Rev. Stefan Hippler has journeyed with IAM for many years. Ordained a Catholic Priest in Germany in 1986, he took time in the early 90s away from the priesthood to gain life experience. “I took a break because I always felt that being a young priest, giving advice to mature people without having the life experience is always a very difficult one, so I felt that there was something missing. So I ventured out for a couple of years. I worked for McDonalds, I went to work in a refugee camp for Moslem refugees in the Bosnia war for Pax Christi, I worked as an assistant male nurse in a ward for terminal cancer patients, I worked at the Frankfurt airport for refugees coming into Germany, so a very diverse way of exploring the world.” After these experiences, he asked his Bishop if he could leave Germany to have experiences elsewhere in the world. He ended up in Cape Town in 1997.
It was while he was supporting the German-speaking Catholic community in Cape Town and Kwa-Zulu Natal that he first crossed paths with IAM’s founder, Pieter Oberholzer. In 2007 he had a “run-in with the Catholic church around HIV/AIDS, related to sexual morality, condoms and all those questions the Catholic church is not very fond of.” When his contract was not renewed as Chaplain to Cape Town’s German-speaking Catholic community, his German Bishop allowed him to stay within the Catholic Archdiocese of Cape Town and to serve as a priest in residence, which is his status quo today.
He was asked to join IAM’s board in 2006, which he served on for the next seven years. As he questioned the Catholic Church (and most other denomination’s) teachings on homosexuality and other issues, he found kindred spirits with the IAM team. “Meeting IAM, crossing paths, was for me quite a relief on one hand because I found people who also thought the same thoughts I’m thinking and we marched in the same direction.”
Stefan has seen first-hand how the church’s stance on homosexuality has hurt so many. When Ecclesia (IAM’s Director) was challenging the Methodist Church for her right to marry her same-sex partner, he could see and relate to the pain that caused. “That mirrors what I experienced in my church. When it comes to that topic the church simply closes its doors. There’s only an academic discussion possible, but at the end of the day it’s clear what’s the end result. It’s a catechism of the Catholic Church and it says you are intrinsically evil if you are gay or lesbian or whatever, and that’s it, and I never bought it and so for me being part of IAM was partly liberation.”
“It really felt good. It felt good to be part of a movement of people who by example tried to live lives fully as a gay person, as a transgender person, and even people who were straight but able to work without prejudice with other people. I mean, it was a nice crowd, it was a crowd where you felt welcomed. Working with IAM, being part of decision making, journeying with them for my own life but also touching the lives of others was really very important for me. It’s liberating if you have a crowd where you feel safe, where you can discuss things, where you are not judged, when you explore also ideas, theological ideas. It’s nice to be in that kind of sphere. I think there should be many more people actually joining and helping and engaging because if we are not able to accept in our parishes, in our communities, in our churches the people as they are, and when we are not able to see the beauty of life in the diversity we are failing our calling and the calling of the church. It’s as simple as that.”
While he recognises the value in churches like Goodhope MCC that explicitly cater for LGBTI and diverse populations, he still sees a deep need for mainline denominations to become more welcoming and inclusive. “I think where IAM is very important in its work is actually to bring in that normality into the communities, into the parishes, to make it normal, to make it normal to be who you are in “normal” parishes. We have to normalise at the end of the day how people perceive themselves when they come to a parish or to a church community.” He even holds out hope that there is space for dialogues in the Catholic Church at some stage, and encourages IAM to support dialogue there. “I think there is space, and I think there’s a lot of yearning from people, actually, to be liberated, be it colleagues of mine, be it parishioners, there is that space. It’s a long way to go, it’s obviously surely not without controversy and other things so you have to battle, but it’s so needed.”
Today Stefan remains connected to IAM, though his days are filled with his work as Founder and Director of HOPE Cape Town which works to improve the quality of life of children and families affected by HIV, social challenges and related conditions. He hopes there might be space to partner together in a forthcoming community-based campus in the Western Cape, and will continue to seek out opportunities to work together. “I’m grateful to have met IAM, I’m grateful to have been part of IAM.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.