Bishop-elect Tonyia Rawls, of Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte, will be consecrated a bishop on Sunday, Apr. 27.
CHARLOTTE — The national mid-year conference of the LGBT-affirming Unity Fellowship Church Movement will meet here Apr. 21-27. During the conference, Charlotte-based pastor Tonyia Rawls, as well as another female pastor, will be consecrated as bishops in the denomination.
The historic occasion will mark the first time female candidates have been inducted to the Unity Fellowship Church’s House of Bishops.
The Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFMC) is a small, Christian denomination — it has 14 churches nationwide — founded in 1982 and primarily serving the African-American community. For 25 years, one of the church’s primary missions has been serving those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, the church itself grew out of the ministry offered to those with HIV/AIDS and their families by founder, Archbishop Carl Bean.
Previously a minister in the Baptist church, Bean reached out to African-American men and women infected with HIV/AIDS during the earliest years of the crisis.
“Those hospital visits he made turned into funeral services,” Bishop-elect Rawls told Q-Notes. “In those days, AIDS — known as GRIDS, or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Syndrome — was a death sentence.”
Rawls said Bean’s outreach and compassion allowed grieving family and friends to have “a safe venue to bury their loved ones” without any of the anti-gay bashing many families experienced at funeral services during the 1980s.
“We’ve come a long way now,” Rawls said.
Rawls first heard of Unity Fellowship Church as a deeply closeted pastor at a Free Will Baptist church in New Jersey. Her entire outlook on life and faith was changed when she finally built up the courage to visit the congregation in Manhattan.
“The service was held at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and there was a line out of the door of the church,” she said. “The pastor there was talking about the unconditional love of God. Nothing was the same after that moment.”
Rawls eventually moved to Washington, D.C., and became an associate minister at a Presbyterian church. There she remained closeted to everyone in her congregation aside from her pastor. He encouraged Rawls to follow the path she needed to take. That path led right to Unity Fellowship Church.
Since 1996, Rawls has served in some pastoral role in UFCM. She eventually made her way to Charlotte where she founded the South’s first Unity congregation. Her journey since then has brought her an elder position and, now, consecration in the denomination’s house of bishops.
Rawls said she feels “incredible honor and pride” in the opportunity to serve her church and world in a greater capacity. At the same time she admits the role will come with an increased responsibility.
“This offers me an increased opportunity to have a greater impact in terms of ministry,” she said. “Understanding that when all is said and done, it is God who does the changing and moving and that as we own whichever seat God has blessed us with, our effectiveness for God and benefit to society and world increases.”
Kenneth Tinnin is an associate minster of Rawls, serving at the Unity Fellowship Church of Charlotte. He told Q-Notes that Rawls will continue to move his church toward being “unapologetically Christian,” serving their faith work and commitment to God and doing social justice as well.
“I’m very excited about this opportunity and state of change,” he said. “I’ve seen Rawls work and I’m thrilled to have her in this position.”
The second female pastor to be consecrated at the Movement’s national gathering is Jacquelyn Holland. She’ll serve as bishop of the Third Jurisdiction (The Mid-Atlantic). Rawls will be consecrated bishop of the Fourth Jurisdiction (The South).
The UCFM national mid-annual gathering will take place April 21-27 at the University Hilton Hotel, 8629 J.M. Keys Drive, Charlotte, N.C. Rawls and Holland’s consecration service will take place at the hotel at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Apr. 27.