Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Breaking LGBTQ faith barriers

Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, ministers and advocates for all. (Abdul R. Sulayman/The Philadelphia Tribune)

Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, ministers and advocates for all. (Abdul R. Sulayman/The Philadelphia Tribune)

This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

A Chestnut Hill minister and LGBTQ rights activist is making waves here in the city and across the country.

As the Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, Naomi Washington-Leapheart guides the organization’s vision for engaging faith communities to support LGBTQ policies both locally and nationally, which is not an easy job considering the pushback that the LGBTQ community receives from many religious denominations.

She also occasionally finds herself on Capitol Hill advocating for the LGBTQ community, as she did earlier this month when she was one of a group of key speakers during a briefing seeking an amendment of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993. The legislation, introduced in part by Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (CA), would in part overturn the Trump administration’s recent waiver allowing child welfare agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals and different religions.

Her role with the National LGBTQ Task Force has put her “at the table where many LGBTQ voices are often not heard,” said Ernest Owens, an openly gay writer at Philadelphia Magazine who focuses on civil rights issues, including race, gender and sexuality.

“When she shows up, she she does so having heard from people who do not have that same seat,” Owens said. “When the larger conversations about intersectionality are taking place and she’s there, Black and LGBTQ people know that they are being represented by someone who will make sure they are heard.”

Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, said Washington-Leapheart is “absolutely committed to the cause.

“You get the sense with some people that you don’t know what they are — that the motivation doesn’t match up. That’s not what you find with her,” Tyler continued. “With her, there is a consistency in what she says and how she lives. There is no questioning her commitment, which is to God and the humanity of other people.”

Washington-Leapheart, 37, is a native of Detroit who moved to Philadelphia as a high school senior in 2000 after a week of revival services at her church that were led by visiting pastor J.W. Mapson, the minister at Monumental Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

“I knew I wanted to get out of Detroit and get a good education,” Washington-Leapheart said. “But it was important to me that I went somewhere where there was a strong church community. When Rev. Mapson told me that [the University of] Penn was just 10 blocks away from Monumental, the decision was easy.”

Washington-Leapheart went on to attend Penn and graduate in 2004 with a degree in urban studies. She earned a Master of Divinity degree from Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2016.

Washington-Leapheart co-pastored as one of four ministers (she was the only African American) at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster from 2013 to 2015. During that time, she came out as a lesbian and was ordained as a minister in the church. A gay white man was ordained at the same time.

“They saw this as an opportunity to widen the table and we were treated equally in terms of power, compensation and pastoral responsibility,” Washington-Leapheart said. “The United Church of Chris is not perfect, but it is much more of an ally to the LGBTQ community than many other denominations.”

The United Church of Christ ordained its first openly avowed gay minister, William Johnson, on June 25, 1972, two years before it ordained its first African-American female reverend, Yvonne Delk, in 1974.

Washington-Leapheart, who is also an adjunct faculty member in the Theology and Religious Studies department at Villanova University, did a brief stint in 2016 as a community organizer with interfaith group POWER. It was then that Tyler witnessed up close Washington-Leapheart’s passion in other social justice areas such as prison reform, education, advocating for single women, feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless, and people who were not Christians.

That Washington-Leapheart is a lesbian never crosses Tyler’s mind.

“We are in crucial times where we cannot start picking people off with a litmus test,” Tyler said. “I choose to work with people who show up. It has forced a number of us to reevaluate the way we see the world. There are a number of things we need to get over and this is one of them.

Washington-Leapheart became the Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2016. She married chaplain and religious educator Kentina Washington-Leapheart in 2017, and the two have a 12-year-old daughter.

“We have to be able to amplify the voices to people who look at us and say, ‘Well, that’s not how I understand what the Bible says — that the lifestyle is an abomination,’” said Washington-Leapheart. “Churches are having to wrestle with the reality of what do we do with people that are unwilling to be closeted anymore, who are just as called and anointed and gifted to preach and teach and lead in congregations.

“We were always there, we were just invisible,” she continued. “But now it’s what do we do with the visible presence of of LGBTQ folks who are not willing to be in the closet. I believe that all people, including LGBTQ people, are made in God’s image and are vital shapers of religious life and community.”


jmitchell@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5732

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