LGBTQ Faith Leaders Meet, Find Consensus In "Golden Rule”

July 31, 2018

Fear-mongering anti-LGBT sermons and shunning of openly LGBT clergy, clerics, and other faith leaders are commonplace at centers of worship on every continent, but a group of senior religious figures united in calls for inclusivity and mutual respect in New York last year.

“It’s really about applying the golden rule when it comes to our lives; to treat people as you would have them treat you,” said Rev. Patricia Ackerman, the co-organizer, along with Muslims for Progressive Values and Outright International, of a group of religious leaders from 11 countries who convened in October 2017 at United Nations Headquarters in New York to speak out publicly about their determination to stand strong in their faith.

Speakers from the United States, Malawi, China, and Samoa, among other countries, recounted stories of their own victimization and those of their congregations to more than 220 diplomats and secular and religious leaders, ranging from religious conservatives to LGBT activists.

Observers at the meeting included three Mormon women who said they recognized the hurt their religious beliefs have caused and had committed themselves to learning more.

Scared To Go To Church

Addressing the meeting, Anglican priest Martin Bob Kalimbe, from Malawi, said he considers it his duty to challenge fellow religious leaders whose sermons threaten LGBTI congregants.

“They’re scared to go to the church. Because every time they go they hear hate sermons,” he says.

In Malawi, where entrenched Protestant views toward LGBT clergy and parishioners prevail, it has fallen to individual preachers like Kalimbe, to risk breaking from received doctrine to embrace the full diversity of their congregations.

Though there is still resistance, through interfaith meetings and dialog, Kalimbe says change is beginning in his country, where the law against homosexual acts was introduced during the British colonial era.

Malawi’s Civil Rights Advocacy Centre surveyed local churches of various denominations and found that while congregants accepted LGBTI people—who are part of their families—ministers were unrelenting in their homophobia.

Kalimbe is pushing for a complete reversal of the country’s anti-homosexuality legislation, which he believes is at odds with the constitution. However, he acknowledges that even where constitutional protections exist elsewhere against sexuality or gender-based discrimination, religion can serve as an exception to the rule.

South African Court Shuts Door on Lesbian Minister

In 2017, Ecclesia de Lange stepped back from her legal battle against the Methodist Church of Southern Africa over her 2010 dismissal as a minister in the Western Cape, which took place after she announced her marriage to a same-sex partner.

The nation’s constitutional court, along with two lower courts, had dismissed de Lange’s claim of discrimination and, refusing to interfere in the church’s values, had referred the case to arbitration.

After much reflection, de Lange withdrew her application to appeal the verdict, she says, recalling that she had been attracted to the Methodist Church for its openness to differing interpretations of scripture, specifically the ordination of women.

“It would just polarize even further the gap between me and the Church and LGBTI communities.”

“There’s a better way to reconcile, to build bridges, and for the Church to be able to hear me,” says de Lange, who is now the director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM), founded in 1995 to help faith communities embrace LGBT members at all levels.

Convinced that changing behavior within the church will evolve with patience and endurance, de Lange works with clergy in eight countries in southern Africa, where around 80 percent of the population is Christian.

Leaders of the South African Council of Churches express their support to her privately, she says, “but when it comes to speaking from the pulpit, it will be a completely different conversation.”

The Council, in response to a proposal by South Africa’s The Other Foundation, passed a resolution in June 2017 to begin an internal discussion on the church’s responsibility to condemn and prevent violence against women, including lesbians.

IAM aims to influence religious leaders and government policymakers alike. “We hope that we can look back by 2030 and see that, hopefully, some of these countries have bills of rights, and constitutions, more inclusive and supportive of the LGBTI community,” says de Lange.

“Your Time Is Up!”

Another religious leader who spoke at the 2017 U.N. meeting was Tuisina Ymania Brown, born into Jewish and Catholic traditions and influenced by Buddhism. Brown now co-chairs the Global Interfaith Network, an organization of faith-community members committed to LGBTQ rights.

Brown’s childhood experience was shaped by witnessing the murder of a well-known fa’afafine—a gender-nonconforming person—in front of her home in Samoa, an island nation in the Polynesian region of the South Pacific.

Brown insists that though “God created us in his image…for more than 2,000 years ago, religious leaders have created God in their image”—a situation that has “enslaved” LGBT people and corrupted the idea that all people deserve dignity.

Preparing for the U.N. event and during her speech in the delegates dining room, she had a simple message for religious leaders who continue to abuse sacred texts to persecute LGBTI people: “Your time is up!”

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