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The Incredible Way Churches In South Africa Are Helping LGBTQ People

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Is it possible to engage on faith issues in dialogue with queerness? Yes, absolutely! And I’ve seen it happen in my own native South Afrika.

Back in 1995, Pieter Oberholzer, a gay minister, was engaged in a deep struggle about his sexuality with his church. The church refused to ordain him, just as it has rejected many of us who wanted to become its ministers. It was then that Oberholzer started a group called Gay and Lesbian Christian Outreach in Cape Town. He took as his point of departure, the understanding that all human beings have the capacity to live in love, peace and harmony together.

The start-up of the outreach which later became Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) was founded within a South Afrikan political context that was racially charged with segregation. Oberholzer’s primary goal was to get the churches to engage in the life stories of gay people.

It is 2017, and up to date we have been able to partner with nine Afrikan countries to work on queer issues that relate to Christian spirituality and how we integrate it into our daily lives.

From Religious Fundamentalism To Tolerance

There was a recent event in a Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg. A mega church had many people up in arms when a Bishop preached that homosexuality is unnatural. This evoked mixed reactions from all sides of the debate about the church and sexuality. This sermon also evoked outburst from idols judge Somizi Mhlongo who was present at the service that morning. Activists gathered to protest outside of the premises of the Grace Bible Church the following Sunday. I was present when the church leadership was invited by a collective of activists to engage in dialogue on the matter, but the church leaders refused to meet with them. Instead, they released a statement explaining their position on the matter.

IAM believes that patriarchy and religious fundamentalism like this stands in the way of full inclusion and freedom of all people in Afrika. Within our target countries, IAM contributes to the democratic process of transformation. IAM changes condemning attitudes by addressing queerphobia and negative beliefs/teachings produced by faith communities concerning sexual orientation.

The organization performs the role of a catalyst to accomplish the above. This is achieved through programs which: educate all people on all levels of the faith community as well as LGBTI Parents Friends and Family (PFF) and organizations; raise awareness of diversity regarding sexual orientation and interpretation of sacred texts; reexamining of beliefs and attitudes towards humyn sexuality and opts for dialogue as the preferred manner of managing diversity in an affirming and inclusive manner.

IAM also maintains a safe house that is situated within Tambo square, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The center was set up because many queer people within the township find themselves landless precisely because there is a history in South Afrika of unfair redistribution. The issue is not chronic homelessness but rather landlessness. The house then acts as a temporary shelter where queer people can be accommodated while they are either being reconciled with those who kicked them out or have found their own places to live. The crux of the organization’s work is to empower change agents with knowledge and skills to engage in the building of welcoming, affirming and inclusive faith communities.

The South Afrikan Context

Our constitution declares that no person is subject to any form of discrimination on the basis of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. Despite a liberal constitution many of us queer people still face violence at the hands of our own families and communities. A national Task Team has been established to monitor the hate crimes perpetrated against us. With the phenomenon of the inappropriately termed “corrective rape”, this year alone has seen the rape and murder many queer womxyn in our country. Faith communities still play a major role in the fueling of queerphobia. At IAM we challenge the notion that homosexuality is a sin and that being queer is an abomination.

Working in a multi-denominational, interfaith community context is profoundly challenging. But with other faith based organizations, being the alternative voice when it comes to interpreting Sacred Texts, addressing fundamentalism, patriarchy, gender inequality and queerphobia can be inspiring too. IAM enables LGBTIQA+, PFF and religious leaders to create safe spaces for dialogue, trust, and understanding diverse journeys of sexuality,spirituality, forming communities within their faith contexts.

On Being Open And Affirming

When faith communities are not welcoming of all people, we believe that they are missing out on an opportunity to celebrate diversity and inclusivity. It also shuts out those believers in any faith who do identify as queer and want to serve within their respective faith communities. I believe my own story is a testament to the work that IAM does with queer people and faith communities. I used to believe that I was called to ministry to become a minister of religion. I studied theology in the hope of becoming a minister of some kind in religion.

When I came out as gay, my church threw me out and told me never to return. IAM became a community where I could make sense of my own reflections on sexuality and spirituality. I do the work because I love my people and believe that we are reaching out to communities that usually avoid the conversation about queerness. I am however convinced that our work can take a deeper intersectional approach that critiques not only the religio-cultural dimensions of queerness but also a socio-historical position on queerness in Afrika.

We do not live and work in a politically neutral continent, which does not have a particular history that has contributed to our identities as Afrikans. As we work on the continent of Afrika in 2017, I believe that our work can deepen with other queer organizations to bring about peace, love and harmony as peoples.

Note: The terms “humyn” and “womxyn” are a deliberate attempt to avoid the suggestion of sexism that is present in the utilization of the spelling of “man”. This also speaks to the possibilities of understanding the diversity of persons of various gendered sexualities.

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