Robert Steiner is the Minister at the Rondebosch United Church (RUC) in Cape Town. Robert first connected with IAM’s work when he was a student and youth pastor at Rondebosch United. Pieter Oberholzer was invited to preach at the church and spoke about how theologically we need to be critical of our own traditions, prejudices and discrimination. “Pieter made that connection between apartheid and what’s happening now in terms of discrimination – there was a strong link at RUC for us to build on the resistance to apartheid and work towards becoming a community that becomes fully accepting, welcoming and affirming.”
When he became the minister of the congregation in 2003, Robert built a more personal close relationship with Ecclesia de Lange (now IAM’s Director). As he was going through his own journey it was valuable that “Ecclesia was really always just a phone call away when I had a question, and it was a wonderful sort of relationship that grew. We invited her to preach in our church at the time when she went through some major challenges in the court, and there was a lot of support for her from within our congregation.”
The congregation embarked on a journey of becoming a fully welcoming and affirming of all people, no matter who they are and what their sexual orientation, taking a firm stance as church leadership but bringing the congregation along gently – trying not to be divisive but rather allowing people to grow into the space and grow out of their prejudices. Ecclesia and the IAM team have supported this process with diversity training and workshops, and ongoing support and mentorship.
Robert also engaged with these issues in his role as convenor of the Human Sexuality Committee of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (UPCSA). Over the years, the committee made significant progress, encouraging broad-ranging debates and discussion. In 2016, the committee crafted a proposal on shifting the Church’s policy towards same sex unions that was up for a vote. “The proposal suggested that we should give Ministers the choice if they want to conduct same sex unions or not,” or at least the freedom to act on their conscience and bless couples. IAM provided materials to share at the gathering, as well as introduced them to a Black facilitator to speak to the group. Unfortunately, the progress they’d made was set back by internal lobbying. “Not only was the proposal shut down but even our suggestion of sending that proposal to all the local congregations for discussion was actually rejected. So the door was completely closed, not only to exploring the questions, but even to just keeping the conversation going. So that’s been really sad – as a denomination we have actually taken a big step backward, which is really frustrating.”
Yet Robert hasn’t changed his vision of Rondebosch United as a welcoming and affirming space for all people. “When I came back from the assembly I said to the council “Listen, this is what happened and it’s very frustrating,” and then they said to me – which was so beautiful – they said to me “Well, Robert, whatever your decision is now we are not going to change our position at all and we’re going to proceed.” And that’s when I realised that’s such a gift, when it’s not just me pushing for a certain agenda but when the leadership have fully embraced this and said “this is who we are no matter what the denomination decides.” So I’m just going to keep going at my local congregation, we’re just going to be that little microcosm and try to lead the church differently and hopefully one day people who are looking for a model, an example, an inspiration, will become part of our conversation and come to us, and we’re going to share our experience of becoming a more inclusive, spacious, and safe place.”
IAM has helped Robert and the RUC leadership to connect with other churches and individuals working in this space. “I think we’ve developed a little bit of a subculture where we are, and kind of feel a little bit isolated, but that’s where IAM also came in again. In my last conversation with Ecclesia we asked “who are other congregations in our town or in our province who think alike independent of the denomination, and how can we get to know each other better and form stronger alliances with each other?” If you asked me I could mention two or three names of ministers that I think will think alike, but I haven’t spoken to them about it, so my sense is that we all work in our own little bubbles and we’re all in our small, little communities. My thinking is that we might be a minority but we might actually be not that small – maybe we should start to work together and be more strategic in our approach.”
For now, though, Robert celebrates the small wins, such as hearing about two young people in their congregation recently coming out and recognising how valuable it is that they can feel so free to do so in the congregation they’ve created. The church also recently held a ceremony for two Black men from countries within Africa where they are persecuted because of their sexual orientation, and 30+ members of the congregation came to the ceremony to show their support. “That is a major win, when you have that space where people are free to be themselves, and I think being able to keep fostering that is huge. One of my hopes was always that as we get to be known as a safe space that more same sex couples would come along.” He appreciates the resources that IAM is able to provide him to help his community through these often difficult conversations.
He also knows that there is power in incremental change. “That’s the beauty of how these spaces work – there is no way back, and what will surface more and more is that congregations will have to get real and face up to the fact that a lot is at stake, especially the church’s credibility and integrity. Our younger generation is watching us carefully and with suspicion.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke beautifully writes “For one human being to love one another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks, the ultimate, the last test and prove, the work for which all other work is but preparation”. I like the idea that loving one another always involves the patient and consistent work of preparation. And then the moment arrives, the moment that calls us beyond ourselves, to respond and reach out with genuine love and respect. What an inspiration to think of one’s life as such a preparation to become better at affirming and loving people.” Robert is committed to continuing to prepare the ground for future change, and IAM will be there to support him.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.