After twenty years of denial, Philip Liebenberg was faced with the dilemma of finding himself leading a church that might reject him for who he is and with a family that he might destroy – if he chose to come out as gay. This is one of the scenarios depicted in the auto-biographical Daar is ‘n Gay Pastoor in my Kop!
The Afrikaans book, published by Penguin, is an exploration of Liebenberg’s life as an openly gay pastor in South Africa; a country still fraught with religious intolerance of homosexuality. Today, a divorced Liebenberg is accepted by his congregation in Melville, Johannesburg; a gay man with a life-partner.
Daar is ‘n Gay Pastoor in my Kop! tackles one of the most controversial issues of our time – the clash between fundamentalist religious beliefs and the increasingly visible role of gays and lesbians in society; all from a very personal perspective. Writing the book was something, Liebenberg says, he was called by God to do.
Liebenberg, who previously had his essays, devotional writings and sermons published in Espresso for Your Soul, spoke to Mambaonline about his personal conflicts and his perspective on the spiritual-versus-secular battle raging over homosexuality.
Tell me about your church in Melville. What kind of church is it?
Our church is warm. The services are short and simple: 45 minutes and we’re done. We sing simple old-time songs with a swing. God is much more mysterious than I believed when I was a young know-it-all pastor. As result of my Pentecostal background I have learnt to bring intimacy into the services without hyping it up.
How does your congregation deal with your sexuality? Are they comfortable with it?
One hundred percent. The straights as well.
You married and had a child when you were still in denial of your sexuality. How do you feel about the consequences of that?
I own that failed marriage as part of my life and journey. I love my daughter as well as my ex-wife. It saddens me when I think of their pain and my own loss as well. But we have all come to a place where it does not define our lives. All three of us found happiness in love’s arms.
What has been the most difficult aspect of your journey as a gay pastor?
The double life I led. And the fear of losing my wife and child. The fear that I would end up in hell as result of my untruthfulness. And the lack of self-esteem that resulted from the lie.
Do you think that Afrikaans people have a harder time when coming out?
I honestly do not know if that is the case. I know that conservative and religious Afrikaans people have a hard time because of dogma as well as stigma. But I wouldn’t know if it’s harder for us than everybody else.
What led you to write Daar is ‘n Gay Pastoor in my Kop!?
My own double life that stemmed from my initial ignorance about my own sexuality: I meet many married men who are in that same boat. Plus the realisation that society, parents and the church still coach gay boys to become husbands and fathers without realising the disastrous effect this has. I hope that people will see the futility of the way that society deals with gay boys.
What do you hope to achieve with the book?
I hope that the church will see that their answer does not accomplish what it sets out to do. I try to offer a more realistic approach. A healthier one, I believe.
How much of writing the book had to do with dealing with your own feelings about the experiences you had?
Quite a lot; It was great to look back and make meaning of my life’s crooked path.
And what did you learn by writing it?
That I will never be able to get rid of my past. I have to own it. Live with it. Peacefully and humbly. That that makes me a man; strong and compassionate.
“A big ship turns slowly. And I know that the church will turn eventually…”
What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?
To be brutally honest. Otherwise people wouldn’t get to know the real life of a gay Christian. I had to show it all. That was hard. I felt called by God to do just that, though.
Do you think there will be any fallout for you or your church as a result of it?
No, I don’t. Our church isn’t campaigning. We just live our lives and love our relationships with each other and God. I have really been given the inner stamina to stand for what I believe about being gay and Christian. I don’t expect applause.
Why do you think so many religious people and institutions have such conflict with homosexuality?
Because the Bible forbids it. There are many different viewpoints within Christian circles. Some take the verses and apply them without looking at the context. Fundamentalists believe that we should apply the ethics of Biblical times without any amendment in our culture. Others realise that ethics change. For instance: it was the same God who allowed King Solomon to have many wives and then years later said that a man should only have one wife. The same God, different times and a different social norm.
But I do understand that the average straight Christian or theologian didn’t walk in my shoes. They allow for other amendments to Biblical norms, like remarrying after divorce. Straight Christians worked that one out for themselves and ignore the Biblical rule because it is their issue. My issue is being gay, so I worked that one out for myself.
Why do you think gay people feel the need to belong to religious groups or churches that continue to reject them?
Multiple reasons. Because they love God and their church. Because they feel that they might be wrong and the church right, so they take the beating. They want to be included; exclusion hurts. Because they don’t know that there are churches that will accept them. Because they are used to hiding their lives, so they continue to do so in church and fool fellow members whilst enjoying inclusion and warmth.
Do you believe that in a secular state such as ours churches have the right to fire people because of their sexuality, as was the case with NG Kerk music lecturer Johan Strydom?
I feel that I was wrong to stand in a pulpit of a church that I well knew doesn’t accept gay pastor. They honestly believe that a man of the cloak shouldn’t be so “inflicted”. That God will heal a gay man if he really seeks God’s healing hand. In that sense they are walking in integrity. They believe that they are right. That is their understanding of the Bible. I respect that. I guess I feel that until that changes gays should keep the dialogue open but look for churches where they can be themselves and share the joy of faith. A big ship turns slowly. And I know that the church will turn eventually.
Why should religion have special dispensation when it comes to the constitution when no other institution does – such as, for example, refusing to accept same-sex marriages?
One has to understand that the fundamentalist churches believe from the bottom of their hearts that God made man and woman for each other. To marry man and man or woman and woman will mean that they sacrifice their own integrity. Such churches would rather be jailed for their conviction than giving in to secular demand. Although I disagree with them, I do respect the integrity of conviction. Thank God for those who aren’t fundamentali