“We’ve heard of the devil speaking before, but we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes until today.”
That was the consensus at a roundtable meeting of Pentecostal clergy in Kenya a couple of years ago. CWS staff had just finished presenting about our Safe Space Program, which focuses on creating safe and welcoming faith communities for LGBTQI+ community members. In a country where homophobia is the norm and same-sex activity is a crime, the reaction that most of the clergy had is heartbreakingly common.
At least one person in the room disagreed, though. Bishop Elijah Sakha heard the murmurings after the meeting. But when he looked at the CWS team, he didn’t see devils. He saw people. People who talked about everyone being made in the image and likeness of God. People who said that everyone deserved to be loved and respected.
And he thought the CWS team made a good point.
As it turns out, that day was the first day of a new chapter of Bishop Sakha’s life. He invited the CWS team to his church. He invited youth ministers, women’s leaders, community leaders and teachers from the on-site school to ask questions and have a conversation about LGBTIQ+ rights. They talked about everyone’s rights being respected. “Before I encountered the truth with Church World Service, I did not understand,” Bishop Sakha says. “[Now] I’m proud to be a bishop, a clergy, who is not discriminating or sidelining…we are all equal, and we should be served the same.”
While the community sessions went smoothly, they were not without a backlash. Ultimately, complaints from some members led to the church’s landlord revoking his permission for the church to use the land.
With unwavering support from his wife and children, Bishop Sakha refused to stop spreading his message of welcome and acceptance. “Through [CWS], I’ve gotten the light, and the light is the truth. I’m a Pentecostal, and when a Pentecostal realizes the truth, he doesn’t sit on it. He doesn’t put it on the shelf. He has to put it into practice. He has to share it with other people. That’s what Bishop Sakha is doing right now—reaching out to the other clergy, and especially the Pentecostal,” he says. He has found a new clergy group that is more accepting, and he continues to actively engage with CWS Safe Space groups to encourage clergy to welcome LGBTQI+ community members.
In Mombasa, Muslim faith leader Ustadh Mohamed is spreading a similar message among his colleagues. He has had a long career of using Islamic teachings and structures to raise awareness and advocate for different kinds of minorities. Now he is focusing on the LGBTIQ+ community. He is a founding member of a Faith Engagement Group in Mombasa. “It is very significant in the Safe Space Program,” he says. “As a safe group, a strategic faith engagement group, we meet and offer input on how to deal with the religious community on issues of gender and sex.”
“Islam, like any other religion, has always talked about peace, coexistence and harmony,” Ustadh Mohamed says. “It talks strongly against prejudice…If God makes someone a particular way, you have nothing to question, and you abide by it. It is the teaching of Islam also that everything that grows, that moves, that stands, that lies in this earth is doing so by the will of Allah.”
Ustadh Mohamed participates in and leads discussion groups for faith leaders, to share this message of peace. “I’m very grateful to be involved with Church World Service and the other partners who have made it possible for me to acquire this knowledge and who have created a platform to share it,” he says. “You have to reach more religious leaders so that they can have a different mindset and use the structures and their community position to advocate for this knowledge and also to diffuse the violence ideology against members of the LGBTQI+ community. I hope that this engagement will go on, that I will have the chance to empower more people, and empower myself to the fullest.”
Bishop Sakha and Ustadh Mohamed come from different faith backgrounds, but both feel that their faith leads them to be welcoming. Towards the end of a recent conversation with the CWS team, Bishop Sakha said, “We are all human beings. This missive should go out to all the world, that we are human beings. Can I repeat that with capital letters? WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS. Everybody should be respected to the maximum. Everybody should be served equally, without discrimination.”