Fr Thomas Ninan: “I Started To Ask Myself, What Is Stopping Me From Genuinely Loving LGBT People?”

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Fr Thomas Ninan: “I Started To Ask Myself, What Is Stopping Me From Genuinely Loving LGBT People?”

Indian Orthodox priest emphasizes the innate ability of each faith community to understand, accept and celebrate diverse gender identities and sexualities 

Photos by Thomas Ninan
Sep 15, 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

One of the most abused values today is love. It has become difficult these days to find love, be loved or to love someone. We know that love is something that is intrinsic and part of not just human beings, but animals as well. One can learn so much about love in the most simple ways, from children, from a pet (a dog or a cat for me) and yet we struggle to comprehend what love really is at the end of the day. 

A key sentence in An Ecumenical Document of Human Sexuality reads: 

“At the heart of all our human relationships is the desire to know and to be known. This desire which is a gift from God as a consequence of being created in the image of God makes all human relationships possible.”

I am glad to share some thoughts, which have personally helped me over the years, to be more inclusive as a person and as a religious leader (I am a priest of the Indian Orthodox Church). Each time I think of them, I delight in praising God from the bottom of my heart for the changes they brought in my life. A few years back, when we had a workshop on gender and sexuality in an ecumenical gathering of Christian faith leaders in southern India, in a small village called Ranni in the state of Kerala, I was amazed at what an elderly Orthodox priest shared at the end of the workshop. He described his initial surprise, if not outright rejection, of a transgender person who was part of this workshop. He described it in his words which went something like this:

“As I entered this room while the session was going on, I almost regretted why I walked into this workshop as I looked at a – for me – strange-looking person, who neither looked like a man nor a woman, sharing something. I didn’t know whether to walk out of the room or to stay. So I decided to sit somewhere and wait a little time before I can find the next opportunity to sneak out. After hesitantly listening to this person for a while, I began to realize how wrong I have been in my attitude and my thought processes in judging this person for no reason. It just took a few moments for all these barriers in my mind to melt away and I thanked God for every moment I spent in this room. Thank God, I am able to understand and engage with this human being in a more meaningful way.” 

Does it just take a moment of listening and openness to understand a LGBT person? We are often loaded with a lot of baggage and prejudice, from our own backgrounds, which more often than not then become a barrier in our attitudes towards them. 

Structural changes are necessary to help opening our hearts and minds.

Being a part of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and having worked there for many years now, we have worked on becoming more just and inclusive in several areas, which includes gender and sexuality. The NCCI brings together Protestant and Orthodox Churches as well as ecumenical organizations, regional councils and agencies, representing about 14 million people in India. 

We debated and issued historical and milestone statements at crucial times: on HIV and Aids; on human sexuality and gender diversity; and the need for inclusion. We engaged especially in the fight to get rid of the Indian sodomy law 377. Our 2018 Declaration on Interfaith Engagement with Human Sexuality and Gender Diversity happened right under the lion’s nose when the Supreme Court was hearing a review of 377 in Delhi. As a key sentence, we emphasized “the innate ability of each faith community to understand, accept and celebrate gender, sexual and sexuality identities.”

Through all these experiences, we have realized how amazing this word “love” is, expressed in forms of “agape,” “philea” and “eros,” realized and experienced as God. Our journey of inclusiveness begins where love is experienced and witnessed in the most simple and humane ways.

I was able to take another crucial step in loving when I heard this sharing by a transgender person, who belonged to the hijra community in north India:

“Every day, as I start my day, I am constantly faced with looks that either make fun of me or judge me with their derogatory and abusive words. As I meet people from different backgrounds for begging or alms-giving, I cannot deny the fact that it’s been more than twenty years since anyone gave me a genuine hug or told me a few words of love and treated me with dignity.”

I started to ask myself, what is stopping me from genuinely loving LGBT* people? Scriptures, church tradition, culture, ethnicity or the structural influences these may have had on me for all these years? I realized that loving is an essential part of my being and without putting that aspect into practice in the best ways possible, I am not doing justice to my identity, as a child of God. This is a crucial aspect of our lives we discover every day, in the various circumstances we are drawn into. Especially now, where we are becoming more and more disconnected from people, with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Finding genuine love in the form of acceptance, affirmation, or forgiveness – all of which we could do through a simple touch before – is now a challenge. The pandemic challenges us even more, to put this into practice, in ways we have not tried before. To assume that it is OK to shut ourselves up while love will happen automatically is perhaps the most dangerous mistake we will be committing, both to ourselves and to our immediate neighbour. If we assume that nothing will work other than the ways we knew so far, this is in fact one way of telling ourselves that we don’t want to adapt to the challenges before us. To assume that someone from the LGBT communities does not want to be loved is being unfair to that person.

As human beings, we need to trust ourselves first, in our in-born abilities to adapt to new challenges, rather than being overwhelmed by the challenges that a virus has thrown at us. It just requires a little pause, to reflect with a calm mind and realize the enormous potential of being embraced and filled with love from people whom we least expect. Let us tap from the immense potential humanity has, to love, in the most genuine ways, from creation which so freely gives, without expecting anything in return, the love that can both fill us and bind us. 

It is my sincere prayer for each of you reading this, to be blessed with a heart of calmness, to realize and be touched and filled with love, in new ways and means. Allow ourselves to be surprised, vulnerable and set free, so that we can be embraced in the most genuine ways with love. 

God bless!

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Some moments at All Creatures Great and Small in Haryana, India. A place that takes care of distressed animals and here was this big dog climb on to me with so much love: an embrace I will never forget, filling my heart with much required love during a struggling period of my life... It didn’t require a moment for a distressed dog to recognize a distressed human being in need of love.

Fr Thomas Ninan is the general coordinator for the ESHA Project of the Christian Service Agency mandated by the National Council of Churches in India. His projects include mainstreaming gender and sexuality in faith-based organizations, establishing an Advanced Institute on Gender, Sexuality and Religion in Nagpur, India, and facilitating a vibrant forum of LGBT activists, allies and faith-based groups and organizations to engage at a national and global level.

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 organization 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.

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