LGBTQI Christians face ‘spiritual starvation’ from unwelcoming churches in Botswana

This story by Gosego Motsumi, which was originally published by The Botswana Gazette on 29 November 2019, is part of a series produced with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from an October 2019 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

GABORONE, Botswana – Most churches promise to lighten the burden 21st century believers face, but many in Botswana fail to meet the needs of everyone who walks through their doors. Despite religious leaders preaching acceptance and love, queer-identifying individuals still often suffer from religiously motivated abuse or are left in the cold to endure “spiritual starvation”.

Reverend Tshenolo Madigele, an LGBTQI-affirming religious leader and lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Botswana, defines spirituality as someone’s connection and association with God. This includes private religious life and beliefs as well as public devotion.

“Depriving LGBTQI people an opportunity to associate with God is a way of starving them spiritually. The Church should be urged to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ. Jesus never despised people because they were different. He brought those who were different closer to him,” she said.

Madigele added that Batswana have the rich guiding principle of botho, which emphasizes living together as a community where everyone is guided and protected from abuse and discrimination. She says churches in Botswana are disregarding this principle and their duty to show concern for individual members and incorporate them into the community of God.

“The model of love that was introduced by Jesus as found in the New Testament broke the boundaries that divided the community. If the same model can be employed [now], the walls of divisions would not be reinforced, and those who need attention would be reached. Christians should therefore appreciate the work and will of God as revealed in that of Jesus. The Gospel of Christ is rather liberating and inclusive; it is the Gospel of love, not hate. It is a therapeutic gospel that whispers healing, not harm,” she said.

Seventy-two percent of Batswana are Christian, the majority of them Protestant, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. While some Christians have opened their hearts to LGBTQI people in the spirit of an inclusive gospel, many remain homophobic and transphobic. Some homophobic church leaders preach that God commands Christians to rebuke and exclude sexual and gender minorities. Their powerful influence over congregations contributes strongly to the discrimination, hatred and violence LGBTQI people face.

A May 2018 report documenting the impact of laws criminalizing same-sex relationships in Botswana showed that LGBTQI persons in Botswana experience stigma, verbal harassment, ridicule, abuse from their families, communities, co-workers and others. This behavior is echoed and arguably legitimized by derogatory statements political and religious leaders make in public. The report was published by the United Nations Development Programme, Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO)

As far back as 2008, in a shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, LEGABIBO cited numerous examples of hate speech by political and religious leaders in Botswana who stated that homosexuality was not just unlawful but “foreign to Batswana culture, shocking, unethical, unbiblical, and barbaric” in terms of social norms, religion and culture.

Fast forward to June 2019 when Botswana decriminalized homosexuality. In a landmark ruling, the High Court overturned a colonial-era law that had punished same-sex relationships with up to seven years in prison.

“Discrimination has no place in this world. All human beings are born equal. Homosexuality is another form of sexuality that has been suppressed for years,” Justice Michael Leburu said during the ruling.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi signaled his support in a December 2018 speech when he said LGBTQI citizens deserve to have their rights protected. LEGABIBO applauded Masisi for publicly speaking out in support of LGBTQI people.

“We are incredibly grateful to hear our sitting President speak openly and publicly on the need to protect those in same-sex relationships who have been violated. We are pleased that you named aloud the violence that members of our community suffer in their daily lives,” LEGABIBO said in their press statement.

Despite legal progress in Botswana, religious discrimination continues.

Thabang, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a gay Christian man who has had mixed experiences with Pentecostal churches in Botswana. He grew up singing in his family’s church choir where he found great joy, peace of mind and a sense of purpose. As he grew older, Thabang felt the need to forge his own spiritual path and was introduced by a friend to a charismatic church in Gaborone.

“One Wednesday, after attending the church faithfully for a month, the pastor picked me from the crowd. He said I needed to be delivered from the spirit of homosexuality that possessed me. I felt darkness cover me the moment he lay his hands on me in an attempt to pray away the gay, ultimately pushing me to the ground. All this while the congregation was cheering him, and all this was televised. I felt humiliated and traumatized. That was my last time at that church,” he said.

After that incident, Thabang stayed away from all churches for some time.

“I felt empty, spiritually starved, and worldly pressures weighed down on me. Fortunately, I had supportive friends who encouraged me to not give up on God. Today I am happily in a church, I don’t get weird stares, I am not treated differently, and I receive the love everyone else receives. Most importantly, I am living a meaningful life,” he said.

Thabang now attends an LGBTQI-affirming Pentecostal church in Gaborone where he is openly gay. Other LGBTQI persons often prefer to remain invisible and undetected in church for fear of further stigma and oppression, maintaining their relationship with God by denying part of themselves.

TheeFairest Mirror, the chosen name of one lesbian woman who believes she was called to preach the gospel,  says the warm welcome she once received at church turned icy when she disclosed her sexuality.

“I ended up leaving because I felt like the odd one out. I was sidelined from doing anything in the church. I stayed for two years without dating because I felt that I needed to stay pure from this ‘sin’. I have tried to fight it, asked pastors to pray for me, and even had a child to try to straighten myself, but it has all not worked,” she said.

Mirror has been on the hunt for a church that will accept her in Gaborone to no avail. She now watches online sermons and reads her Bible at home. This December she will attend a training in Durban, South Africa organized by the Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Expressions where she will learn to train other pastors on the importance of inclusion in the church.

“I just want churches to accept that we are here, and we also need God,” she said. “I have been spiritually starved. I have had a friend who was kicked out of the praise and worship team because she was lesbian. I have seen LGBTQI couples who couldn’t go for counseling at church because they are not accepted. With the training I am attending, I would like to see all those who gave up God because of similar situations pulled back to serve,” Mirror said.

Sethunya, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a Christian transgender woman who stopped going to church five years ago when the church she grew up in did not welcome her transition. As a long-standing member, she was due for a new role as deacon.

“I had always thought of my church mates as family. I opened up about my identity before assuming this role. I really did not know what to expect, but it did not go well. My ordainment date was ‘postponed,’ and I was told by church elders that I could not serve in the church until I ‘made things right with Christ.’ They flat out told me I was no longer welcomed in the church until I return to my ‘normal senses’,” she said.

Sethunya hopes to one day find a space that will accept and allow her to serve in the church.

“I believe I was born to lead. I have tried to convince myself that I don’t need the church, but there is a void that I can’t seem to fill with anything else,” she said.

Unlike in South Africa, where some churches exist exclusively for sexual and gender minorities who have been sidelined by conservative religious institutions, most LGBTQI Batswana interviewed by The Botswana Gazette said they would rather attend churches that are inclusive of but not exclusive to the LGBTQI community.

According to The Other Foundation’s 2017 report, “Silent no longer!  – Narratives of engagement between LGBTI groups and the churches in Southern Africa”, the greatest desire of most LGBTQI people in Southern Africa is not securing legal rights, important as they are, but gaining the acceptance of their families, communities, and churches. They acknowledge that many churches are among the most virulent drivers of homophobia and transphobia, which prevent LGBTQI people from enjoying rights and acceptance.

Despite deep-seated homophobia and transphobia in Botswana, there have been positive pronouncements over the years leading up to this year’s decriminalization ruling. Former President Festus Mogae has been particularly vocal about the need to protect the rights of LGBTQI persons. In June 2014, Botswana backed the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights resolution on protecting persons from violence based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. In September 2016, former president Ian Khama ordered the deportation of American pastor Steven Anderson for spreading hate speech against LGBTQI persons.

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