A little while ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Pastor Shanea Leonard of Judah Fellowship to discuss church hurt, intersectionality, community building outside the City, and everything that she’s been working on in and around Pittsburgh. The Judah Fellowship Christian Church is ‘a different church for a diverse people’. It strives to be a welcoming, supportive, and safe space for anyone interested in the faith, including the LGBTQIA+ community.
A.S: First, how long have you been involved with the Judah Fellowship and how long have you been in Pittsburgh?
Leonard: This is my 20th year in Pittsburgh. I’ve been here since 1997. I came to Pitt, that’s when I started my life in Pittsburgh. The Judah Fellowship is 5 ½ years old, but it’s something where I feel like it’s always been with me, and I’ve always had dreams and visions and ideas about what Judah would look like long before I even knew that I would end up in Pittsburgh. So Judah Fellowship itself, inside of me it’s old but in reality, in concept, coming to fruition, it’s 5 ½ years old. That’s such a long answer! I talk a lot, I’m sorry.
A.S.: When do you remember coming up with the concept for the Judah Fellowship?
Leonard: So I remember being like 14/15 years old in my parents’ church growing up and other kids were passing notes and goofing around in church. I can remember drawing on the bulletins, like concepts about Judah and the ministries, what it would do and how we would help people, and drawing pictures of that and what I wanted the church to look like. So I was 14 or 15 years old and I was doing that then, so it’s always been in me to do something different than church as usual.
A.S.: What’s your favorite thing about being a pastor at the Judah Fellowship?
Leonard: My favorite thing about being a pastor at Judah is the people. I think Judah is not a congregation, it’s a family. And my hope and goal is always that when you come in the door, you feel like you’re at home, and you feel connected to something. Not just an entity but a body that cares about you and wants the best for you and prays for you and generally doesn’t wish you any harm or any ill will. And celebrates you for all you are and doesn’t care about what you’re not.
A.S.: What’s your experience been like reaching out to people in the suburbs or rural areas outside of Pittsburgh?
Leonard: I think there’s privilege that we don’t recognize, being in Pittsburgh. Other than the normal privileges we talk about all the time. Being in Western Pennsylvania’s largest city, we talk about intersectionality and queerness very freely, where other places don’t. And we have the privilege to talk about it that way. What I’ve found is that other places like Butler and Washington and Westmoreland County, that it is not even number one or two or three on their list of priorities…it’s like “Where am I going to get a job?” “How am I gonna live?”, that’s more important than this whole business about gathering and organizing. Even though it is important to some people, I’ve found that in places like Greensburg, Westmoreland County, it’s usually the elite people like people who got a couple dollars, who are middle to upper class, that care about organizing. Then in places like Washington I’ve found that it’s about survival, mentally and emotionally. But then, in Butler, you can’t organize two people for anything! Like if it’s not a party, they’ll come out for that on the low, but other than that, it’s hard because that’s not what’s important, that’s not number one and to do it would sometimes mean jeopardizing my job and my life. Because remember, they don’t have any protections. And there’s no statewide protection. So a lot of people live undercover because of necessity. So that’s been my experience around the outlying areas of Pittsburgh.
A.S.: Right, it’s even a privilege to think about community-building.
Leonard: Yeah! To have a conversation like this, out in a place like this, and talk freely? Not everybody has that, even in this state.
A.S.: So do a lot of your parishioners come from outside the city or is it mostly from inside of Pittsburgh?
Leonard: All across Pittsburgh. As far away as Castle Shannon, to Homestead, to Turtle Creek. We have three or four people from the North Side, South Side… everywhere. Judah is not a neighborhood church. That’s not what we are.
A.S.: So some of our readers are still interested in religion and want to be involved in it. Personally, I grew up in a Catholic church in Washington County, and I got why people wanted to be there. It was a great community and my friends were involved, it was a beautiful church. But as I got older I started becoming more aware of my sexuality and felt like I didn’t belong, and ended up leaving. So what would you say to people like me to encourage them to revisit faith?
Leonard: I think faith is an individual journey. I myself have been kicked out of church and know what it’s like to have hurt from false teaching and false doctrine. I think it’s important to be truth-seekers and not just accept, sometimes. Because I think a lot of us were told lies. And not just lies but…so if I tell you something and I tell you it’s true and then you pass that down to your kids and they believe it’s true because it came from you, and so on…a lot of us have gotten that generational bullshit. And it’s been accepted as truth. And it’s not. When you really study for yourself, you see that faith within itself is a beautiful thing. Religion is a manmade thing, and they are two different things. And I make that very clear. Faith is a beautiful connection I have with a divine being that lives in me and lives in the world. And I can see in you and I can see in nature, but it’s a god who is with us. And my faith is about my connection to that god, and that god’s connection to me, and how that god speaks to me. That has nothing to do with a systematic oppression that sometimes looks like religion. And I don’t think every other church in the city is talking like that, but Judah’s talking like that. So I would encourage [people] to look at faith again, not as propaganda, but as a part of us. I think it’s something innate in us that seeks to connect to something greater than ourselves. And that’s what faith provides. It’s a base need, like: food, water, shelter, clothing, faith. I think it’s a part of that.
A.S.: What is your experience with other faith leaders in Pittsburgh?
Leonard: [Laughs] The good, the bad, or the ugly? I have all three.
A.S.: Maybe one example of each.
Leonard: Let’s start with the ugly and work our way up. Like I said, I’ve been kicked out of a church. And I know what it’s like to have church hurt. And that happened in this city. So there are places here that reject inclusivity, that reject what intersectionality really looks like, because when you talk about it for real it’s about more than just race. It’s about gender, it’s about sexuality, it’s about gender expression, it’s about all of these things. And so there are churches and faith communities, not just churches, faith communities, Islamic, Jewish, whatever the case might be, that reject that. I feel like Judah stands as not just the polar opposite but in resistance to the bullshit. I cuss a lot too, I’m sorry!
A.S.: I love it!
Leonard: I’m just gonna be real. I gotta be real with real people.
The bad…Recently I was connected to the Fight For 15 folks, and connected to Dr. Marbur, who’s been doing great work across the country. And I went down to Virginia and had that conversation with other faith leaders, and there were faith leaders even in the room and even from this city who could not agree with him or could not walk with him when he talked about the moral agenda being a fight for all disenfranchised and marginalized people, not just about race, even though that’s important, but about sexuality as well. And I call that the bad and not the ugly because these are people who are not necessarily making a public fight against [queer people] but these are people who are speaking against [queer people] in their pulpits or these are the people who are…I think ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ is just hurtful as telling me I’m going to hell. People who don’t recognize and uplift [queer] unions. These people kind of live in this quietness of bigotry. It’s very rampant in this city, that’s probably 90% if not more of the faith communities in this city.
And then there’s the good though, right? So I’m also the moderator of the Pittsburgh Clergy Consortium, which is a cohort of affirming faith leaders. Some of those faith leaders are Christian, some are Jewish, some of them come with their congregations knowing and fully blessing it, some of them cannot represent their congregations because their congregations aren’t inclusive, but they are. I’m the only out pastor that’s female in the city, really. In the city and in Western Pennsylvania. A lot of churches that are inclusive are, frankly, run by straight white men. And so nobody looks like me. There’s no black man that pastors any inclusive church in this city. Not one. And a gazillion churches in this city are pastored by black men. What does that tell you right there? So that makes it a unique and difficult place for me to be in, every day. When you talk about other faith leaders and other churches, I find myself alone. But yet, when I look for community of other affirming faith leaders, it’s most times not with people that look like me. At all. So that’s an interesting place to be in too. Especially when you talk about intersectionality conversations.
A.S.: Yeah, in my experience, a lot of “queer inclusive” churches are led by white men. How important is it to the mission of Judah that you live at the intersection of a queer, black woman?
Leonard: I think it’s extremely important. I think that the church hurt and trauma I experienced was like the worst thing that ever happened to me when I went through it, like the darkest period of my life. But I’m thankful for it now because it pushed me to a place where I couldn’t be in the closet if I wanted to. I couldn’t be on the low if I wanted to at this point! I’m on the freakin’ mayor’s LGBT advisory council. There is no going back. And I’m not looking to go back. Because I think my very presence in some places causes people to have to deal with these issues and I’m ok with being that person. For Judah, we have so many people who have come hurt, you know what I mean? And not just gay folk, all kinds of people. Straight folk, pan folk, bi folk, whatever…just been hurt by church. When we first started we had single parents who didn’t feel comfortable in church because someone said they kids was too loud. We got divorced people. We got all kinds of people. People on their journeys. We have somebody that’s Christian and Buddhist! I ain’t rejecting you, come on! Like, it’s not about that. So I think for me to stand as the leader in a position that champions intersectionality, champions justice, it’s the only position I could have.
I couldn’t be quiet because not only is it about my freedom and me getting free, it’s about me helping everybody else to get free. We’ve gotten hate mail, we have people saying I’m leading folks to hell, we’ve gotten all kinds of stuff. We had people protesting outside the church one day, it was crazy. But that just lets me know we’re on the right track.
A.S.: Is there anything that you want our readers to be aware of?
Leonard: I think what I would really like people to know is that if you’re a seeker, if you’re seeking answers, seeking a place where you can feel accepted, and find home…if you’re seeking to really make sense of what we call “clobber scriptures” which are those six texts that people use systemically against queer folks, and you want a place to really flesh that out, that Judah might be the place for you to have those conversations.
We have church every Saturday – we call it Saturday Night Live – it’s at six o’clock. We try to do things differently and not traditionally. We’ve been switching it up lately. But also one thing that has been a cornerstone for us, we have our biannual conference, it’s called Healing the Hurt. And we’ve been doing it since 2013. This year it’s called Healing the Hurt: Intersections of Oppression. And we’re going to talk about those. Normally it’s about dealing with the areas of hurt, harm, and disconnect that have happened between the faith community and the queer community. This year, not only will we be talking about that but we’re talking about the intersections of hurt. So we’re gonna talk about racism, we’re gonna talk about misogyny, we’re gonna talk about transphobia, we’re gonna talk about Islamophobia, we’re gonna talk about how sexuality is always demonized, not just sexuality in the sense of queer or bisexual but sexuality in the sense of sex. And how the church has demonized that and made it such an ugly thing, we’re gonna talk about that. We’re gonna talk about what it means to move from marches to movement. And how we just can’t march all the time, we gotta make systemic change. So we’re gonna talk about all these things and about how if we really look at it, a lot of the issues in our communities, and in our world, have a really really dark root and some really messed up, warped theology that has gone astray, and we’re gonna try to break down some of those walls and build some truth and lead people to some wholeness. So Healing the Hurt: Intersections of Oppression, it’s gonna be good this year.