Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ostracism in Nepal – The Long Arm of Evangelical Spiritual Persecution Reaches Kathmandu

By Rev. Steve Parelli
Thamel, Kathamandu, Nepal
2:35 am, August 24, 2011

A religious inquisition can have more than one form. In Goa, India, where I was vacationing just two weeks ago, I saw, in the state museum of Goa, the “inquisition table” used by the Roman Catholic Church in Old Goa where a tribunal of some sort sat and handed down its brutal physical torments upon its victims during its reign of religious terror a few centuries ago. The long arm of the dreadful religious Inquisition in Europe had reached all the way to India. I stood somewhat in shock and horror as I looked upon the table and chairs that represented the church’s official right of persecution, just to realize that even here, in India, the Inquisition took hold of its subjects.

I’ve just now witnessed something of the same this evening in Kathmandu, Nepal: The long arm of evangelical spiritual abuse reaching all the way to Kathmandu. The persecution was not physical, but emotional. The victim, a church-going Nepali Christian actively seeking to understand the plight of the sexually marginalized in Nepal, and showing his support in having open dialogue between gay Christians and church leaders, received a phone call from a clergyman who identified himself as the pastor of the largest church in Kathmandu. From his undefined “table and chairs” he handed down his official decree without trial or recourse for the individual on trial: If the victim would not cease to show his support of free dialogue between gay Christians and church leaders in a public setting, the pastor would speak to the victim’s pastor in such a way that the victim felt excommunication was intended.

The victim was distressed, anxious and was notably shaken. Church life is the center of this individual’s life. In fact, the pastor who made the threat had inquired from the beginning, prior to his speaking with the victim, to learn if the person in question was an active Christian who was regularly involved with the life of his church. Once the accusing pastor had determined that the victim would indeed suffer if removed from the family life of his church, he handed down his apparent decision: complete ostracism.

The victim called it a threat. The pastor denied that he was making a threat and argued, instead, that it is his calling and commission to save the flock from wolves. Sociologists tell us that ostracism is one of the most effective ways of emotionally distressing an individual, and when carried out to its fullest has harmful results leading to depression, inactivity, and even suicide. When a society or a community ostracizes an individual from its circle, the harm can be extensive.

In America, where evangelicals have been dealing with this “issue” of homosexuality since the late 1960’s, there has been, more recently, increments of talking-and-listening among evangelicals themselves as well as evangelicals dialoging with gay Christians. It hasn’t always been that way, and the in-roads to open discussions within American evangelicalism is not that extensive. But, yes, evangelicals outside of Kathmandu are, to a small degree, talking in settings that this leading pastor of the Kathmandu Valley deems inappropriate enough to covertly speak with the victim one-on-one over the phone and to seriously raise the question of church discipline, even to the point of complete ostracism, so the victim felt.

I ask, is this Christianity, to judge another Christian as disqualified from fellowship with his or her church on the basis of his or her support of understanding and knowing gay Christians through open, public dialogue. In America, as a gay Christian, I have been personally involved with Soulforce in its active, public dialogues with evangelicals. While I cannot speak to the culture of Nepal for I am not qualified, I can, to a certain degree, speak to the experience of evangelicals worldwide. And so I ask, can an evangelical Christian be a good Christian even though he or she may be in total, complete support of gay Christians? We have those kind of evangelicals in America, who are evangelical and who have concluded that it is ok to be gay and Christian. Straight evangelicals in support of gay evangelicals do exist. Maybe this is one area where evangelicals will have to agree to disagree for the time being and treat each other civilly while doing so. And, at the very least, let’s set aside the “table and chairs” of the Goa Inquisition, the long arm of the West bearing down again on the East with its religious intolerance.

While I’ve obviously taken issue with the pastor in question who spoke the way he did to the Nepali Christian, I do, at the same time, respect his right to lead his flock and to influence fellow clergypersons as he deems he must do. Church discipline, as defined by any denomination, is the prerogative of that institution. At the same time, the outside world has every right, and perhaps every responsibility, to say at times, that whatever the institution – government, religious or private, that that institution has perhaps acted in a way that is abusive towards one’s fellow being. When it comes to religion, it is hard to blow the whistle because religion has, by its very nature, an almost right-of-way to say and do whatever it deems is the will of God (and in doing so often offends the Creator as much as the creature). In this case, I feel the Golden Rule needed to come into play more than the pastor’s views on homosexuality when speaking to the victim. The victim claims he was threatened instead of pastored, counseled, and shepherded. Religion can be heavy-handed, especially when it comes from the top down.

And just now (by speaking of heavy-handedness and top-to-down authority), I ’ve been carried back, from Nepal, to the “chairs and table” of the Goa Inquisition. And that’s not where I wish to be.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A "husband-and-husband act" at the Kannur, Kerala, Railroad Station snack bar, and the expressionless look on the "audience's" faces.

By Steve Parelli

Written with pen and paper, Tuesday evening, July 26, 2011, at the Kannur, Kerala, Railroad Station while waiting for our train to Kottayam to arrive. Transposed to my laptop, making minor changes in the script, Saturday morning, August 5, 2011, Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa.

“Twenty rubies only,” said the vendor loud enough for all to hear as he set the two cans of diet coke on the counter before me. “Twenty rubies only,” he repeated loudly, again stressing the word “only” and pitching his bargain price to as wide an audience as possible. It put a smile on my face. He reminded me of myself, an enthusiast about his business. He was also putting smiles on the faces of other customers who, for whatever reasons, were drawn in to this every-day business transaction that was occurring between the Indian vender and the white, male American tourist.

The small snack store, situated on a busy corner at the entrance to the platform area of the Kannur, Kerala, railroad station, consisted of two open counter spaces adjoining each other at a 90 degree angle. Customers at one counter could look across diagonally to customers at the second counter while the vender – with a particular flare for entertaining – easily serviced both counters. The size of the store was not much bigger than the smaller newsstands found in the New York City subway.

By now, all eyes were on me the foreigner who was purchasing two cans of soft drink. The vender was enjoying the notoriety as much as I had become use to onlookers in Kerala.

“Where are you from?” asked the vender, like a ring master under the big top, again loud enough to attract additional onlookers, which he did.

“The USA,” I said as I reached in my wallet for a 50 bill.

“Is this your friend?” he asked, pointing to Jose who was standing a bit behind me, the audience still attentive to every word.

Now it was my turn to step into the lead role. I would, in good humor, upstage the ring master. Up until now, I had been his support. Now, little did he know it, his role would be to support me and my lines.

“He’s my husband,” I said. Everyone understood and everyone laughed – not a polite laugh, but a real gusto laugh, the routine response we get in India when introducing ourselves as “husband and husband.”

It is hard to get a laugh when traveling abroad. What is funny in one culture, does not always translate as funny in another culture. Perhaps because the English words are clearly understood, or that the “joke” is uncomplicated, or that the foreigner is attempting to be humorous – for whatever reason, our introduction of one another as “husband and husband” always generates hardy laughter.

So, naturally, I was quick to affirm my statement. “Yes, husband and husband,” I said.

Jose smiled and chimed in. The lines we’ve repeated throughout Kerala spilled from our lips as if in chorus, Jose and me speaking alternately:

“Yes, married in 2008 in California,” said Jose.

“We have six states in America that have legalized same-sex marriages,” said I.

“We’ve been together for thirteen years,” said Jose without missing a beat.

“You know about marrying a man and a man, or a woman and woman?” I asked the vender directly.

“Yes,” he replied, “I hear the news. I know.”

As Jose and I were speaking, I looked towards the vender when I spoke, and then towards Jose, who stood behind me, when he spoke, giving me the opportunity to actually look about at the people and the expressions on their faces. Our audience was fixated on every word we spoke as well as on the image of our persons – interracial, American, two married men. (Out of the corner of my eye I caught Jose pitching to the crowd as much as to the vender.)

The onlookers were all men in their 30s and 40s – middle age. How would I describe their uniform expression? It was a look of disbelief; or a stunned look; not a look of surprise; I suppose their look was a cross between stunned and awe – almost an expressionless expression as if they went pale with disbelief; an expressionless look that said they were still taking in the data provided and processing it; as if their ears had betrayed them and the mind was catching up; a does-not-compute-yet-did-in-fact-compute look.

Almost like school children looking steadfastly at their teacher to explain patiently the predicament the teacher had posed; as if a new math equation had been presented on the blackboard, one which seemed to invalidate all previous math equations learned.

In this sea of expressionless expressions, we were, as we spoke our declarative sentences, assuring them with kind smiles and clear wide eyes that the equation – “husband and husband” – was in fact the case and does, in this new interactive, Internet word, exist – right here and now before their very eyes.

With that, Jose and I smiled at each other, looked out at our disbelieving bystanders, and walked off (the
stage) into the milieu of people on the railroad station platform – with our two cans of diet coke for “twenty
rubies only.”

Discussing sexual minorities and inclusion with Indian Muslims one-on-one in Kerala, India

By Rev Steve Parelli,
Written August 3, 2011
Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa

The following events occured in Kerala, India, in July of 2011
On the train in Kerala, India, in the course of our seven-hour-plus trip from Kottayam to Kannur, traveling first class in a separate compartment, Jose and I met and spoke with three different “types” of Muslim men as it pertains to the topic of homosexuality, religion and inclusion.

In order to find possible interaction with people, Jose and I took turns leaving the solitude of our compartment: me, to distribute literature introducing the newly published Malayam book on the Bible, sexual minorities and inclusion; and Jose, to enter into conversation with any passenger who might show interest in him as a foreigner.

The first of our “three-types” of Muslim, whom Jose met early-on in our trip, was a closeted gay Indian in his forties who was living and working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He was home in Kerala on leave, traveling in the adjoining compartment of our first class car. Jose was already engaged in conversation with the closeted gay Muslim in his compartment when a second passenger, a Christian, entered the compartment and listened in on the conversation. The Christian was especially interested in obtaining a copy of the Malayalam book which Jose, at the moment, was explaining. Jose excused himself, left and returned with two copies of the book and gave a copy to the Christian and then offered a copy to the Muslim who politely refused it saying he would read it on line on our Other Sheep website.

Later, as Jose stood at the end of the car, looking out onto the passing landscape dominated by palm trees, some rice paddies, and scattered houses, the closeted gay Muslim approached Jose and spoke with him alone. He told Jose that he does enjoy sex with men. When Jose noted he was traveling with his husband, the gay Muslim commented how hard it was to find someone in an Arab country; that people are not open about same-sex sex in Arab countries – that it is forbidden; and that married Arab men, nonetheless, do have sex with other men but are “rough and not tender.” Earlier, but subsequent to Jose’s initial conversation with him, the gay Muslim had the occasion to position himself very close to Jose physically so as to brush against Jose, very suggestively, although ever so slightly, so that Jose was not the least bit surprised when the gay Indian Muslim identified himself as a man who engages in same-sex sex.

Our “second-type” Muslim experience, the open type who is willing to engage in honest, intelligent conversation, occurred somewhere mid-point in our travel. This Muslim Indian, who I will call Anil, was around age thirty, college educated, a businessperson, intelligent, articulate and logical in his delineation of thoughts, questions and comments.

At the platform of each train stop, I would climb down off the train car and, vocally calling out, announce “New book in Malayalam on sexual minorities and inclusion, a book addressing the Christian church; free literature on the book . . . New book in Malayalam on sexual minorities and inclusion, a book addressing the Christian church; free literature on the book . . . “

Anil watched from the car window as I handed out the literature on the book, and after the second or third train station stop, he motioned for a copy. As the train was pulling away, I jumped back on at his end of the car and gave him a copy of the literature. From there our conversation took off. He was respectful, offered a different opinion than mine, but more from a point of intelligent thinking rather than out of his Muslim conviction or social construct. He was genuinely interested it seemed to me, in understanding sexual minorities. After talking at length, he came with me to meet Jose “my husband” at our compartment and continued the discussion. We gave him a copy of the Malayalam book and pointed him to the section on Genesis 19 – the Sodom and Gomorrah story – common to the three sacred texts of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. He took interest in the commentary on Genesis 19, kept the book, and would have continued discussing for some time more if we hadn’t excused ourselves from the dialogue.

Our “third type” of Muslim, as it pertained to our topic of homosexuality and religion, was more fundamental in nature, so it seemed to us. Towards the end of our journey, two Muslim first-year college students, friends from the same town, boarded the train together at Calicut where they had just finished their college classes for the day to return to their homes down the tracks two or three stations away.

Jose saw them standing at the boarding door of our car and introduced himself to them. At some point into his conversation with them, Jose invited them to join us in our compartment. They accepted and politely showed some curiosity in who we are and what we do. Of course, introducing ourselves as “husband and husband” who work for the human rights of LGBT people in the context of religious settings worldwide, always gives rise to further explanations around specific questions. These young men were no different when it came to curiosity, however they appeared somewhat shy and were either being socially appropriate and indulgent, or being reticent about the subject matter, or genuinely somewhat bashful before the American foreigners, or they were, in fact, just good conservative Muslims keeping their dialogue about the topic on human rights and religious inclusion for gays and lesbians somewhat at bay. At the time, I took their posturing as the latter; but, without knowing their own expressed feelings, I can’t be sure.

I told them about my firsthand knowledge of gay Muslims (which generally comes as a surprise to Muslims, as I’ve experienced it). I told them about the gay Imam of South Africa that I personally met in Geneva at an ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) world conference. I told them the Imam, a clergyman like me, was openly living with his same-sex life partner, like I am. Then I told them about the gay Muslim in Kenya, Africa, who read the section on Genesis 19 from the book we distribute, and when he did so he phoned us (while we were walking in the streets of Nairobi) and told us “the book changed my life.”

At that point I showed them the same section, in Malayalam, that the gay Muslim Kenyan had read in English. The section amounts to five pages in length in Malayalam. They each took a copy of the book, and taking their time, they read the segment on Sodom and Gomorrah. They were either proper students respecting the request of their aged, foreign (momentary) “tutor” (and thus being culturally or socially appropriate), or they genuinely found the material of interest. Either way they stayed focused on the text until they completed the reading of all five pages.

I told them they could keep the books if they liked. They sheepishly refused the offer which I quickly acknowledge as fine. We brought the conversation around to less serious matters some minutes before we arrived at their destination.

As the train pulled away from their station, I remarked to Jose that our experience with Indian Muslims on this full-day trip through the coastal area of Kerala was pretty representative of the continuum of religious people in general, and that Muslims, apparently, are no exception. The first Indian Muslim was in fact a closeted gay man, hiding his true identity out of fear of society and Islam; the second Indian Muslim was open and honest and not-at-all taken back by the topic of homosexuality and religion and its sub points, but was willing to intelligently explore the subject matter. The last two Indian Muslims, college students, aged 19 each, had the appearance of being somewhat stunned, for whatever reason, that their path was crossing the path of two committed Christian homosexuals who make it their business to talk religion and sexual orientation as a matter of every day discourse.

The Roman Catholic Sister of Kottayam who openly helped me distribute a free book in Malayalam on sexual minorities and inclusion

By Rev Steve Parelli,
Written July 30 - August 3, 2011
Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa

The following event occurred in Kottayam, Kerala, India, on Friday, July 22, 2011

Traveling by hired car-with-driver and carrying with us our 500-plus copies of the Malayalam book on the Bible, sexual minorities and inclusion, we arrived in Kottayam from Trivandrum (a three and a half hour trip) on a Tuesday afternoon in late mid-July, 2011. Our budget hotel was tucked in behind street-front stores, back off from the main street, with a short alley way for its vehicle entrance. As our driver circled the same area of streets a second time in search of the “hidden” entrance way, it became obvious to me that our place of lodging was situated very close to our targeted recipients of the book – clergy, religious students, and lay leaders. Once we arrived, we saw just how close.

The hotel was virtually in the shadow of two large churches and a gated Catholic college for women. My first impression of the women’s college was how impregnable it would be to us; most likely an off-limits area to two men distributing free literature to women-only in a tight conservative environment. And though I made a mental note of the women’s college as a possible place to visit, I put it low on our list of priorities.

Was I in for a surprise: I would have a window of opportunity to distribute there, and I would be assisted with my on-site activity by a very progressive, forward thinking Sister and teacher of the women’s college.

Here’s what happened.

On this particular morning, I rose early (as is my habit) and quietly told my husband Jose (who was sleeping) that I was going out to do distribution work at the near-by Catholic church. I was hoping to meet college students there. On the day before, I had seen college-age young people attending morning Mass. Taking my bag filled with books and literature, I passed through the darkened lobby of our hotel and stepped out onto the yet still streets of Kottayam. A short walk away stood the Catholic church impressively high above the smaller establishments, clean-white in color, with its three set of double doors wide open calling the faithful to enter.

I arrived at the church while the early Mass was soon to end and a second Mass was to follow. I watched as young people arrived late, assessing the best location for distribution. I was standing on the street, a bit down the road from the main entrance to the sanctuary, at a place where parishioners passed from the street to the side of the church and then to the main entrance.

Suddenly, emerging from the sanctuary at the main entrance of the church and coming down the steps to the street was this huge mass of white – students and Sisters (faculty, so I assume) all dressed in white garb (though the faculty were definitely distinguished from the students by their type of garb). They made their way with a bit of hurry in their step. They were gathered together like a flock; their white garments were wide and broad from head to foot, giving the appearance, from a distance, that they were somewhat tightly pressed together, one up against the other, moving en mass like geese following a narrow pathway, their motionless bodies carried about by their unseen feet. I saw them just as they started their exit from Mass and immediately noted their intended destination: the gate to the Catholic women’s college across from the church. Without a moment’s hesitation and with a walking pace a bit faster than theirs (since the distance I had to cover to the college gate was greater than theirs), I arrived just ahead of them with my Malayalam book in hand, holding it out to them, audibly announcing my free offer.

I made my appeal directly to Sisters, who I assumed were faculty, who were walking interspersed among the students – all walking not in any kind of formation, but simply keeping step with one another within the flow of their own group movement.

When I first crossed the road to meet-up with the students and Sisters at the gate, I had imagined that my white flock of scholars would be small, and my opportunity brief. However, as I stood there giving copies of the book to passing Sisters, I saw that the flow of white-garbed students and teachers was still coming from the church, crossing the street to the women’s college gate where I stood. It amounted to a steady stream of what turned out to be, no doubt, a sizable representation (if not the total school body) of the students and Sisters.

Then it happened. One of the Sisters stopped to ask me questions. She was more than appropriate and very polite. If she was apprehensive of my presence and the book, she did not show it.

Quickly looking over a copy of the book and assessing my objective by the answers I gave to her questions, she immediately began pointing to other Sisters (faculty, I believe) who were passing us in their march to their next function of the day, saying “Give her a copy . . . and her. . . and also her,” getting the individual Sister’s attention while directing mine. What a remarkable experience. This Sister was taking my small window of opportunity to hand out copies of the book to passing Catholic teachers and helping me by making sure they actually got a copy.

After everyone passed by, and having pulled aside two other Sisters, the Sister who had assisted (and insisted when it came to giving the book to particular Sisters) discussed very briefly with me her experiences with sexual minorities and wanted to learn more about my own personal experience as a sexual minority. On her part, as a psychologist, she had knowledge of and firsthand experience with transgender people and was involving Sisters and students by increasing their awareness and understanding of transgender people. When I told her that I was gay and married to a man, she wanted to know if I was a transgender person. When I explained that I was not, she became very interested in wanting to understand more. She exchanged contact information with me, and learning that “my husband” and I were planning only one more week-day in Kottayam, she invited us to speak to one of the classes if she could get permission on such a short notice. She immediately assigned one of the Sisters to speak to the supervisor about granting permission. Unfortunately, the meeting never did materialize. The Sister texted me that no word had returned from the supervising department and so one had to assume, therefore, that permission would not be granted at this time.

My early morning, brief meeting with this Sister who so quickly embraced me and my task of distribution will always remain with me as a found memory of how walls-of-institutions-branded-with denominational-titles do not necessarily limit as to who or what ideas may be found within; there are, as I am always thrilled to find, people – in whatever religious denomination – who desire to be intellectually honest and genuinely open and interactive with today’s social realities; yes, even on the matter of sexual minorities and inclusion. And so it was with this dear Sister.

How a News Release over the Internet from Trivandrum, Kerala, India, led to a significant meeting with a with a conservative religious leader in Kerala

By Rev Steve Parelli,
Written August 4, 2011
Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa

The following events occurred in Kerala, India, in July of 2011

Immediately following the TTF (Trivandrum Theological Forum) Young Lay Leaders’ Conference of July 7 – 9, 2011, in Kerala, India, I published two News Releases to the Internet from our Classic Ave Hotel in Trivandrum. The first News Release highlighted what I said in a seminar at the conference on July 7, and the second News Release highlighted what Jose said in his seminar on July 8.

I published these News Releases on the Other Sheep website (as articles), on the Other Sheep Blog (as News Releases), and sent out an Other Sheep eNews (as News Releases) to our readership. As News Releases, the notices included our names as contact persons with our mobile numbers in India.

In Tamil Nadu, where we spoke by invitation to the president and three faculty members of a small theological school, we were told by the receptionist of a second institution in the same town where we left our News Releases (and other material) for the Bishop, that he had just seen the News Release on the Internet that morning.

Without saying so, I thought he had to be mistaken. But when I gave it some thought, it was possible. In fact, just two days earlier, a long-standing religious leader of a recognized conservative Christian institution in Kerala, having seen the News Release over the Internet, phoned us at our hotel. He told us how he came to see the News Release, that the News Release was being circulated within conservative Christian circles in Kerala, and that he wanted to help us in some capacity in the distribution of the Malayalam book on the Bible, sexual minorities and inclusion. He would do so subversively and undercover.

We kept in contact with this individual through texting. He would text us almost daily. He texted us his ideas for distributing the book. He helped us find a translator who translated the News Release into Malayalam. He asked to meet with us in person to discuss ideas on how he could help in the continuation of the distribution of the book throughout Kerala once we left Kerala. Within the days that followed, we did meet in Kerala, spending about four hours together in which he discussed his views on sexual minorities, the conservative theological conditions in Kerala especially as it relates to late 20th century Western influence, and the particulars of getting the Malayalam book into circulation.