Congregation Rivers at Rehobeth: Preaching “Gay by God”


Rivers at Rehoboth congregation in Harlem ministers to gay men and lesbians in the traditions of black churches.

The congregation was formed by the merger of Rivers of Living Faith and Rehoboth Temple. The pastor of Rivers, Vanessa M. Brown, 41, is a lesbian, and the pastor of Rehoboth, Joseph Tolton, 45, is gay, and both were born and raised in Harlem.

The congregation rents space out of Grace Congregational Church on West 139th Street.

The church preaches what they call a “radically inclusive” message and their mantra the phrase “Gay by God.”

“God doesn’t make any junk,” Ms. Brown said. “He made us knowing who we were going to be before we were it.”

Rivers at Rehoboth is attended by an average of 200 members each Sunday.

Both pastors struggled with sexuality as black Christians. Mr. Tolton believed his sexual orientation was a spiritual demon from which he needed to be saved. Ms. Brown married a man who was gay, to help him cover up his sexuality and protect his image in the church. But Ms. Brown divorced him after growing tired of living a lie, she said. Many members share similar stories. But many, like Mr. Smith, who joined after learning he had HIV and subsequently asked to step down as organist from his. Former church, believe Rivers at. Rehobeth helped save his life.

The pastors say they are now looking for a larger space in which to expand.

“We want people to know that they are loved, there’s a safe space for them in the house of God,” Ms. Brown said, “where they can truly worship the Lord and be their authentic selves.”


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