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Recognizing the spiritual needs and gifts of LGBTI people

The 27th ILGA conference in Mexico City was the first to have an interfaith pre-conference. For Rev. Fr. JP Heath, “the excitement of having an interfaith preconference is about recognizing the spiritual needs and gifts of LGBTI people. It takes place in the environment which is firstly affirming of people on the grounds of their SOGIE, and giving space to give expression to faith within this environment.”

ILGA 2014

Flying into Mexico City for the 27th ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) presented a number of firsts. It’s my first ILGA conference, but it’s also the first ILGA conference that has an interfaith preconference. The lobby of Hotel Fiesta Americana, the conference venue, is buzzing with the excitement of old friends from across the globe meeting again for the first time after a few years. Amidst this easy familiarity is something very different: There are a few clergy wearing their collars, a few Imams wearing their flowing kaftans, and even a few heads donning Yarmulkes. In an environment in which faith has not always been present, or not positively so, this is a break from the flow of the years.

One the first day of the pre-conferences, the main meeting room, Ciudad de México 1, has been reserved for the Interfaith Preconference, and the room is full. With more than 75 participants, chairs had to be carried in to accommodate the large number of participants who had chosen to participate in this event. Just like the lobby of the hotel, this room too is buzzing. There is a sense of liberation, because here we can talk both about our sexuality and our faith. The program is divided into three sessions: dialogue between LGBTI issues and faith, LGBTI accessing human rights, and finally an interfaith service. In addition there is to be a daily interfaith service throughout the conference.

Clifford Okoth from Kenya shared the journey of engagement between LGBTI people and religious leaders. This followed an intensive period of campaigning against homosexuality in Kenya because of the rumor that gay men were getting married in Kenya. The engagement involved members from both Christian denominations and the Muslim communities. Simply engaging and sharing gave space for people to see each other as human. HIV was used as the vehicle to draw the religious leaders into the dialogue. One testimonial from an Imam showed how the engagement took away his fear, and probably the fear that MSM (men who have sex with men) had of him. Today he counted gay men as his friends.

Caleb Orozco from Belize shared the journey of protests and permission to meet in a place of intolerance following a court challenge to the sodomy laws in that country. Understanding the opposition was key to effectively responding. Churches in Belize were not willing to move beyond a very strict understanding of heterosexual family with strict gender inequality. By identifying leaders in the opposition and using topics like HIV, SRH (sexual reproductive health) services, and vulnerability to HIV as a platform, people could finally be brought into the dialogue. Media was not always useful, as sensationalization of the issues frequently took precedence over the real needs for recognizing humanity. “The Church” is not monolithic, so finding allies is both possible and necessary.

Rev. Ecclesia de Lange from South Africa shared her journey with regard to the court case in which she was fired from the Methodist Church because of her marriage to her lesbian partner. The process of arbitration and court cases has been a journey trying to force the church to abide by the Constitution of the country. While a number of rulings have tried to push this case back to the process of arbitration, Ecclesia believes her constitutional rights have been denied. She sees her own role as being a bridge ensuring that the rights of people cannot be denied by the church. It has also involved a very personal journey for Ecclesia in terms of reconciling her faith with her sexuality. She has chosen to remain within the church, painful as this has been at time, in the hope of changing and challenging the church from within.

Surat Shaan Rathgeber Knan from Rainbow Jews shared the oral history project of capturing the stories of LGBTI Jews. Over 40 video and oral histories have been collected. The stories and the memorabilia they have collected have now been housed in the London Metropolitan Archives. Strong branding has helped people to identify with a given identity. It led to a mainline newspaper approaching them and asking for an LGBTI section for their on-line newspaper. Where it was needed, anonymity was guaranteed.

Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed spoke about an organization for LGBTI Muslims in Europe and Africa. Again, HIV was used as an entry point. Work included a spiritual retreat in Morocco and an interfaith pilgrimage in both Israel and Palestine. Rather than being a campaign to impose gay marriage, destroy heterosexual families and convert people to homosexuality, CALEM chooses to defend the rights of people who are born LGBTI, regardless of their faith tradition. It takes the route of desentification to desensitize topics of conflict on homosexuality. This also includes the rereading of the Q’uran. Imam Ludovic raised the notion that it is impossible to say Islam is against homosexuality because the teaching of Islam is developed before homosexuality had been defined. Important book to read is “Before Homosexuality”.

The theme running through all these presentations is the inherent value of every person, and that religion has no place to challenge this. Faiths have within them the tools to affirm and uphold the dignity of all people. Sexual orientation and gender identity is simply one part of every person.

The excitement of having an interfaith preconference is about recognizing the spiritual needs and gifts of LGBTI people. It takes place in the environment which is firstly affirming of people on the grounds of their SOGIE, and giving space to give expression to faith within this environment. While this may be the first ILGA Conference to include an interfaith preconference, it is clear that this will not be the last. Both spirituality and sexuality are integral parts of every person.

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Written By

Rev. Fr. Johannes Petrus (JP) Heath was born in Windhoek, Namibia in 1964, the middle son of three children. He experienced his call to the priesthood while working in a bank. He moved to St George's Home for Boys as part of his formation. After two years of study at St. John the Baptist Seminary in Johannesburg, he was moved to St. Paul's Seminary in Grahamstown where he first finished his Diploma in Theology (with Merit), and then moved to complete a B.Th. (Honors) at Rhodes University. Fr. JP was ordained in the Diocese of Johannesburg in 1994 and served his curacy at St. Michael's, Bryanston. While serving at the Cathedral Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Johannesburg, he started a ministry for streetchildren – an outreach to people on the margins of society that continued when he was appointed as Rector of Christ Church, Mayfair, a parish placed in the middle of a predominantly Muslim and Hindu suburb of Johannesburg. In 2000, after testing HIV-positive, JP started exploring ways of initiating a ministry on HIV within the diocese of Johannesburg. Eventually, he confounded the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV (INERELA+) in 2001. He was the founding coordinator and then executive director of INERELA+ until December 2012. Fr. JP helped grow the network from an initial membership of eight, to a global network with more than 10,000 members from all faiths. In January 2013, he moved to Sweden, where he is now actively working as Policy Advisor on HIV, Human Sexuality and Theology for the International Department of the Church of Sweden. He continues to serve internationally on a number of Boards and advisory bodies, including the UNAIDS HIV and Human Rights Reference Group, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance HIV strategy group, the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Action International Reference Group, and the Global Interfaith Network on All Sexes, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (GIN-SSOGIE) steering committee.


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