. You are a child of God. Honor that. And then carry yourself that way. That’s why I dress the way I do. I honor who I am.
MW: You think your mother would have been proud of you?
CHEEKS: You know, I hope so. My mother never heard me preach. But I think she would be proud of me, you know? I try to live my life in the way that, when the last breath leaves my body and I see her again, she will say to me, ”Good job. Good job.”
Bishop Rainey Cheeks will speak on ”Homosexuality and the Bible,” this Sunday, Feb. 24, at Inner Light Ministries, 908 H St. NE, at 11 a.m. Services are open to all. For more information, call 202-332-7750 or visit www.innerlightministries-dc.org.