Bonganjalo (“Bonga”) Mbenenge grew up the son of a minister and a school principal mother in the Eastern Cape in Port Elizabeth. His very religious Xhosa upbringing didn’t prepare him for the discussions around homosexuality that he encountered when he began studying theology at Stellenbosch University in preparation for becoming a minister of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA).

“It was very, for me, a controversial topic, coming from a traditional church, a traditional background that didn’t accept homosexuals from a biblical perspective and a traditional perspective. So when I went to theological school at Stellenbosch this topic was discussed openly …I won’t lie, it was difficult for me because I had to let go of many things, but after I let go discussing the topic brought my humanity back. I thought I was a Christian, but to have humanity means accepting others with no conditions and allowing myself to engage the humanity of others. Today I that the discussing the issue of LGBTIQ in that class was a gift that helped me let go of my judgement of others. ”

Helping hands along the journey

From those initial conversations at Stellenbosch, Bonga has continued to learn and grow his understanding of LGBTI and faith issues. His initial interaction with IAM came during his time at Stellenbosch, when he connected with IAM staff like Michelle Boonzaaier who continued to challenge him to learn and grow.

In 2017, Bonga took part in the Queer Think Tank convened by IAM and its partners. It brought together faith leaders, academics, activists and allies to explore the intersection of gender, sexuality, health and theology. He says that his participation in the event played a role in the evolution of his thinking and the work he is doing with his congregation now. “It created an environment where I was able to expand my knowledge.” It also gave him the space to reflect on his work and how to improve it. “You think of these [new] ideas when you are in those IAM conversations, those IAM conferences, they stimulate you to think, and you take notes down and you think “This I’m going to implement when I get to church,” sometimes not even what people said, but it’s the environment to get you thinking about your own context.”

He also expressed his appreciation for the conference as a safe space for people to work though some of the thorny issues he’d already grappled with, even though that was sometimes frustrating for him to hear people who don’t have his same understanding. “I could see people being very frustrated then and quite upset, and I felt like “I know, I was one of those people who had a problem,” but spaces and patience really help so that we don’t just join in for the sake of joining but we join in with a sense of understanding and contribution.” Bonga also shared his own story in the conference, sharing “what is happening in my local congregation, how people are accepting and creating those environments.

“Talking about this issue, going to IAM’s conferences, being invited and being empowered at the same time,” Bonga said, “it really, really, really helped a lot to be in that kind of community.”

Ubuntu, human dignity and justice

Central to Bonga’s journey has been how his view of human dignity and justice has shifted because of what he has learned. “My humanity relies on the other person, and that’s the concept of ubuntu, “I am because you are.” If I become who I am by myself then I’m not human, but I am because of you, despite your sexual orientation, and everyone has their rights. I’m not gay, I don’t struggle with the issues of being gay. This has nothing to do with me – but it has everything to do with my humanity, so if I stand by and allow others to be discriminated against then I’m no longer human, and as a matter of fact I don’t think I’m even a Christian. When you stand by and watch other people being dehumanised, you are dehumanising yourself. This is the struggle that we have in South Africa today, this issue of us seeing each other as equals rather than superior/inferior, holier than thou. The issue of justice is rights for all despite one’s sexual orientation, despite one’s gender, despite one’s race.”

Read more about Bonga’s journey to bring his learning back into his own congregation and community and the challenges he sees we must navigate around LGBTI issues and tradition in our next post.