/ 29 January 2017

Love thy neighbour: LGBTI activists descend on Grace Bible Church

Eye of the storm: Grace Bible Church
Eye of the storm: Grace Bible Church

A lot of things happen to us as LGBTI people just ends up a news story that dies down. But I like the idea of continual engagement.”

So says Thami Kotlolo, as we make our way to Soweto’s Grace Bible Church, where he, along with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists are planning a silent protest.

The protest stems from the controversy stirred after gay celebrity Somizi Mhlongi stormed out of the church in protest against a visiting pastor, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills’ reference to homosexuality as “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.

“My hope is to spark dialogue and hopefully get the church’s policies changed. The aim is not to fight or antagonise, but rather to make people think and remind the church that there are passages in the Bible that promote love,” Kotlolo says.

Part of Kotlolo’s artillery in this bid are posters scrawled with Biblical text (“Love they neighbour as you love yourself”; “But he who loves God is known by God”).

Although denied entry into the church building, a group of approximately 30 protestors held these posters aloft.

Among them was Geoffrey Ogwaro, a human rights advocate, specialising in LGBTI rights, with the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights’ Faculty of Law.

“We are saying the church should stop spreading discriminatory messages that could be read as hate speech. Saying LGBTIQ people are less than animals is dehumanising them. There is a connection between the messages heard from pulpits and the violence against LGBTIQ people, especially against lesbians.”

Aware of this connection is a member of the church, 59-year-old mother of three, Zola Sefatse, who, instead of entering the building to attend the service, joined the protestors – proudly hold a poster (“Love one another”) above her head.

“I’m supporting them because I believe in human rights and that the church cannot judge.”

Kicking off the weekly sermon, a church official read the a statement released by the church, following the controversy. With the statement seeing the church hold firm to its stance, the gathered activists know that they have their work cut out for them.

Willing to put in this work, activist Cameron Modisane, says, “This is part of a national campaign to be visible in faith spaces and hopefully change the narrative for the purposes if building a society in which there is no violence against LGBTI people.”

With security guards (one derisively commenting: “Love will conquer your sin) having refused the activists entry the church and removing them from church property, Kotlolo sticks to his guns: “They must beat us or arrest us, but even after that, we just want them to have a bigger discussion around LGBTI inclusion in the church.”

Holding up a placard on the street outside the church, along with other protestors, Modisane concurs: “We are going to keep this momentum going. We will keep applying pressure. Need to apply pressure until they make some concession.”

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

The Other Foundation