A new book chronicling LGBTQ refugees in South Africa aims to bring a positive light to the influences religion can have for the queer community. Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith, and Migration is authored by John Marnell, a doctoral researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society.
The book, which is published by Wits University Press, is a multi-year oral history project focused on the LGBT ministry at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Johannesburg. The ministry has operated since 2009 and is popular with refugees and asylum seekers who have fled their home countries to avoid persecution.
In an article on The Conversation, an independent news site, Marnell explained that his aim was to focus on both the positive role of religion in the lives of LGBTQ Africans, as well as the religious communities that welcome them. He emphasized the need to broaden the understanding of the relationship between religion and LGBTQ displacement beyond a framing that the former causes the latter. He also sought to focus on the ways religious institutions fight injustice.
Marnell interviewed thirty different participants from a variety of faith traditions and countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, as well as church leaders. Nearly everyone felt some sense of shame and guilt from their religious upbringing, including some extreme examples of violence, as in the case of Eeyban, a gay Ethiopian man:
“‘The teachers [at the madrasa] would punish me for being feminine. At first they would just use words to make me feel bad, but over time they began to beat me. They would say that Islam doesn’t tolerate boys like me.'”
South Africa is seen as a haven for African LGBTQ refugees, but Marnell points out that too often they receive abuse and discrimination there as well. One example is that of a Zambian man who was denied asylum after enduring ridicule from the officers who felt he did not fit their stereotype of a gay man.
Marnell highlights the influence of religious leaders in such cases: “[Their] sanctioning of homophobia and transphobia…can make LGBT people believe they are sinful and diseased, and can encourage discrimination from families, communities, and governments,” he wrote. “In many cases, it establishes a culture of impunity for perpetrators of violence.”
And yet, Seeking Sanctuary illustrates how each of these interviewees still saw the positive aspects of their faith tradition. Rather than seeing conflict between their beliefs and sexual orientation and/or gender identity, they lived fully into both.
“The Bible tells us that love is the most important thing, that we can’t know God if we don’t know love,” writes Nkady, a lesbian woman from Lesotho, “so for me it is important to honour the desires that God has blessed me with.”
Many people credited Holy Trinity Church’s LGBT ministry for what Marnell describes as “[t]he shift from perceiving religion as an oppressive force to one that can promote inclusion.” Encountering religious leaders who celebrated and affirmed their identity enabled them to appreciate aspects of their faith traditions while still condemning the oppression they suffered:
“The stories show that LGBT Africans are interpreting Scripture in ways that reflect their aspirations, values, needs, and experiences while also buttressing their demands for justice and equality.” In other words, their witnesses underscore the best of religion: a faith that comforts the afflicted and marginalized and afflicts those too comfortable with power and oppression.
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, November 22, 2021