The gay-friendly Catholic church

IN A rare display of commitment to gay people, a Catholic church in Braamfontein has opened its doors to a homosexual support group.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) support group has been meeting fortnightly at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church near Wits to talk about their concerns and struggles and to give each other emotional support from a Christian perspective.

Outside Holy Trinity Church. Photo:Leigh-ann Carey

Outside Holy Trinity Church. Photo:Leigh-ann Carey

“The LGBTI group was formed five years ago when some parishioners came to tell me that do I know that there were gay people coming here and they feel marginalised and could we do something for them,” said Father Russell Pollitt, head parish priest at the church.

Group co-ordinator Dumisani Dube said they are not a “charity organisation” and the main aim of the group was to provide emotional support.

According to Pollitt, the Catholic Church is “quite traditional” in its views of homosexuality. However, he said there is a diversity of views within the church.

The Catholic Church has no issues with homosexual orientation, but it does not accept the “practice or lifestyle of homosexuality, i.e. any physical activity is taboo and not acceptable,” said Pollitt.

He adds: “I think the problem with religion is that we don’t think things through. We tend to think things in black and white…whereas human life is really grey.”

Pollitt also said there are discrepancies between what religion upholds and experiences of people.

Finding refuge in the church

Zacharia Kudumela, a member of the support group, recently discovered Holy Trinity after visiting “every church you could think of”.

“I found out about the church weeks ago and I liked it as they accept the LGBTI community. I felt that I belonged at the church. Most churches do not accept the LGBTI community and look down upon us and accuse us of sexual immorality.”

Kudumela said other churches he has visited avoided the topic of homosexuality.

“I’ve had good and bad experiences. At Holy Trinity, I have found a home. I feel like I can now hear the gospel of God, without any judgement.”

Resistance to the church

Pollitt said the road to embracing the LGBTI group at the church was met with anxiety. There was conflict with some church authorities and in some instances he received letters from people who disapproved or denounced the church’s stance on homosexuality.

“People were initially afraid…one or two people decided to go somewhere else because they felt I was trying to make this into a gay church… This place looks after many marginalised people…people left out from churches, because there is some stigma attached to them,” Pollitt said.

Dube said that people came to terms with the existence of the group and supported their cause as the “ministry is getting stronger by the day”.

Perception shift towards homosexuality

Pollitt said there has been a shift in perceptions on homosexuality as people would be uncomfortable if the words “gay and lesbian” were mentioned at his church years ago.  But attitudes were changing and homosexuality “is not a big deal” anymore.

“Some people still feel uncomfortable. There was a guy who walked out of the church recently when he saw pamphlets at the door. He said it’s disgusting [that this] was happening in the church,” he said.

Pollitt said he would be happy to share the LGBTI programme for other congregations to also welcome homosexual people. However, he said no other Catholic church has approached him yet.

He does not believe the Catholic Church would change its opinion on homosexuality, as the church’s definition of marriage is that it is between a man and woman and “any sexual activity should be in the context of marriage”.

Witsies doing it for charity

For Wits students, Sibongile Zwane and Karen Tuiton, volunteering work is about giving back to the community and assisting those who are less fortunate.

The two are volunteers at the Holy Trinity church and they help with preparing food, washing dishes and serving food to homeless people.

Zwane, 1st year quantity surveying student said volunteering and community development are important, “they are more about helping my fellow people.”

Working with homeless people has taught Zwane tolerance, “I was a judgemental person but I now learnt not to judge a book by its cover.”

Yvonne Moloelang, who has been working as a project manager at the Holy Trinity church for 32 years said homeless people are like her own children.

She said taking care of the less privileged makes her happy and she hopes they could all get jobs to live better lives.

Forty-two year old Thabo, who did not want his surname to be known, said he started living on the streets after his parents passed on at the age of 12.

He said he is grateful to the Wits students who assist them at the church.  Because most Wits students treat them like dirt, they don’t even greet them or offer assistance.

“Mam Yvonne (Moloelang) is like a mother to us, I stay somewhere in a bridge at Hillbrow but I come to the church everyday knowing I will get food.”

Zwane said people never attach a face or voice to homeless people, and forget that these people have stories to tell.

Third year BSc student Tuiton said volunteering is better than sitting at home and doing nothing. She said people shouldn’t look down on homeless people, “we should treat them with dignity as we are all equal before the law.”

The soup kitchen is the Wits Volunteering programme initiative, its student volunteer manager Isabelle Mphahle, said anyone who wants to donate clothes or food to the homeless must bring them to Holy Trinity church at corner Jorrissen and Bertha Street.