by Rev Michelle Boonzaaier, IAM Program Manager
In this post I’ll focus on the centre point of the wheel, Inclusive and Affirming Faith Communities – Open Doors. It might appear an odd place to start, since the Open Doors segment on our wheel is numbered 5. For us as IAM, this is a hopeful position to start at. Apart from being a Christian organisation, we realise that our hope of empowering faith communities to recognise and celebrate LGBTI people on the African continent will remain a dream if we don’t actively pursue it as our goal, with dialogue as a starting point.
Inclusive and affirming faith communities are spaces that recognise and celebrate diversity. In many of the faith communities that I grew up in, navigated as a student, work and play in, diversity is and was a silent presence. Non-binary bodies, gender nonconforming bodies and any bodies that present differently to the norm are either excluded at the outset or tolerated in silence. Celebration of diversity using of dialogue as a tool begins with questions like, “What pronouns do you prefer we use to address you?” “How do we make this space better for you to navigate?”
Faith communities with open doors continue to collaborate and co-create liturgical spaces where diverse bodies feel safe enough to risk being themselves. Using language that challenges the binaries of gender constructs by addressing a congregation as “friends in faith” or “community of Christ” instead of “brothers and sisters” is a way to start including more diverse bodies during worship services. Opting for language that breaks the binary of able-bodied people vs people with disabilities, like “let us stand as we are able” instead of the excluding, “let us all stand” creates a space that begins to open us up to more bodies. In this way we begin to co-create more inclusive and affirming worship spaces through the simple use of affirming language.
Inclusive and affirming faith communities allow for more voices to be heard, especially those that have been neglected or silenced in the past. LGBTI people are actively included in the worship service, especially sacramental spaces. For example, LGBTI, gender non-binary, gender nonconforming and other diverse bodies presence at the Eucharist table as active participants in giving and receiving God’s grace is significant of the diversity of God’s presence in our faith spaces.
I started by saying that at IAM we choose to position ourselves in a hopeful space open to dialogue. As suggested above, our dream begins with seemingly insignificant actions like affirming bodies for who they are and not who we want them to be, employing language to create alternative realities and opening up liturgical spaces to be creative spaces where we risk and co-create an African continent where all people are recognised and celebrated in varied faith spaces.