Can faith be trusted as a sanctuary for LGBTQI+ people during a pandemic of violence?


In celebration of the International Day against homophobia, biphobia, intersexphobia and transphobia (IDAHOBIT) on 17 May, interfaith partners collaborated in hosting a webinar titled “Faith as a sanctuary–Can LGBTQI+ trust in faith during a pandemic of violence?”

The webinar was hosted against a painful context of constant, brutal murders of LGBTQI+ people across South Africa, addressing pertinent question of whether faith can be a viewed as a safe space for LGBTQI+ people within the current climate of violence.

The webinar was moderated by Justice Edwin Cameron, with guests Dr Anastasia Thomson, Siya Khumalo, and Imam Muhsin Hendricks. The panellists shared personal narratives of faith and sexuality, navigating their families located within the heart of orthodox believers.

Imam Hendricks spoke of allowing one to journey with their spirituality and sexuality, a journey of self-discovery through critically engaging scriptures, questioning and confidently redefining and reclaiming your faith from a space of knowledge and self-awareness.

Finding faith spaces of acceptance and healing

In response to the question of how we can address pain experienced from weaponized faith, Siya Khumalo recognised the work done in creating affirming churches and denominations, encouraging people to be members of these spaces.

He also located the power of “church” within the community, encouraging us to draw strength from scriptures and refusing to allow faith leaders to exacerbate violence against people in their name as members. Faith institutions will be forced to evolve, adapt, or die when the community they serve reflects the love that they are choosing to be blind to.

This was supported by Dr Thomson, who encouraged people to be a part of progressive spaces of faith. Another pertinent question that emerged was ‘is it possible that there can be a space for queer people in the faith community and space for healing?’

Dr. Thomson shared the importance of a “realisation of a different kind of faith that is emerging out of personal experiences beyond religious tradition”. For her, it was essential in locating progressive Judaism, one that provided a different lens and centred human rights. “Getting in touch with these inclusive spaces really helps you know and access to information that can really help to reconcile with faith,” agreed Imam Hendricks.

Navigating differences and holding faith leadership to account

Justice Edwin Cameron drew on the lessons taught to us by Simon Nkoli of “organisation, solidarity, and action” in responding to a participant’s question on how we write the next chapter with or without our religious institutions. Khumalo identified the need to find the unity within our diversity to address existing tensions within the LGBTQI+ community. Together, we can use the South African Constitution as the common ground to collectively work to address public perception and social attitudes and holding leaders accountable for human rights violations.

“I think we have to start holding the leaders of these [faith] institutions accountable because it is their concern, whether they themselves are part of the LGBTQIA+ community or not, it is their concern and we must implore them to stand up for the values and the ethics that they claim to represent when they speak from their pulpits and put their money where their mouths are, actually take that action and to spur their congregations and their communities into action,” said Khumalo

What now?

The panellists as well as coordinators were invited to contribute to the question of what now, with Thuli Mjwarafrom IAM sharing the following:

“What does this mean, it means signing the petition that is going around. It means tweeting the Department of Justice, writing letters, speaking out and saying that this is an injustice and we’re not going to accept it lying down. It means also that we also speak to our faith leaders because we know our communities because we know our communities in our church, we know our leaders, we know the homophobes…. The same knowledge when you come into your faith space, knowing who are the people that we need to have these conversations with. It’s about starting the conversation. It’s about remembering that as we are about to join in prayer, there are those who cannot access the faith space just because they dress in a particular way or they present themselves in a particular way, it’s about including them in the prayer, it’s about inviting them to the table…

“I mean I know … we say (…) no matter how vocal you are on social media, at times it’s not enough. And this is why, with your visibility, we need action as well. This action can come in forms of volunteering in LGBTQI organisations. Contributions, so if you do donations, (donate) towards Trans-led organisations (and) towards movements of LGBTQI in the community that require the support. As some of them are very limited in terms of how they keep mobilising. It’s about, even if it means opening up your garage to allow parents to come in to have the conversation and you inviting that organisation to lead that conversation about how can we make space in our community, our homes safe for people who are different, but it doesn’t just have to be different in terms of LGBTQI it could be around ableism, it could be about nationality, how do we make our homes, our communities safe for whoever who is part of our community because we need a human-first led community movement.”

Reflections on the webinar

After the webinar, which you can watch in its entirety below or read the transcript here, the coordinating partners reflected on the issues and points of view brought up during the conversation:

“It seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, and then it did. So many LGBTQIA murders are happening. What can be done? Several queer faith leaders came together to discuss this horror and explore what they might do. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist. We all came together to look for a way to make a positive difference. One area of focus was the need for more allies for the LGBTQIA community. Perhaps if more people heard the stories of the pain and suffering caused by faiths that hurtfully turn away anyone who is somehow “different”, perhaps then a seed of compassion might be planted. We decided upon a panel discussion to explore whether faith could be a sanctuary? We were fortunate that Justice Edwin Cameron agreed to moderate, and our three panellists showed courage sharing with real stories of their own painful journeys. The recording has now been sent all over the world, circulating amongst Christian leaders in the Holy Land, shared with Pakistani youth, sent to USA and the UK to bring awareness to South Africa’s LGBTQIA plight. We hope that this webinar is the first of many to raise awareness and stop the killings.”

– Reverend Nima Taylor, Unitarian Church

“I was immediately drawn in by the warmth of the panellists’ sharing and the authenticity of their experiences. This was enhanced by the gentle facilitation of Judge Cameron. The conversation reached a depth and, although challenging at times, touched hearts.”

– Laurie Gaum, Cape Interfaith Initiative

“This webinar was definitely something that was waiting for the right moment. The conversation is needed on so many levels, and it is my belief that the more we bring to The Light the devastating impact that religion has on the LGBTIQA+ community, the more we acknowledge the deep wounds phobia and exclusion causes and start to take responsibility for the warped messaging that is ingrained in society, the more religion can become a source of healing and reconciliation in the lives of those marginalized by unhealthy religious dogma. This is not what true spirituality is about. Used in the intended way, it should bring about hope, empowerment, belonging, freedom, and peace. In this I find my own source to keep doing the work and join with other faith leaders and organization’s that are like minded.”

– Rev Beulah Durrheim, Good Hope Metropolitan Christian Church

“It was a beautiful space that was created.

This statement may seem simplistic, and I hope it is, if you pause for a moment and reflect on each word and its connection to the other words and the whole sentences. I am someone who loves words and discovering how they land for others. When real authentic conversations, the ones that come from the heart, show up, AND are reflected through very different voices, for me there is a beautiful phenomenon that arises, a space of freedom, an opening even for what world peace could look like. As I participated in co-hosting this webinar, my whole body was alive and tingling with excitement and pure joy, my heart was beating that much faster, because this is real life experience that was being shared and held in a safe space. Whilst I am aware it is also a very privileged space, and that many of our siblings did not have the physical resources to even access this webinar in person, I do hope that this can stand out as a resource to be watched and viewed by so many, and become a timeless piece that offers hope and recognition to so many out there, who feel maligned, ex-communicated, alienated, mistreated, abused, and whose spirit has been killed off by faith communities. That they can watch this, and see that there are those of us, who have been where they are, and have gotten to the other side, and are waiting for them……hands open and outstretched to welcome them.”

– Jacqui Benson, Cape Jewish Board of Deputies

Article first published by Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM).

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