Lebohang Matela: “If Religious Leaders Can Speak with One Voice Together with the LGBT* Community, then the Battle is Won”




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Lebohang Matela: “If Religious Leaders Can Speak with One Voice Together with the LGBT* Community, then the Battle is Won”

Regional coordinator of dialogues between religious leaders and LGBT persons in Southern Africa explains what works 

Photos by Lebohang Matela
Aug 25, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog 

FOCCISA (Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa) Health and Gender Justice Network (FHGJN) is a faith-based organization in Southern Africa coordinating 11 Councils of Churches in South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland, Angola and Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Each Council of Churches has a membership of an average of 16 churches in smaller countries and 22 member churches in bigger countries.

My journey with LGBT* persons started in 2016 when I was appointed to organize the One Body project in the region which addresses violence against LGBT persons. 

The One Body project started in 2004, and for the longest period addressed HIV issues. It now developed a Gender-Based Violence program to end violence against women, children and other marginalized persons. In a manual we developed to guide dialogues around gender issues, there is a true story about a gay man, Jason Wessenaar-Moloatsi, who was brutally killed in South Africa. When pastors engaged in dialogues about gender-based violence in different countries using that manual, this story always challenged pastors to talk about violence against LGBT persons. After many dialogues over many years, we felt a need to create a safe space for our Councils of Churches to engage in dialogues with LGBT persons and especially about the violence against them. 

How do we work?

First, we hold regional dialogues with heads of churches, general secretaries of church councils, chairpersons of councils and gender/human rights coordinators to introduce projects that we want to embark on and at the same time to theologize around those issues. These high level meetings then led in 2016 to an agreement and the mandate to do capacity building with church councils around these issues. 

Since 2017, dialogues and meetings have been held with church leaders to prepare the implementation of the project in different countries. Eight countries in Southern Africa have endorsed the project but few have already implemented it, due to lack of resources. Countries that have been implementing the project include: Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi.

Councils of Churches in respective nations are leading dialogues in partnership with national LGBT organizations. Before dialogues begin, the Council of Churches together with FHGJN, work with pastors who have been trained as dialogue facilitators to open and enable conversations between LGBT persons and pastors. At the same time, national LGBT organizations, supported by the Global Interfaith Network, select and prepare LGBT people who will participate in the dialogue. 

Where are we now regarding humane conversations with LGBT persons?

These dialogues, held in safe spaces, have opened the eyes of religious leaders about the violence that LGBT persons have been and are subjected to. I am always touched when I facilitate these dialogues because I see two parties coming together, each party having its own flawed understanding about the other. What touches me most is realizing that we are not doing enough because, what is killing people, is just ignorance from our pastors’ side, and their lack of initiative to meet LGBT persons. What surprises me is often the immediate change of pastors; I have realized that what changes them is when they see and hear LGBT stories their hearts are touched and transformed.

Some pastors meet face to face with LGBT people for the first time and there is always something that happens when the two parties meet. Pastors confess and ask for forgiveness from LGBT persons, showing remorse about how they ignored them for a long time. They also acknowledge violence perpetuated directly or indirectly in communities as a result of their preaching against LGBT persons, or sometimes by just being insensitive to them. On the other hand, LGBT persons of faith are sometimes touched by the honesty of pastors, and the unexpected love and compassion they feel during these dialogues. Some forgive pastors as they realize that some of them did not have bad intentions but were acting out of ignorance.

Dialogues provide a space where the two parties meet for the first time and are able to engage each other with respect. The scepticisms from both sides give way to compassion and sometimes even love for one another as they recognize that they are all created in the image of God and that they are One Body

“One of the dialogues between LGBT persons and pastors. The first day of this dialogue was challenging as most of the pastors were exposed for the first time to discussions around LGBT issues and they were trying to approach the issue from the point of conversion therapy and prayer for LGBT persons to conform. However, thanks to dialogue methodology, LGBT persons were able to speak for themselves engaging the pastors and leading a group discussion on Contextual Bible Studies. Reading the Bible texts together contributed greatly to everyone realizing how we often misinterpret scriptures based on our own prejudices. Myself, I trust our methodology because it fosters respect for each other even when we do not agree, but at the same time, at the beginning I felt anxious because I was aware that pastors are trying to defend their own understanding about LGBT persons. However, we had resilient LGBT persons who really engaged them until the attitudes changed. The second day of the dialogue, it was one of the bishops who was even searching for scriptures that were embracing all human beings and affirming that we are indeed One Body with many different parts.” - Lebohang Matela.
Copyright: FHGJN

How do our religious leaders transform their faith communities?

After dialogues pastors go back to their churches and congregations and incorporate their preaching about what they have learned. As a result of the changed attitudes of religious leaders/pastors, some now offer pastoral care services to LGBT persons and their families. Some even become allies of LGBT persons and become visible in their support of them. Some church councils such as Botswana Council of Churches issued a positive statement about LGBT people in response to a homophobic statement that had been released by the Association of Evangelicals in Africa.

What is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBTI people in faith communities and society?

Religious leaders have a number of challenges, which if people are not aware of may lead them to think they are heartless people. Some of them are very ignorant of social issues. Few donors or organizations are interested in supporting faith organizations; most of the challenges revolve around the lack of capacity by religious leaders to address these issues. Religious leaders are people who are revered as being knowledgeable and they do not want to embarrass themselves by engaging in things they don’t know. This is why often times they can be so defensive to protect their ignorance; it is the duty of organizations to make sure that their trainings reach these powerful people. I hope you agree with me on this one.

Most of the religious leaders in our region, who were so outspoken against LGBT issues, became agents of change after these conciliatory dialogues, showing that more effort is needed to empower them with information and support. Why do I mention support? Because some pastors or religious leaders come from big mainstream churches and may face rejection at their churches by preaching positively about LGBT persons or by supporting their movements. So support is needed to empower them to such levels that they can stand for the truth without fear. 

In a nutshell, what I mean is that we have to invest more resources in training religious leaders and support them to hold dialogues with their peers so as to pave way for LGBT persons and achieve their social inclusion. Religious leaders are powerful in influencing governments’ decisions about legal frameworks and even communities-at-large. They have a pulpit command that is obeyed and followed without questioning by many followers of their faith. We should therefore target and empower them to use the same platform to preach social justice issues. 

If these religious leaders can speak with one voice together with the LGBT community, then the battle is won.

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Lebohang Matela is a regional coordinator for FOCCISA Health and Gender Justice Network and is coordinating dialogues of religious leaders with LGBT persons in Southern Africa. She hopes to complete her doctoral studies in 2020 with a research on intimate partner violence at the University of Kwazulu Natal.

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their corporations or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.