In 2014, when he was ordained into priesthood in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), Rev. Alfred Candid Jaropillo said that “everyone knew I’m gay.” He did not think his sexual orientation was – or would be – an issue, particularly since in the same year, UCCP released a pro-LGBT statement dubbed “Let Grace Be Total”.
Playing with the so-called “queer alphabet”, that statement is anchored in UCCP’s belief in the equal standing of everyone, and because its tradition of faith has always been “affirming, welcoming, and accepting”.
As stressed by “Let Grace Be Total”, LGBT people “have suffered through acts of discrimination, ridicule and even outright oppression and murder. They have been treated as if they are abominable creatures (that) do not deserve to be treated as human beings.” However, “the LGBT community no longer wants to suffer silently from oppression… We can’t impose on others because of our privileges.”
And because for UCCP the “idea of human rights is perceived as the right of every human creature to be regarded and treated as a human being… it is our duty as professing Christians to see if there are those denied their potential to rise to the image of God in them.” UCCP, therefore, believes that if it condemns LGBT people who have done nothing, it is perpetuating injustice; and this is a legacy that it does not want to leave behind.
But months after working as an administrative minister in a city church in the Visayas, a senor minister allegedly hacked Rev. Jaropillo’s Facebook account. His private – and very personal – conversations with gay friends were copy-pasted, printed and then distributed first to the church’s council, and then the churchgoers. It was eventually discussed at UCCP’s national conference.
The issue with Rev. Jaropillo, according to those who opposed him, was his conduct as a gay man, which is said to be unbecoming a church leader. “That I even spoke gay lingo was an issue,” he recalled, adding that “my gender expression became a tool used to oppress me.”
And because the parish could not accept his being gay, Rev. Jaropillo was padlocked out of his church, with a security guard hired just to prevent him from entering the church’s premises.
The bishop went to the church to speak with the council, which was adamant in barring Rev. Jaropillo from serving. And this eventually created a schism in the church, with a big portion of the churchgoers leaving that parish to establish their own church. There are now two UCCP churches in this city in the Visayas, and Rev. Jaropilo is pastoring the other – and newer – church.
“All throughout the experience, I kept faith,” Rev. Jaropillo said. “But it also pushed me to be aware, and to promote gender justice.”
According to Rev. Rex Reyes Jr., General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), “churches can be guilty of teaching but failing to listen.” This is why for him, it is always “welcome when there is willingness to talk even with very contentious issues.”
NCCP is a fellowship of 10 Protestant and non-Roman Catholic Churches in the Philippines, and UCCP is a member church. Aside from UCCP (which has the aforementioned “Let Grace Be Total” statement), four other NCCP members already have LGBT-affirming statements.
NCCP’s foray into LGBT human rights may have been boosted by its HIV-related efforts.
In 2013, during a project consultation a year after NCCP formalized its HIV program, one of the issues raised was the need to include discussions on gender and sexuality because “HIV can’t be properly understood sans these,” said Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, Secretary of the Program Unit on Ecumenical Education and Nurture of NCCP.
So when NCCP started a new HIV project in 2014, one of its components was on education on sexuality, though this particularly focused on its relationship to HIV. This project continues to date.
In 2015, at the 24th General Convention of NCCP, a statement was released tackling issues surrounding human sexuality, particularly LGBT. Dubbed “Create Safe Spaces for Understanding Human Sexuality”, this statement affirmed that human beings are created in the image of God, thereby imbuing them with dignity. Part of that dignity is “being able to freely express oneself.” This same statement noted that “human sexuality is a gift from the Creator, a truly good and perfect gift that must be affirmed and celebrated.” The statement went on to say that issues on sexuality continue to be wrapped in secrecy due to wrong perception that sex talk is indecent talk. However, there is now a growing number of LGBT people who “dare to openly express their sexual orientation and gender identity”, even when they are met with discrimination and condemnation.
It is this that led the General Convention to call its church members to: 1) create spaces where persons can discuss about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI); 2) develop biblically-based/theologically sound materials on human sexuality to be used for study and reflection to be used in churches; and 3) to draw in persons of different SOGI into activities of the church and church organizations.
NCCP eventually held a gathering – dubbed “Love, Diversity & Justice” – specifically tackle SOGIE.
For Rev. Reyes, conversations should not stop so everyone could hear various perspectives, including from LGBT people themselves, Biblical and theological experts, and even from churches that do not necessarily subscribe to the pro-LGBT positions. “Willingness to talk,” he said, “is a good step.”
TEXTS AND CONTEXTS
Biblical and theological scholars stress the need to reconsider people’s appreciation of texts.
According to Prof. Arche Ligo from St. Scholastica’s College, there is a need to re-read the Bible. For instance, Genesis 1:27 states: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” As per Prof. Ligo, it clearly mentions that God already created a human, and then made male and female after that human. Inquiring about this “first human” is necessary because “that Genesis has two creation stories seem to imply a two-step view of humanity: that the original intent for humanity is androgyny not segregation of sexuality (man and woman).”
This text (Genesis 1:27) is 500 years younger than Chapter 2:7,22, which states that “God formed man from the dust of the ground… and man (ish) became a living being…” and “And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman (ishah) and brought her to the man.” But Prof. Ligo said that while the Bible recognizes two sexes (zakar for male, and neqebah for female), this is only when talking of Genesis. And “if the whole Bible is considered, there is a more complex view of sexuality than what contemporary debates acknowledge,” she said.
For Prof. Ligo, the “contemporary debates” also need to take into consideration different factors.
For one, there are the doctrinal influences. St. Augustine, for instance, “had issues with women and how to place them within the context of faith”. Not surprisingly, Augustinian monk Jerome, who helped translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin, including the Greek New Testament, imparted that if a woman serves God, she will cease to be woman and becomes a man. This is apparent in the archaic naming of nuns, who assumed male names – e.g. Mary Joseph, Mary Benjamin.
Second, there are also erasures if not of Biblical texts, then discussions of the same. Prof. Ligo said that some Biblical writers actually imagined the concept of intimacy to include those happening between two people of similar sex. For instance, 1 Sam 19:1-4, 1 Sam 20:17 states that “by becoming David’s woman, Jonathan gave up his place for his beloved friend to assume kingship over Israel.” According to Prof. Ligo, this is no longer discussed because this is deemed controversial.
The erasure also happens in heterosexual sexual intimacy. With sexual intercourse seen as part of the creative act happening within marriage, ignored are “sex services” rendered by “concubines”. This may be best seen in the case of upholding of Isaac over Ishmael, even if the latter is the true firstborn of Abraham, though with a kept woman.
Third, texts may also be read differently; for instance, albeit coming from Abrahamic tradition, Roman Catholics will read texts differently from those following Islam. Even the Oral Torah (Jewish texts) – i.e. Talmud and Mishna – names five genders.
Fourth, the changing role of people in society affects ongoing theological discussions. For instance, as the women’s movement surfaced, sexual intimacy was no longer only considered as an act to reproduce. Even looking in New Testament, Prof. Ligo said, Jesus no longer talked about “go(ing) forth and multiply”.
Fifth, the changing times need to be taken into consideration in contemporary theological debates. According to Prof. Ligo, there are Hebrew words connected with sexuality, i.e.: basar echad, which means “one flesh”; dabaq, meaning “join”, “cling” or “cleave”; and shakab, meaning “to lie with”. All these refer to sexual intercourse, so that the act was not frowned upon in theological texts. However, the act started to be frowned upon, and language mimicked this even if – she said – language is not supposed to be dirty.
For Prof. Ligo, in the end, when reflecting on human sexuality, the focus should be on how Jesus defined the person. That is, made in the image and likeness of God, with one’s class, race or gender all irrelevant. As stated in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For Prof. Ligo, this erases the hierarchies through baptism and everyone is made as one under Jesus Christ.
Prof. Ligo’s challenge to the church, therefore, focuses on accountability, responsibility, and gender appreciation/gender consciousness/gender responsiveness. This is because for her, efforts to remove stigma, highlight human rights, and promote acceptance and respect “require a deep sense of respect for persons, no matter what their SOGIE may be; recognition of human rights; and belief that everyone was made in the image and likeness of God,” she said.
DISMANTLING THE ‘-ISMs’
For Prof. Karl James Villarmea from Silliman University, to better the response of churches to LGBT people, the view on sexuality itself has to be reconsidered. And for him, it is unfortunate that sexuality is always considered inside the “Holy Trinity of Sexuality” – i.e. heterosexuality, heteronormativity and heterosexism.
“These are concrete ideas that shape people’s beliefs. For instance, how views of heterosexuality, heteronormativity and heterosexism shape laws, such as the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines that sanctions women more than men,” Prof. Villarmea said.
And so for Prof. Villarmea, these “operative assumptions” need to be considered for them to be changed. As such, “the transformation and deactivation of heterosexual assumptions is the contemporary theological task of Filipino Christians.”
Dr. Liza B. Lamis from the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches sees the continued “othering” as the issue. Women’s bodies, for instance, “continue to be abused, battered and demonized, with the latter arguably be best seen in teachings in churches that refer to women as ‘temptresses’ or as ‘gateways to hell’. In a deeper analysis, the poorest of the poor, oppressed of all the oppressed are women.”
For Dr. Lamis, just as women were “othered”, LGBT people are also considered “others”. So for her, “if the church says it loves God, then this should be expressed in loving others, especially the most difficult to love.”
THE CHURCH AS A FOE… AND SANCTUARY
UCCP’s Rev. Jaropillo isn’t alone in having a noteworthy experience because of his church, with numerous others attesting having just-as-bad or even worse experiences brought by their faith.
Episcopal Church in the Philippines’ Felics Ombis Balangi, for instance, was openly told by some church leaders that his church that it is not yet ready to open up to LGBT people. Iglesia Filipina Independiente’s Mama Kish Lineses was told she was “gawa ng demonyo (made by the devil)”, and church leaders (supposedly jokingly) told her she had no place in the church. The United Methodist Church’s Pastor Carleen Nomorosa – who was raised by same-sex parents – being asked if she is “a real woman” because, among others, she “spoke with a big voice”, and that she’s already 30 and yet still not married. Metropolitan Community Church’s Pastor Kakay Pamaran explicitly told by her former church that LGBT people will go to hell. And The United Methodist Church’s Claire Balabbo being told she is “salot sa lipunan (pest in society)”, among others.
Not everything is gloomy, with some experiences highlighting the goodness of churches.
IFI’s Rev. Fr. Franz Forster, for instance, admitted hearing Bible verses thrown his way to tell him LGBT people are wrong. But people at the grassroots already tell him to “come as you are”. Fr. Noel Bordador of found acceptance in the Episcopal Church in New York; he has been married for 22 years now. And Pastor Pamaran herself works as the first openly lesbian staff of a seminary (i.e. Union Theological Seminary), having also studied there as the first openly lesbian seminarian there during her schooling.
For UMC’s Balabbo, “at least in (some churches), LGBT people are now more tolerated/accepted because anak din naman daw sila ng Diyos (they’re also children of God),” she said.
FOCUS ON WELL-BEING
According to Prof. Beatriz Torre, Coordinator of the LGBT group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP), to better the plight of LGBT people, stigma needs to be tackled.
“There is stigma expressed via religion, such as when people of faith preach that being LGBT is a sin. There is also stigma in public opinion; as reported by Manalastas & del Pilar in 2005, for instance, one of four Filipinos said they do not want to have a gay neighbor. There are also crimes committed against LGBT people, with 144 hate-related deaths already reported since 1996. Lastly, there is also stigma promoted even by psychology. For instance, a local textbook published in 2007 claimed that parents should protect their child from homosexual tendencies,” Prof. Torre said.
For Prof. Torre, stigma affects the well-being of LGBT people. Citing the minority stress theory of Ilan Mayers, Ph.D., she said that being part of the sexual minority does not lead to poor health, but experiences of stigma are those that reduce well-being for LGBT people.
But Prof. Torre said that there is silver lining to this, with views about being LGBT now changing. In the past, homosexuality was equated with being a disorder, and “solutions” were attempted to be made to “cure” it because it was considered as “contagious”. But in 1973, homosexuality was removed from DSM (which lists down illnesses); and in 1992, homosexuality was removed from ICD of the World Health Organization. In the Philippines, PAP released an LGBT-affirmative policy statement in 2011 to clarify that being LGBT is not a disorder.
Prof. Torre said that disorder is defined with specific criteria – i.e. prevalence, that it causes dysfunction, and that it causes suffering. In the case of being LGBT, these are not met. So for PAP, the focus is now on stigma and how this affects LGBT well-being.
“There was a time when being LGBT was a diagnosed disorder; but modern research has shown that these are only variants of sexuality,” Prof. Torre said. “So the question now is not ‘Are they ill and how can we treat them?’ But ‘How we can help make them happy, too, and promote well-being?’.”
The journey towards inclusivity continues to be ongoing, said Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, Executive at the Office of Health and Wholeness Advocacy and Executive Director of the United Church of Christ HIV & AIDS Network (UCAN).
UCC in the US, for instance, started discussing about human sexuality as far back as the 1950s when Alfred Kinsey released his report, to the 1960s with the so-called “sexual revolution”. UCC even has an adult curriculum, Created in God’s Image, and a partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association for the Our Wholes Lives and Sexuality and Our Faith curriculum, which stressed that “sexuality is a good gift from God” and the assumption that “people seek to express their sexuality in ways that are loving, healthy and pleasurable.”
But “UCC’s journey is not yet complete. UCC already has LGBT clergy and 1,500 churches have adopted open and affirming covenants. However, over 3,500 churches still do not have open and affirming covenants,” Rev. Schuenemeyer said.
As such, UCC – like many churches – is “still in process”.
And that process is faster for some churches than for others.
For instance, as it eyes to remain relevant in a changing world, Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) has already ordained women into priesthood, accepts LGBT people into priesthood, and more recently, it released a statement titled “Our Common Humanity, Our Shared Dignity” on the 7th of February to promote LGBT human rights.
According to Rev. Erah Maga-Cabillas, IFI’s pro-LGBT statement goes as far as “asking for forgiveness from the LGBT community for the church’s indifference when LGBTQ people were discriminated; and when they were hurt through the church’s own deeds.” IFI also affirms that LGBT people have the right to love and be loved; and that acceptance means protecting them against abuses, HIV, et cetera.
For Rev. Maga-Cabillas, for IFI, the discrimination against LGBT people is part of the struggle for human rights.
Iglesya Evangelica Metodista En Las Islas Filipinas – which was founded in 1909 as the first indigenous Filipino church – now has a working paper “tackling the LGBT issue”. This paper – an output of Lupon sa Doktrina (Committee of Doctrine) – follows UCCP’s LGBT statement by also affirming that LGBT people were also made in the image and likeness of God.
According to IEMELIF Pastor Ferdinand G. Mercado, the church is cognizant of changing times. He cited an American study that claimed that 59% of Millenials are dropping out of the church; and one of the reasons for the dropout is the church’s failure to address the realities of today’s issues, which includes the plight of LGBT people. The church, therefore, “has to respond to the changing times.”
Meanwhile, the Convention of Philippine Baptists Churches similarly promotes the idea that “homosexuals are not ‘subhumans’ but also created in the image and likeness of God.” And so, according to CPBC’s Jabez Oberes, “CPBC commits to create an open space for conversation and dialogue with those who do not share their values and conviction in the stream of LGBTQ; and uphold Christian principle on justice, human dignity, gender equality and sexual integrity.”
For other churches, there are no official positions yet; but there are already discussions happening about human sexuality, and particularly SOGIE and LGBT.
The Salvation Army, for one, already started tackling LGBT issues during its Conference of Leaders in Singapore in 2014, with a survey then done to ascertain issues revolving around human sexuality that TSA needs to focus on. The results of that survey mentioned same-sex relationships (including being LGBT) and transgender issues.
According to Lt. Col. Elsa Oalang, TSA’s intention is to “contextualize Jesus” because “unless Jesus does not fit my context, he won’t be relevant to me”. And for TSA to be a “living church, no one opinion should dominate; we should listen to our people.”
The Episcopal Church in the Philippines also still has no official statement on human sexuality. But according to Fr. Stephen Ofo-ob, “just because we have no statement doesn’t mean we’re apathetic.”
Fr. Ofo-ob said that there may be pro-LGBT efforts in some dioceses, but these are positions from bishops only at the diocesan level, not the official stand of the church.
Particularly referring to LGBT people, ECP stands “in the middle”. “We say we welcome you. We can’t quote the bible to condemn LGBT people. But we can’t have a stand yet; but at least we started discussing it already,” said Fr. Ofo-ob.
For Iglesia Unida Ekyumenikal – which was established only in 1995 – there continues to be no statement for LGBT people, even as the church has already started ordaining women into priesthood. There are also individual/personal efforts in dioceses that aim to be inclusive of LGBT constituents.
Meanwhile, the Apostolic Catholic Church continues to respect only the sex assigned at birth of people, said Jimson C. Aratea. However, Aratea stressed that “LGBT people are accepted in ACC (even as) we retain our conservatism.”
MAKING THE CHURCH WORK
According to Prof. Revelation Velunta from the Union Theological Seminary (UTS), there are basic affirmations shared by everyone – e.g. that God created everything; difference is the most fundamental part of God’s creation so that diversity should be seen as God’s gift; meanings, expressions, et cetera are social constructs; and sexuality is an expression of humanity and since humanity is fundamentally diverse, its expressions are diverse.
For Prof. Velunta, “the reason we have problems is (because) we were made to believe everything should be the same. Everything should start with difference because everyone is different.” Here, even the ecumenical movement was born from the existence of difference.
Stressing that the problem is not about diversity, Prof. Velunta said that “our problem is imperialism (i.e. forcing a single truth on a plural world) – e.g. the belief that Christianity is the only way, and we force this to be the only truth.”
To engage a text (i.e. Bible) used to oppress, Prof. Velunta recommends the “jeepney approach”. Meaning, to turn the text into something that will work to accommodate inclusivity. Prof. Velunta used the jeep as a good example of turning something ugly into something that identifies Filipino identity (i.e. jeepney). The jeep was brought to the Philippines by Gen. Douglas McArthur during World War II as a means to traverse the rough terrains of the country. But after the war, Filipino ingenuity turned the war vehicle into the communal vehicle that it is now known as today. In this sense, Filipinos turned it into something that works for Filipinos.
Prof. Velunta said that Greek texts used in the Bible used to have deeper meanings. For instance, paides – now used to refer to young slaves – also actually meant “young boyfriends”. Nowadays, people say that Jesus did not say anything about LGBT people, but there are passages when Jesus did not raise an eyebrow when dealing with assumed LGBT people in the Bible. The case of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his paides is a case in point, with Jesus healing the sick not because of who he was but because he was sick.
In responding particularly to sexual minorities, Prof. Velunta has a challenge: “Build bridges. But you can’t build a bridge from the middle. Take sides.”
And at the end of the day, engagement of various stakeholders should be the goal. As Rev. Myke Sotero of the Metropolitan Community Church-Metro Baguio said, “We can’t win the fight for LGBT human rights without the support of our straight allies. And here, engagement is always a good step.”
Back in the Visayas where he experienced discrimination, UCCP’s Rev. Jaropillo now helms an LGBT-affirming church. “Discrimination happens,” he said, “but this only highlights the need for us to do more.” Because for him, in the end, “everyone can play a part in making the church more welcoming for everyone.”