For most of his life, in addition to being a staunchly religious man, Peter Gichira was also staunchly homophobic.
“I used to be homophobic, yes … definitely,” comes his candid, yet almost apologetic, confession.
A Kenyan Presbyterian reverend, Gichira’s prejudice was challenged when, in 2009, someone he had known all his life — or thought he’d known — came out as gay.
“I saw him as a father figure, so it was … I saw it as a disappointment. But I couldn’t tell him, because of that, because he was a father figure to me. But he could see from the expression on my face,” he says, trailing off.
For three years Gichira clung to his belief that the father he once loved was now a sinner in his eyes. “We never communicated at all in those three years. Then one day, in December 2012, as part of the International Symposium of Faith Leaders, which was put together by the All Africa Council of Churches and held here in Kenya, Archbishop [Emeritus] Desmond Tutu came to speak to us.
“He likened the way the church treats LGBTIQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning] people to the way black people were treated during apartheid.”
The conference was attended by more than 160 faith leaders representing 120-million Christians across the continent, but its leadership “did not like what [Tutu] was saying”, says Gichira. “But it spoke to my heart when I looked at him and saw the honesty in his face when he asked the leaders to trust him one more time; to trust that he would not mislead them and that they had trusted him on so many issues before. He said the church had always been at the forefront of struggles and that we couldn’t sit back and watch God’s people being discriminated against and persecuted.”
Tasked with taking minutes, Gichira had to compile a report on the conference. “After presenting my report, I was told by the conference’s leadership to delete that part of Tutu’s speech. But I refused. I just couldn’t do it. I felt as though, in doing that, I would somehow be erasing my father figure. So I removed my name from that report.
“Refusing to do that,” he says, “was the beginning of my journey.”
After speaking to fellow religious leaders “to see what we could do to find a platform for these issues to be discussed, slowly, slowly a group started forming.”
Today that group is the Pembizo Christian School, of which Gichira is the acting general secretary. With nothing in the way of funding (“for two years we got not a cent from anybody”), the fledgling organisation set about conducting workshops “with faith leaders who have never been exposed to LGBTIQ people or the issues they face to show them why LGBTIQ rights are human rights”.
The minimal resources to conduct this work contrast sharply with the levels of influence conservative religious groups exert over African religious leaders and institutions.
The 2009 report Globalising the Culture Wars: US Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia by the Reverend Dr Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates (PRA) shows how, “over the past decade, Africa has become a key theatre in yet another conflict — the US culture wars” and that “US conservatives have organised African Protestant leaders to protest against any movement towards LGBT equality”.
The report notes: “US conservatives have successfully recruited a significant number of prominent African religious leaders to a campaign seeking to restrict the human rights of LGBT people … As a direct result of this campaign, homophobia is on the rise in Africa — from increased incidents of violence to anti-gay legislation that carries the death penalty.”
Key to ensuring the success of this campaign is throwing money
“US conservatives have little true interest in the marginalised in Africa. Yet they are running orphanages, schools and universities there, as well as providing loans and other social services under the auspices of evangelical charities. Since church-related organisations are not required to report their funding in both the United States and in Africa, it is difficult to quantify the exact amounts going to Africa.”
The difficulty in tracing “exact amounts going to Africa” is exacerbated by the fact that “conservative funders tend to be secret”.
It adds: “Funding from US conservatives is highly personal — only bishops with US connections receive it — and unrestricted, unlike that of mainline churches, which demand strict accountability from African churches for all the money they receive. Therefore, some African religious leaders prefer it and view American conservatives as more generous than their progressive counterparts.”
So effective has the ploughing of resources into this campaign been that, according to the report, “the Rev Rosemary Mbongo, an Anglican leader from Kenya, said, ‘Africans, Asians and Latin-American evangelical Christians have the voice today; they owe it to American conservatives’ ”.
Jide MacCaulay is a Nigerian-born, United Kingdom-based pastor who founded the faith-based queer rights organisation House of Rainbow as a “response to the abuse against sexual minorities” in his home country.
“The influence of conservative ideology from the West on African churches and the global South is a great worry. The fact that they have so much control and so much money is a huge problem. There is, for example, a group called Mass Resistance, which has its roots in the US, that has systematically been funding a group of Nigerians to create a chapter of mass resistance against homosexuality and abortion or anything they consider to be immoral — whether or not that infringes on people’s human rights. This in itself is criminal and we have to be careful not to allow this to continue — particularly in the name of religion,” says MacCaulay.
“We have a battle to fight,” he says, adding: “My colleagues in Africa who are bringing these issues up need to be supported. And I don’t think they need to worry too much, because they are speaking the truth. After all, Jesus Christ spoke out at a time when his voice was seen as the minority voice on issues that were controversial. We continue supporting our colleagues on the ground — and it’s not only about money, the support we can offer — especially in places like Kenya, Malawi and Zambia.”
Ruth Rohrer is not letting a lack of money stop her from the inclusive ministry work she conducts. Born and raised in Zambia, Rohrer moved to the US, where she became ordained as a preacher in the Southern Baptist church. “About as conservative as you can get,” she laughs, adding: “So, yes, I was very tunnel-visioned; I believed that homosexuality is a sin.
“But I asked God to use me where I was needed. And God and I, we have a very good relationship, you know,” she laughs, before adding: “And he said to me, ‘Read the Bible again; read it properly. Your job is to lead people to me.’ It was then that I realised that there was a need to stop the continual violence and oppression of LGBTIQ people.”
Now working together with the Zambian transgender rights organisation Trans Bantu Zambia, Rohrer provides psychosocial support to the organisation’s staff as well as the broader queer community.
“We once held a workshop on religion and sexuality and after that there were about 17 people wanting a Bible of their own. You see, for all their lives, they had held these beliefs, but never really read the Bible. All they know is the messages they hear from the pulpit,” she says, adding that she is now raising funds for the purchase of these Bibles “in both English and vernacular”.
Rohrer conducts what she refers to as inclusive ministries. “I counsel people to believe in their value as human beings; that in this package, no matter the sexual orientation or gender identity, they have value.”
Her ministry work includes one-on-one prayer sessions, Bible study classes and “just visiting with people or buying somebody some groceries”, because “you can’t talk to someone who is sitting there with an empty stomach”.
Continuing to take money from her own pocket to fund this ministry work is important to her because, “if a church rejects you because of who you are, there is a lot of inner struggle and turmoil. So, you know, depression and suicide. When it comes to spirituality, people look for who will support them. It’s usually the level of family acceptance that determines what they do with spirituality. A common thing in Zambia is for families to report their queer children to their pastor and then having the ‘demons’ cast out. And if that exorcism doesn’t work, often the child will get badly beaten.”
In an article published on the PRA website, Kaoma notes how, in 2014, “Reverend Pukuta Mwanza, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, encouraged sexual minorities to ‘cure’ their homosexuality through prayers and counselling”.
If prayers and counselling fail to “cure”, Rohrer says, another increasingly common practice is employed.
“Corrective rape by family members — or such rapes being set up by the family — is also common,” she says, adding that she has counselled girls as young as 16 to whom this had happened.
The report, When Faith Does Violence: Re-Imagining Engagement between Churches and LGBTI Groups on Homophobia in Africa, published in 2016, was written by Kaoma, Gerald West and Charlene van der Walt. It notes: “Sexuality has become a new site of struggle and the ‘old’ theology does not fit, for it is founded on heteropatriarchy.”
Heteropatriarchy, the authors say, “is clearly one of the systems that undergirds homophobia. ‘Corrective rape’ is a sign of patriarchy’s pathology, as it battles (literally) to bring ‘unruly’ African bodies back to their normative place within patriarchy, disciplining them. Heteropatriarchy’s desire to control African bodies takes many forms, including the criminalisation of gay and lesbian sexualities by African nation states.”
Another report, this one by the Other Foundation and titled Silent no Longer — Narratives of Engagement Between LGBTI Groups and the Churches in Southern Africa, was released earlier this year. It found: “Originally, the Christianity of Southern Africa, as elsewhere on the continent, was a product of the ‘trinity’ of commerce, civilisation and Christianity of Imperial Europe.”
The report added: “More recently, a new style of ‘megastar’ preachers renowned for their flamboyant lifestyles, miracle-working powers and extreme social rigidity has become more popular. The success in the religious ‘market’ has pushed other conservative preachers even further to the right. The megastar preachers tend not only to be highly homophobic, but also more aggressive in disseminating their views.”
Towards the end of last year, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities conducted an investigation into the commercialisation of religious institutions in South Africa.
With Gauteng-based institutions participating in the pilot study, the investigation found that, although 43.3% of respondents did not believe their religious institution was being run on an entrepreneurial basis, only 4.7% said they were provided with information about their institution’s financial position.
The report also noted that, although 32% of institutions spent between 20.1% and 60% of their annual revenue on community projects, “the majority of institutions (about 53%) spend between 0% and 20% of their income on community projects”.
With every bit of funding Gichira secures for Pembizo Christian School, he continues his fight to have the church recognise and accept LGBTIQ people, all the while promoting what he refers to as “radical hospitality”.
“Radical hospitality,” he explains patiently, “is when you engage with someone as they are — unconditionally. It is not up to us to ascribe value to someone. As the church we have to engage with people as they are.”
About whether his work has resulted in any successes, he says: “It’s too early to judge. We started our work as a safe platform for all to engage on LGBTIQ issues and inclusion in the church, also as a means of creating a conversation within the faith movements around this. We’ve addressed Christian councils to challenge them on their stance and remind them of their prophetic role, which is to reach out to everyone.”
The funding shortage Gichira has to contend with makes it difficult for him to reach out to everyone.
Given that the organisation’s reach includes Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, the funding the organisation has received since 2015 from the “very inclusive” United Church of Canada and the Arcus Foundation, although a welcome reprieve from the days when he didn’t receive any funding at all, is, he concedes reluctantly: “Not much.”
Aware of the role he and others are playing as the Davids fighting against the richly resourced Goliaths of conservatism, Gichira adds:
“But slowly, slowly there is a change of attitude. It might not be to the extent that we would like, but the conversation has started. And it is taking root.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian