Reclaiming humanity through acceptance: bringing the message home

In our last post, we met Bonganjalo (“Bonga”) Mbenenge, a Minister of a Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA) congregation in George. His studies at Stellenbosch University and his participation in events such as IAM’s 2017 Queer Think Tank helped shape his views on LGBTI issues and see how they are linked to Ubuntu and justice. Catch up here.

Taking his message to his new congregation

After graduating from Stellenbosch University, Bonga went to a congregation in George that had a lot of similarities with the congregation he’d grown up in – traditional congregants who didn’t believe that homosexuality was acceptable biblically nor traditionally, even though they suspected that some members of their congregation were homosexuals themselves.

“I knew how to how to approach these topics in a different way than I would have before going to Stellenbosch and being empowered by IAM. IAM gave us materials to use - CDs, some reading books. In my own congregation, I started with the LGBTIQ group - I invited people who are openly gay for coffee and said “Look, if there are other people in our congregation please invite them, I want to talk to you guys." We started with that chat, I listened to their stories and asked them if they would feel comfortable if I started engaging with this kind of topic in our church.

Bonga then started to integrate his learning into his catechism by asking his congregation to question what they knew about terms like ‘Bible’ and ‘testaments’. “Most people thought the word ‘Bible’ meant the holy book, but in actually means different books written by different authors in different times put together for a specific audience” he said. “From that theological perspective, all of a sudden the Bible isn’t seen as the ultimate authority.” This realization led to discussions around how they could read the Bible through a historical perspective, asking questions about who was writing, why and for whom. “All of a sudden people see things differently, and people start to be more accepting of the possibilities that God is doing beyond the holy scriptures, and how the Bible is supposed to be bigger than what it is. At first it shocked them, how I approached it. But when you first start by breaking down those ‘known’ terms they are more open. All of a sudden they are open to new understandings and to new ideas.”

The group of LGBTIQ individuals were perhaps the most transformed by this experience of reading the Bible differently. “When I started teaching them like this they became so empowered. They felt like they were part of the church again, part of the group, and it just changed. When they were inducted as new members of our church I was not shy to say “My bhuti here, he is himself, everybody knows he's gay. We love you, my bhuti, thank you. You are a blessing to our church, that you are standing to be confirmed with the rest of us." I cannot explain that power of acceptance, inclusivity, and the church started to become human. The LGBTQ people in our church have brought humanity back to us.”

Advice for church leaders to transform their congregations

Bonga shared his thoughts on where clergy might start when beginning this journey of encouraging inclusion in their congregations, particularly in the traditional cultural context that he is working in.

Use examples that congregants can relate to

Bonga recommended using popular icons to make a point about inclusion that the congregants can relate easily to. “One of the examples that we use is to say “If Caster Semenya was a member of our church what do we do with Caster? Do we lay hands on Caster, what do we do?” When you ask questions and you relate it to people that they admire, they respect, they see as assets to our country, and you ask “if she was a member of our church, does Caster have a space in this church?” Those analogies, those links are very important. They help people think and relate – they can tell you Caster’s story, what has happened to her, and even the rejection that she's getting, they know we are supporting Caster as a country – but are we including Caster in our churches?”

Start from the bottom and work your way up

Bonga also suggests beginning work with the people in the congregation most affected by discrimination and exclusion – the LGBTI individuals themselves and their families – before working at the council level.

“Most people want to start with the church council. Those are the last people you want to start with, because the church council have their own ideologies and their own perceptions, I believe it’s best to start with the people that are impacted first, and second their families. Invite their families without the people who are LGBTIQ, just the families, and ask them about their experience. This can give you a level of sensitivity of the stories of the people in the church, and then you move on. THEN you can speak to the church council and then you can speak to the ordinary congregant, but start with the base of the people that are impacted, that's what I did. This gives you the courage to say “Look, these are our congregants, these are the children that you know, the ones that sing in the choir, the ones who is in the catechism class...”, you can put faces to the blessing of being LGBTIQ. Don’t talk about these issues if you have not talked to the people who are part of this wonderful group of people.”

Start with your own family and friends

Bonga also spoke about the need to speak his truth widely, even in personal circles where it could be uncomfortable, and encourages others to have these difficult conversations.

“My father is a minister, he is 74 and on the conservative side, and my mother is about 69, and they were staunch anti-homosexuals. Then I started to speak to them, because you cannot try to reach out to the church whilst you don’t reach out to your own family. My Mom has turned over a new leaf, Daddy is still struggling but he's coming around. My wife is also coming to terms with it – she comes from a charismatic Pentecostal background, so when we speak about these issues she struggles, but I'm patient with her, she's coming around.”

Inclusion questions and challenges tradition

The traditional aspect of the culture he is working in is also particularly challenging, and there are some concrete issues that need to be addressed for this transformation to occur in most congregations. Traditional and narrow definitions of masculinity also need to be questioned and challenged to foster inclusion.

“When you have a son who says “Daddy, I'm a homosexual,” that has some critical traditional implications. For instance, who will take the inheritance of the family? Would he go to circumcision school? Would he be regarded as a man in our family? When he wants to get married what happens, is he the woman or the man, or how would the lobola be done? These are issues that I have started to speak with the men in our church, to say “Gentlemen, since now we have accepted this how do we then transform with our customs and our traditions so that if our sons say “In actual fact I don't feel like a boy, I actually feel like a girl” how do we deal with that, how do we accept that? Traditional rituals that are done by men, how do we get around those things? These are the conversations now that the men in our church have. The men in particular struggle, worrying that they don’t want their sons not to be men. These are difficult conversations but ones we need to have – you cannot speak to Africans and leave these critical discussions out. These conversations should be led by the people who are impacted the most. We can ask “how would you merge your sexual orientation with your traditions?” and “how can we as a church support you, how would you want your marriage to be? Do you want the lobola? How do you see this?” We don’t want to impose ourselves on this issue, but these are the discussions.”