LGBTQI+ religious leaders call for inclusivity among faith-based organizations in South Africa

This story by Reginald Witbooi, which originally aired on SABC News Northern Cape on 20 December 2019, is part of a series produced with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from our October 2019 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.


INTRO: As some Christians flock to churches to celebrate Christmas, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people of faith remain isolated by their religious communities because of their gender or sexuality. Others who were ordained as faith leaders have been shown the door. Reginald Witbooi reports…

TEXT: The church bell is a clarion call that summons worshippers to mass for their spiritual upliftment. However, some LGBTQI+ people feel they are intentionally rejected by faith-based organizations because of their sexuality.

A former Reverend in the Methodist Church of South Africa Ecclesia De Lange took her church to court for unfair dismissal after she announced she would be marrying her same-sex partner in 2010. De Lange’s legal battle started when a regional arbitration reached a dead-end. She brought litigation before the Labour and Equality courts but later withdrew it. She says she withdrew her case not in defeat but to help build a bridge between LGBTQI-plus people and the church. She details her trauma.

DE LANGE: “The trauma I experienced was definitely underpinned by institutional patriarchal violence, which was present long before I actually made the announcement. And it plays out in the silence of LGBTI voices within the church. Being open about one’s sexual identity is by and large reserved only for heterosexual people. And so the debates within the church around homosexuality and same-sex relationships were and most probably I suppose are still occupied by heterosexual clergy and members, who speak about and on and behalf of LGBTI people. So listening to these debates and colleagues commenting on the issue was not only just fearful but a painful experience for me personally.”

TEXT: De Lange is now the director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries since 2017. She says there was no space to live her truth in the church that ordained her.

DE LANGE: There were a number of times where I just wanted to stand up and say, ‘you are talking about me.’ However, the lack of safe space and the fear of rejection really just kept me in my seat. So there was no space at the time for people to be authentic and stand up and to say, ‘this is who I am,’ and to live out your truth. And you can imagine this has had an enormous negative impact on my life. It wasn’t a healthy way of being. And living with that kind of tension was exhausting. So the violence or the trauma actually escalated after my announcement and my discontinuation, or when they fired me.

TEXT: Accepted at first, but later rejected, De Lange speaks about how the Methodist Church’s moves affected her life.

DE LANGE: This very church who invested time, ordained me and then also dismissed me, which left me without an income, which put enormous strain on me financially and on my family, which had a very long-term effect. Emotionally and psychologically, I was traumatized. Spiritually, I had to make my way through many obstacles of doctrinal matters that obscured the love and mercy and compassion and grace of God. And the force that I have experienced, the church’s judgment and action, was merciless.

TEXT: Like De Lange, many LGBTQI+ worshipers in South Africa feel isolated from their faith communities. A reverend in the Anglican church, Reverend Nitano Muller, says churches should offer an environment of inclusivity.

MULLER: My starting point for dealing with minority groups in the church and so on has to be from the stance that everyone is created in the image of God, and for me it is not a question of whether they should be involved or not, they already are. Gay and lesbian people, transgender people have always been involved in the life of my particular denomination and I have no issues or qualms with people from a diverse spectrum of sexual orientations, languages, colors, etc. So I am of the opinion that all should be included because that’s what Jesus has called us.

TEXT: Muller says De Lange was denied justice in her ongoing battle with the church.

MULLER:  Was reverend De Lange dealt with in terms of justice? Was she served justice? I would say no. Because in the light of science, in the light of reading the scriptures properly, in the light of common sense and human reason, she was not dealt with in terms of justice. She was not served justice. So her case I think was, already from the outset, was not handled properly, because the church’s rules were written, what, 50 years ago? So to deal with a 2019 issue such as human sexuality against the backdrop of a rule that was written in the 1950s certainly is not going to serve anyone properly.

TEXT: Openly gay Imam Muhsin Hendricks established the first queer-friendly mosque in Cape Town in 2011 after he too was rejected from his faith community.

HENDRICKS:  I think it comes basically from my own personal journey as a queer Muslim and knowing how painful it is to have to deal with your sexual orientation on your own and not having support structures while you are going through that, and I didn’t want other people to experience the same. I mean we have severe cases of people becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol because they do that as a way of just coping with the difficulty, and we even have five cases of suicide, so that compels me to do something about that. And my understanding of Islam is that Islam is compassion-centered, it’s all-inclusive, but we don’t see that when it comes to the queer community. The Quran also tells us that the Quran has been revealed as a mercy and a healing. Where is the mercy and the healing for a queer community that is really suffering?

TEXT: De Lange says the time has come for leaders at faith-based organizations to speak about inclusivity.

DE LANGE: There must be a desire to address the exclusivity within the church. The leadership or the leader of the church or the council or the members, in fact collectively they need to identify and acknowledge that there is a problem. And once that is done, the organization that I work for, we meet with councils and discuss where they are at, where do they want to go, and then collaboratively we work out a strategy with intervention.

TEXT: For other queer people of faith like De Lange, the constant battle with rejection will continue unabated until this contentious issue has been resolved.

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