Queer-inclusive prayer spaces in Cape Town

Even in Africa’s “gay capital,” sexual and gender minorities can feel invalidated or rejected by religious communities. Here are three inclusive prayer spaces in Cape Town that work to reconcile rifts between faith, sexuality and gender identity.

Cape Town-based Imam Muhsin Hendricks founded The Inner Circle 20 years ago in his garage as a safe space for queer Muslims. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2016 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa—Many governments and religious institutions around the world share a legacy of tension with and towards sexual and gender minorities. In at least 72 countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and/or intersex (LGBTQI+) relationships and identities are punishable by law, sometimes even by death.

Despite legal prohibitions across much of Africa, South Africa stands alone as the only country on the continent to recognize same-sex marriage. The country’s liberal constitution makes it a refuge of sorts for LGBTQI+ people, but even Cape Town, often considered the continent’s “gay capital,” is not immune to sexual orientation and gender identity/expression (SOGIE)-based discrimination. Hate crimes, including so-called “corrective rapes,” still plague impoverished communities, and LGBTQI+ tolerance is still hotly debated among many religious institutions.

To support SOGIE minorities who feel invalidated or rejected by their religious communities, inclusive prayer and worship spaces have emerged in Cape Town to help reconcile the rifts between faith, sexuality and gender identity/expression. Here are three such spaces, one for each of the major Abrahamic faiths.

Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church, Cape Town City Center

Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church (GHMCC) bills itself as a “theologically progressive and inclusive Christian community founded on the principles of Jesus Christ that celebrates diversity in a safe environment.”

“The desire of Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church is that there will no longer be a need for that safe space of worship because other denominations will have become more embracing and celebratory of the entirety of a person and of respectful consenting relationships between people,” Senior Pastor Rev. Beulah Dürrheim said.

GHMCC holds weekly services at the Central Methodist Church in Cape Town’s city center near Greenmarket Square. The church uses inclusive language and offers congregants gender-neutral bathrooms, a rare sight at even non-religious buildings in Cape Town.

GHMCC is part of the interdenominational Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, the world’s first LGBTQI+-friendly church started in the late 1960s in the United States following the Stonewall Riots, a series of milestone resistance demonstrations by the American LGBTQI+ community.

GMHCC held a service of lament and hope on Sunday, October 26 in partnership with the Centre for Christian Spirituality, Inclusive & Affirming Ministries and the Dutch Reformed Church’s Groote Kerk. The service focused on the Dutch Reformed Church’s recent decision to revoke its recognition of gay marriage and ordination of non-celibate gay ministers.

“It’s like inviting somebody for dinner and, as they arrive, you slam the door in their face,” said Groote Kerk minister Riaan de Villiers about the DRC’s reversal.

Despite what many consider to be a step backward in the fight for equal rights, congregations from various Christian denominations, including the Dutch Reformed Church itself, continue to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQI+ community.

“Some people managed to fill up the cracks in the dam, but they won’t hold because cracks never hold when rivers of justice flow. There’s no wall that can stop it, the dam will burst,” de Villiers added.

The People’s Mosque, Wynberg

Muhsin Hendricks, one of the world’s few openly gay imams, founded The Inner Circle (TIC) in 1996 to support LGBTQI+ Muslims. Hendricks later opened the People’s Mosque as a welcoming place for all Muslims.

“There’s nothing in the Islamic text that denies people from different sexual orientations, cultures and religious backgrounds to enter a relationship of mutual consent, love and intimacy as long as there is commitment and agreement between the two parties,” Hendricks said.

Women are not obliged to wear hijab at the People’s Mosque, nor are they required to sit separately from men. They are encouraged to take up leadership roles and to lead prayer.

“Most other mosques in Cape Town are very conservative, especially when it comes to separation of genders,” a congregant at the People’s Mosque who wished not to be named said. “Even though some of them are good at engaging in discourse [around] sociopolitical analysis, queer politics, capitalism, sexuality, I don’t think they implement it as fully as TIC.”

Despite a fatwa passed against him by South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council in 2007, Hendricks continues to operate The Inner Circle and host workshops contextualizing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which he believes is not a condemnation of homosexuality at all, but rather a cautionary tale about power and privilege.

“The Quran is written in classic Arabic poetry style, and one word in Arabic could inflect in 14 different interpretations. It can be stretched to meet the context of any human experience,” Hendricks said. “Each Surah begins with, ‘in the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful,’ to remind us to interpret it in a healing way.”

Temple Israel Progressive Jewish Congregation, Green Point

The prayer books used in Temple Israel’s services refer to God with gender-neutral pronouns, and women are expected and encouraged to fulfill the same religious obligations as men. In Rabbi Greg Alexander’s words, “We don’t just campaign for women, we campaign for what is right.”

Temple Israel made the decision to recognize same-sex marriages after the Civil Union Act was passed in 2006 legalizing same-sex marriage in South Africa.

Rabbi Alexander approaches SOGIE issues with three questions to himself, “Where are there voices that are not heard? Where are there people who are not seen? How can we bring those people forward and make them visible, included, and part of this community?”

Temple Israel seeks to provide a safe space for LGBTQI+ Jews and allies and hosts the annual Pride Shabbat, which forms part of Cape Town’s Pride Week celebrations each year.

“I think our progressive way of looking at the world is about recognizing injustice and fighting injustices. That’s really the true essence of Judaism in the Torah,” said Sofía Louisa Zway, Temple Israel’s youth development officer. “The world God wants us to create is one that is just and inclusive and welcoming and loving.”

The people behind Cape Town’s inclusive prayer spaces use their houses of worship to deconstruct power, exclusion and dogma. They celebrate and empower marginalized identities through worship and community. They show that religious institutions can be part of the upliftment and not the oppression of marginalized individuals and communities.

As Rev. Dürrheim says, “God is where the pain is. God walks closest with those who feel outcast, misunderstood, rejected, oppressed.”

Cara Mazzola is a journalist in Cape Town. 

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