LGBTI activists face uphill battle in getting churches to see the light

“The reason I left the church — not only Grace Bible Church, but the church in general — is I kept going to places where I was being told publicly that I am not good enough; that because of who I am, I don’t deserve this love.”

So says Karabo Lepote, a former member of the Grace Bible Church, which this week made headlines after a sermon by visiting Ghanaian pastor Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, in which he called homosexuality “unnatural”.

“You don’t find two male dogs, two male lions, two male impalas, two male lizards. You don’t find that in nature. That is unnatural. There is nothing like that in nature,” Heward-Mills said.

The sermon saw celebrity Somizi Mhlongo walk out of the church in protest. But for Lepote, Heward-Mills’ views came as no surprise.

“I’m glad Somizi walked out, but I am really not surprised at all. The church has always been a place that promises an unconditional love that is actually filled with conditions,” says Lepote. 

Most South Africans are religious but the faiths of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people have failed them, stigmatising and condemning them, says Gerald West, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics.

“We must recognise that our faith traditions are not neutral. They have been forged within heteropatriarchy. So our faith traditions and our sacred texts are sites of struggle,” West says.

West is one of the authors of a report, When Faith Does Violence: Re-imagining Engagement Between Churches and LGBTI Groups on Homophobia in Africa. It was presented last year at the Homophobia and the Churches in Africa dialogue in Pietermaritzburg.

The report found that the “old” theology does not fit, “as it is founded on heteropatriarchy”. Commissioned by the Other Foundation, the report also said “this historically inherited theology must be interrogated for its usefulness” in this new site of struggle.

Pitting themselves against highly conservative religious institutions, a few dedicated activists in Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa are working to gain greater acceptance by Christian churches of their countries’ LGBTI communities – with varying degrees of success.

South Africa: “It’s like inviting someone over to your home for a meal and then, when they get there, slamming the door in their face”

André Bartlett is a Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) minister who has been discussing making the church inclusive of LGBTI people. He wants the church to acknowledge their relationships and remove the celibacy clause, which prohibits openly gay ministers from entering into same-sex relationships.

At the church’s synod last year, Bartlett, along with fellow reverend Monty Sahd, made a proposal seeking a change in the church’s long-held stance. The proposal proved a success: in October the DRC – known for its conservatism – announced its decision to approve same-sex unions and also allow for the ordaining of ministers who identified as gay. The decision, after a 64% vote in favour of it, was taken at the church’s synod.

It was a move that surprised many – Bartlett included. “We were very surprised and really satisfied with the decision. It was a bold and accommodating decision the church had taken,” he says.

But the progressive decision was overturned during a special synod meeting, leaving Bartlett “disappointed and appalled”.

Louis van der Riet, a minister in the DRC, adds: “It’s like inviting someone over to your home for a meal and then, when they get there, slamming the door in their face.”

Grateful that his years-long engagement with the church was not entirely in vain, Bartlett says: “One good thing about the decision is that it makes allowance for ministers and parishes to make their own decision around this. It is stated that no decision may be forced on any parish.”

One such parish is the oldest DRC congregation in the country, Cape Town’s Groote Kerk.

Riaan de Villiers, the church’s reverend, says: “When the church made its decision last year, we were very happy because we want to seek justice for all and want to be a church that follows the way of love and inclusion. The news was very well received by our congregants.”

In an attempt to voice their dissatisfaction with the church’s most recent decision, a group of activists and organisations held what was termed a Service of Hope and Lament on Sunday, November 27.

The group was made up of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) in collaboration with the Centre for Christian Spirituality, Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church, the Groote Kerk, and Central Methodist Mission.

De Villiers says: “We want to stand alongside people who feel that the church is making them second-class citizens. There are congregants in our church who are members of the LGBT community and we want to say to them: ‘You’re our brothers and sisters and we stand alongside you.’ ”

Judith Kotzé, director of IAM, which was established in 1995 to raise awareness on sexual orientation diversity and faith interpretation across the continent, agrees with West’s portrayal of sexuality and faith as a site of struggle.

Kotzé says: “We are in full agreement. What is important is the lived reality of LGBTI people of faith be partnered by theologians and academia to produce theology that is relevant to our times.”

The Pietermaritzburg dialogue had 100 participants from 13 countries representing interested church groups and LGBTI organisations. Also presented was the report, Engaging the Churches about Homophobia in Southern Africa: Understanding the Past, Present and Future Strategies.

The report found that churches have been hotbeds for the creation and sustenance of homophobia and transphobia and that this was felt broadly.

“Whether one is Christian or not, whether one is religious or not; there is no doubt that as long as one lives in a community that is predominantly religious or Christian, such individuals’ lives would be influenced and affected by the larger society.

“The impact of homophobia within the Church or church-sponsored homophobia, therefore, is [felt] by all LGBTI persons, out or in the closet who live within the sphere of influence of that church.”

Lesotho: “There is a lot more acceptance now, because people were interpreting the Bible very literally, but are now interpreting it contextually”

Tampose Mothopeng is the director of the Lesotho-based organisation People’s Matrix Association. Established in 2009, and working with a staff complement of no more than seven people, the organisation has held talks with religious leaders in Maseru in the hopes of LGBTI inclusivity.

As part of the monthly dialogues and workshops it hosts, the association has sympathetic religious leaders or lecturers from the University of Maseru facilitate discussions with more conservative church leaders.

“They were very hesitant at first, but now we have some real champions leading the process. They are now facilitators of the workshops and dialogues we host and also reach out to the media,” says Mothopeng.

One such champion is the Roma-based Catholic minister, Tlali Phohlo.

“Talking about sexual minorities is still a taboo in Lesotho. When you speak to individual church leaders, you’ll find some people are afraid to talk about it – let alone take a progressive position.”

For Phohlo, his involvement with the association has proved to be beneficial. “I work as a professional counsellor and often deal with people from sexual minorities. After the dialogues we have, I always walk away with new knowledge. It really is enlightening and challenging, because they challenge most of the tenets of our faith and make us rethink them.”

Mothopeng adds: “There is a lot more acceptance now, because people were interpreting the Bible very literally, but are now interpreting it contextually.”

Swaziland: “Working with churches here is very, very difficult”

For Thuthu Magagula, acting director of Swaziland’s LGBTI rights organisation, Rock of Hope, the results have been slightly different.

“Working with churches here is very, very difficult. Swaziland is a very Christian country. Religion is a very powerful institution here in Swaziland. Church leaders are not willing to engage in conversation and knowledge-sharing on LGBTI issues.”

A submission to the United Nations in 2011 by the Swaziland organisation, House of Our Pride (Hoop), noted: “Faith houses have been known to discriminate against LGBTI [people], advocating for the alienation of LGBTI [people] in the family and society, while maintaining that these LGBTI [people] are possessed by demons.”

In August, in what was a first for the country, Rock of Hope facilitated a discussion between church leaders and activists and members of the LGBTI community.

“It was a good platform of sharing and listening, but later turned into a space where the church leaders wanted to discuss biblical verses and opinions, so tempers started flaring. Still, it was a necessary conversation to have because it gave us an opportunity to challenge their beliefs as well,” says Magagula.

Heated though the discussion may have been, it yielded some results in that, according to Magagula, “some said they would like to take the conversation further and know more so we can all find ways of working together”.

“We met one on one with them afterwards and are now in the process of structuring an engagement with them. We want to continue engaging religious leaders because they are an integral sector of the Swazi society and very influential in social issues. We want them to know the truth about us so they can stop spreading hate about us. We need their support in engaging government to decriminalise our existence and acknowledge us.”

Reiterating the need for work being done by civil society organisations such as Rock of Hope in the fight against discrimination, Kotzé says: “For transformation to happen it is of utmost importance – life and death – to work with churches because faith communities and institutions are freely accessible to people on the ground. Africa is highly religious, so no change will come if the message is not translated into religious settings.”

West, however, takes the view that it is the church’s obligation to take the initiative.

“I would say it is vital for the churches to work with civil society. The church does not have the capacity to engage with sexuality without the guidance and support of civil society. So the churches must reach out.”

Not prepared to wait for churches to reach out to them, activists such as Bartlett are forging ahead in the fight for acceptance.

“I will keep on doing this because I take my position in the church seriously. I also take inclusivity seriously. There will be setbacks, yes, but I’m willing to carry on. We have to find a way around this.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

This article was updated on 26 January 2017 to include the events at Grace Bible Church.

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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