From Bronx to Bishop

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Bishop S.F. Makalani-MaHee

At only 4’ 8’’, Bishop S.F. Makalani-MaHee has relentless energy. For the past decade, she’s served as a local pastor and political activist, while also playing her hand as an artist and a musician. At age 38, Bishop has become a spiritual leader and mentor of the kind that she says is sorely lacking these days in the commercialized gay environs of Fort Lauderdale.

As an African-American and a lesbian, the bishop faced more than her share of strife growing up in a Pentecostal household in the Bronx, that she refers to as “The Compound.”

“There was never any lack of drama in that compound,” she tells SFGN. “You’d see domestic violence, fights in front of the building, or anywhere around the complex.”

She recalls “the compound came under siege with a serial rapist when I was probably about 9 or 10. One of my good friends at the time had been assaulted by this man, and we found out that he was actually living on the roof of the building… literally, on the roof.”

But life wasn’t entirely bleak. “I also remember days of the birth of hip-hop,” she says, smiling. “And I remember block parties and getting to hear the Sugar Hill Gang and Rapper’s Delight before anyone knew what that was.”

Her escape valve from the Bronx was the subway, which she rode everyday to a theatre school in Manhattan. During the commute, she read the Bible. “That was my pastime,” she says. “It was the most engrossing, passionate, soap-opera-filled, drama-filled, miraculous piece of writing I have ever picked up.”

By her late teens, the bishop’s life was divided between two worlds. At theatre school, she had come out of the closet and assimilated into a flamboyant, liberated milieu of ambitious artists. “When I saw how many queers there were, when I saw the fountain of gay men, I knew this is where I have to be,” the bishop says of the school. “Folks [were] absolutely starving and craving to spend every waking moment of their lives to focus on their craft.” Feeling ambitious, she started her first theatre company as a teenager.

But at home, she lived with a single mother and quaked under the Fear of God, and at Pentecostal services, which she attended almost every day of the week, homosexuality was condemned as Satanic.

When she finally came out to her mother, the consequences were grim, but only at first. “Pretty much what that chapter of my life evolved into was a quest to be cured, out of this demonic lesbianism,” she says. “Although it was a very long and painful chapter, it’s probably the chapter that gives me the authority that I know that I possess.”

She realized God loved her as she was, so at age 18, she married a woman with the certainty that the creator of the universe would approve.

The bishop credits her mother for helping her subsequently escape from the Bronx to Atlanta. “She was finally able to make good on a promise she had made to my brothers and I” she says. “Sure enough, when I was 17, she came into some money and, rather than buy a home in New York, Atlanta had become the hotspot for African-Americans. It had become what we called chocolate city.”

She lived in Atlanta for eight years, where she went through seminary, started a progressive church, became the toast of the local theatre scene, and worked for politicians, including the mayor, as a liaison on gay issues.

With her second wife, the bishop moved to Miami in the late ‘90s and founded the Fellowship Tabernacle, the first church in South Florida for LGBT African-Americans. She worked with the Democratic Executive Committee, too, “pulling double-duty in politics.” Ten years ago, she helped fight off a conservative campaign to repeal an LGBT anti-discrimination law. In 2008, she was the field organizer for the struggle against Amendment 2, and led a huge rally at Fort Lauderdale’s City Hall.

“What I’ve learned in 15 years of organized politics,” she says, “is that sitting down at the table and helping someone strategize about their message is a lot different than yelling at them about their message. So, luckily, I’ve been able to sit down with these politicians, and make sure that our community is represented.”

A year ago, while “sitting on my butt, drinking mimosas on Sunday morning in front of the TV,” she was asked to be a pastor at the New Hope First Community Church in Boynton. She took the position, but the church recently folded because of the recession.

Today, she’s burnt out with ministering. Congregations of African-American LGBT people, she says, are beset by overwhelming problems that are almost impossibly tricky to confront. On top of the self-hatred over their homosexuality, she says, black gays have to deal with racism, and economic challenges – “and God forbid, in addition to [all that], you are HIV positive or you have addiction issues…” Bishop says.

“Because of the issues that strike this community, the trust factor is almost invisible. So the very people that are there to help are the people that are not trusted,” she says.

Although the laughter in her is constant, the pastor in her is also evident: When the subject turns to spirituality, she becomes somber and thoughtful, and chooses her words with the care of a public speaker.

For now, the bishop is keeping occupied with speaking engagements. And she hopes to take her spiritual message to the stage.

“There are folks who will go to a concert before they will ever set foot in a church,” she says.” And I understand that really what the world needs is not religion – but spirituality. It is my mission to take the stage and use it as a platform for spirituality. So whether it’s spoken work, my one-woman show, or the music, what you’re gonna get is the same message: As Marianne Williamson says, ‘We’re all here to heal and be healed.’”

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