On 26 May 2020, South African President Ramaphosa called for churches and places of worship to reopen, citing “the great impact that the closure of places of worship had on members of the faith community, and that this has worsened the distress of communities who are unable to worship in congregation.” Members of Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference welcomed this news, saying that the reopening of churches will help many people who have experienced emotional and spiritual distress during the lockdown. “People have felt abandoned by the church community in their moment of grave need. The stress of feeling isolated leaves the individual with a weakened immunity… A sense of deep depression due to spiritual longing is also a suffering and a disease.”
But what of the countless numbers of LGBTIQ+ people who have been effectively locked out of their places of worship for years? What of their anguish and distress, their sense of abandonment by their spiritual communities?
IAM’s Ecclesia de Lange reflects on the “reopening” of places of worship, and how this new-found awareness that spiritual leaders have of the pain of being isolated and unable to seek solace in their churches might translate into a deeper understanding of the pain experienced by the LGBTIQ+ people of faith.
Believers in lockdown, you can now identify with LGBTIQ+ people of faith
As the country’s infection rate grows, lifting the lockdown on the religious sector is an irresponsible step as we approach the eye of the COVID-19 storm. Anyone that practices their faith in the South African context will know social distancing in a public worship context would be difficult to maintain, and I am not convinced that worship spaces have the capacity to enforce the measures government has put in place. Fortunately, in my view, many religious leaders have wisely decided not to open their doors from 1 June 2020 for the sake of saving lives. I am grateful that in the midst of the storm our experience and companionship with God cannot be on lockdown or locked-out.
A a member of the queer community, I can identify with how much all worshippers have been deprived of their religious gatherings and rituals during the 10-week nationwide lockdown. Exercising their right to participate fully in the life of the church has been limited and, in some instances, come to an abrupt halt, leaving many isolated and disconnected.
Perhaps this is an opportunity (or an invitation from God) to religious leaders and their followers to identify with the LGBTIQ+ people of faith who have been locked out of our spaces of worship for decades because of who we are and who we love. The doors for most LGBTIQ+ people are closed. We are not fully welcome and cannot participate fully in the life of the church. Our movement and involvement in the church have been limited and, in some cases, not welcomed at all. We can attend services, but please leave who you love and who you are, at the door and for God’s sake don’t offer your service to become a leader or a minister in “the church”.
My hope is that once the COVID-19 storm has passed the “new normal” in the religious spaces will include all people (yes LGBTIQ+ people too!) who have a desire to participate fully in the sacred gatherings and life of the church and in some cases offer their lives in response to a calling.