BY EDEN MIDDLETON, YYCCM SUMMER STUDENT
A year and (almost) a week ago today, I stood at the front of a tiny Zambian chapel in a space usually reserved for Scripture-readers and preachers. The room was crowded with theological students scattered on red cushioned chairs like the ones at that fill my sanctuary at home. As the night continued, more drifted through the door and stood politely in the back, listening intently as I did not read scripture or deliver a sermon. Instead, I was trying to explain the word ‘bisexual’ to a group of adults who grew up in a country where acts of gross public indecency (in other words, homosexuality) are punishable by 14 years in prison.
In many ways, this position is not unfamiliar to me. At age 15, I stood at the front of several United Churches and spoke about the importance of radically accepting religious spaces for my work with the Calgary Presbytery Affirm committee. At 17, I spent every Tuesday lunch standing in front of my high school’s GSA, facilitating conversations about social justice and cool movies and how it felt to keep same-sex crushes secret from conservative Christian parents. Throughout my life, I have stood in front of crowds on theatre stages and at poetry slams. True to the stereotype about artists, most of my best friends and favourite collaborators identify as some type of queer. Anyone who knows me knows that I am intensely passionate about creating spaces where people are unafraid to love who they love and be who they are.
It was therefore with a sinking, icky feeling that I realized that Zambia was not safe for queer people. Homosexuality is illegal. This is a legacy of colonial Christianity that has left 87% of Zambia devoutly Christian. A United Nations survey from 2016 found that only 7% of Zambians would tolerate or accept a gay neighbour. As I was researching that statistic for this post, I found a January 2018 article detailing police persecution of two young women who posted “intimate photos” on social media. My sinking feeling was accompanied by the knowledge that I could not go to Zambia and force this kind of conversation. There is a dark and ugly history of white, wealthy Canadians like me going abroad with well-meaning intentions of “fixing” a perceived African problem through mission trips and voluntourism.
It is a practice that reeks of white saviorism and colonialism. It almost always does more harm than good.
Every effort was being made to ensure that our trip was not like that. Our job was to be humble guests, to learn from and listen to their stories, and to use our privilege to support our hosts however they asked us to. I could not have a conversation about LGBTQ rights without their invitation, and that invitation felt impossible given the circumstances.
I had six months between this realization and our departure. I spent hours in coffee shops with youth leaders and friends, expressing my fears and heartaches; I stopped my habit of making gay jokes without thinking at GSA meetings; I journaled, and wrote little lines of poetry. I took all of my thoughts and feelings about LGBTQ rights and placed them neatly in an imaginary box I wouldn’t open until I was safe at home.
August 1st, 2017
The 7th hour of our second flight. We were somewhere between Toronto and Ethiopia in the biggest plane I have ever flown on, and I was circling the length of the plane to stave off the strange combination of boredom and anxiety bubbling in my chest. Our trip’s fearless leader (and my minister), Vicki McPhee placed a hand on my shoulder as I walked past. She whispered gleefully that there was maybe (emphasis on maybe) a chance that we would connect with one or two lesbian/gay activists. She’d heard a rumour from Mui Mui, our Zambian connection and the head of the theological university that would be our home for 3 weeks.
My carefully packed box opened, just a little. Never the less, it was only a rumour. We wouldn’t see our schedule until we arrived at the university. Even then, between ‘Zambian time’ and the nature of the trip, nothing on the schedule was definite until it had already happened. It was still unlikely, if not impossible.
We had been in Zambia just long enough for me to learn how to say good morning in Bembe (the local dialect). We had spent our day at Racecourse, a school for the students who could not afford the price of uniforms required to attend most government schools. That day, I learned that personal space is different here, especially with curious and affectionate kids who are fascinated by foreigners with skin like mine. It felt like everyone had wanted to hold my hand or touch my hair or teach me a schoolyard clapping game. I was officially out of social minutes, and still re-calibrating after 37 hours of travel a few days earlier. Then, Vicki and Rev. Tracy Robertson (our spiritual leader) pulled me aside.
You see, we had assumed that the block labelled “open forum” in our schedule was a presentation on life in Canada that our group had prepared before coming here. Vicki informed me that actually, the full title of that block was “open forum on lesbians and gays in the United Church of Canada”. I’m paraphrasing but the next words went something like “Eden, you and Tracy have done stuff like this before. You have one hour. Go.”
This brought me to the front of tiny Zambian chapel, standing in a space not unfamiliar to me, explaining the word bisexual to adults who had never heard the word before. I don’t remember much of this part—fear and adrenaline has fogged my memory of those opening moments. My notes tell me that we began by emphasizing the importance of a church community’s love for the outcast. Then, we broke down the acronym and spoke about the United Church’s history of affirming and what that meant. We connected Canada’s history of discrimination to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which had ravaged all of Zambia (not just the gay demographic). In between, we broke into smaller groups where we invited people to share thoughts, questions, and fears.
Some of these conversations were delightfully open and constructive. In a country where orphanages and health clinics were run not by the government but by churches, our Zambian friends were intimately familiar with the vital role church served in the lives of those outcast by society. They were also quick to draw the parallel between LGBTQ to polygamy. Polygamy, the practice of marrying more than one person, is illegal (and taboo) within Canada. In Zambia, it is common practice. The same is true in reverse of same-sex marriage. This developed into a fascinating discussion that defined sin as a cultural value instead of a universal moral truth. We also discovered that while Canadian marriages centralized love, Zambians were more likely to choose a partner based on who could best support their family.
Other conversations were mostly curious. One group spent ten minutes asking one of our adult leaders (a professional nurse) detailed questions about genital reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. Another woman raised fears that this question meant the United Church of Canada would withhold funding because the Zambian United Church was not affirming; we did our best to reassure her that the UCC is not a converting church and that we do not attach strings like that to our funds.
Of course, there were moments that were not open or constructive. In my small group, a man with knee-high black and yellow socks would derail the conversation with theological and moral ‘gotchas’ the likes of which I had seen online but never heard in person. He framed them as questions and accompanied them with a pleasant smile, but their complexity and snaking logic made them feel more like traps. (After the forum, he would ask to take a selfie with me on his flip phone. I would oblige, and smile). Other students were more explicit—Vicki’s small group was told with frightening certainty that the UCC was going to hell and needed to repent their sins.
When we moved out of small groups and into a Q&A style forum, the night grew darker still. Bumblebee socks stood and spoke at length about the biblical evidence against homosexuality. Another declared that the AIDS crisis (which had wiped out nearly an entire generation of Zambians) was government propaganda and implied that we were either fools or liars for believing it. A third student, who spoke quietly with his hands folded neatly at his belly, requested that we out those among our group who were gay, so that he might learn from our experiences. Tracy declined to answer and reminded the group about our commitment to safe space, while I tried to quiet the buzzing fear I felt in my gut, certain that my discussion had put us all at risk. As is typical of every gathering in Zambia, I ended our evening with a blessing I had written during our hour’s preparation. I did not feel blessed.
Immediately following, myself, another youth who had led a small group, and the adult leaders gathered for an over-exhausted debrief. We spiralled. The ignorance and bigotry we had experienced while isolated in our small groups stacked on top of each other, quickly drowning out the little moments of light. One leader worried that the cops would be called on the gay Canadians, a fear quickly quelled by the knowledge that our privilege as wealthy internationals would protect us. My memory of this debrief is clouded by the deep trembling sensation of fear and guilt I felt tightening around my chest. I knew that statistically, there were queer Zambians in that audience. I was terrified that by having this conversation, I had exposed them to bigotry and investigation; that I had unearthed something meant to stay buried and hurt them in my naivety. Underlying this fear was my immense guilt: in three weeks, I got to go home to a country where I was safe and protected. They did not. This conversation was their life.
My journal entry that night was a single sentence: “my heart is tired.”
My neatly packed box of LGBTQ activism had not only been opened but overturned, its debris strewn in dark corners that I would stumble upon and wince at throughout the trip. Although the weight of this conversation would not completely disappear, it did get lighter. The next morning, Mui Mui noted that he was quite pleased by the conversation and added that some students (like the man who had denied the AIDS crisis) still had much to learn. Another leader offered the reassurance that “those in front take a few arrows," and that the nature of my position and privilege meant that I could afford to take these arrows. I focused on the present moment and did my best to let go of my superman-syndrome and my guilt. I played soccer with school kids and danced to beautiful African hymns and took photos with an elephant. I did my best to let it go.
Nevertheless, it hurt. It hurts still, a year and a week later. It hurts to know and love and be close with someone who denies the basic humanity of people you love. I am still learning how to have these conversations. I still don’t know how. It would be easy if I could speak only about how love is love is love. But I can’t. These conversations demand engagement with intersecting complexities: centuries of faith traditions; colonial and imperialist histories; the cultural values and teachings surrounding identity; fear of the unknown; the unique experiences of any given individual. Navigating that conversation with compassion and an openness is terrifying and exhausting and a role I feel vastly underqualified for. It makes my heart tired. It hurts.
Our last day in Kitwe at the University. During our goodbye ceremony, our group and a few students sat together in the tiny red-walled chapel. We sang hymns, the Canadians stumbling through Bembe and unfamiliar melodies as the Zambians laughed at us. Then, the students got up and said a few words. One thanked us for the open forum. He said, “In Canada, you embrace everyone no matter who they are. I think maybe this is something we as Zambian Christians need to learn from our Canadian brothers & sisters in Christ.”
Months later, a different student messaged Tracy over whats-app. He said, “In my theological studies I have realized that Jesus Christ preached a very simple message on earth but the church has complicated it. Jesus said ‘come to me as you are I will give you rest’ regardless of your sexual orientation, polygamous. Today the church is busy saying no to these people, I wonder why Rev. Tracy, coz Jesus preached a very simple message…”
Maybe a tired heart is worth it after all.