For churches, becoming safe is not a concession, but affirms our relatedness. Interview with Pastor André Musskopf

On July 9, André Musskopf – doctor in theology, Brazilian Lutheran, member of the WCC’s Reference Group on Human Sexuality and friend to many in Rainbow Pilgrims of Faith – was consecrated as a pastoral minister in the Nazareth Baptist Church (Igreja Batista Nazareth, IBN) in Salvador, Bahia, in northeast Brazil.

As an internationally-recognized queer theologian, André has dedicated his ministry to various human rights struggles, especially those that demand respect for the LGBTQIAP+ population. (In Brazil, a ‘P’ is often used in the acronym to include pansexual people.) After his consecration, he was interviewed for the website of Brazil’s National Council of Christian Churches (CONIC):

Q: André, how did you “receive the news” of your consecration?

The process that led to my consecration to pastoral ministry at IBN is quite long and was built through a trajectory of struggles and commitments, and with the support of many people and organizations.

For more than 20 years, I was denied access to ordained ministry in my home denomination. Over the years, I have continued to work with issues of sexual and gender diversity in my academic production, in my political activism and in my work with grassroots groups, many of which are linked to different religious denominations, in addition to accompanying many people individually.

In many of these spaces, people recognized me and referred to me as “pastor” and, several times, the question arose of seeking ordination or consecration in another institution. For several reasons this never happened and, in a recent conversation with Pastor Joel Zeferino, from IBN, and with friends, we understood that this was the opportune moment to do so.

I have a long-standing relationship with IBN, which has always welcomed me and affirmed my gifts and my vocation with great generosity. It is a unique church, which in 2022 completed 47 years of “resistance, struggle and faith” (as the church’s slogan says), with historical ruptures in relation to political issues in Brazil, and over interreligious dialogue and other themes and situations that are marginalized in most churches.

This contact and this history made me approach the church, become a member and be nominated for consecration to the pastoral ministry. That is why I received the news of the confirmation of the council and the consecration with great joy and emotion.

For both IBN and for me, this act has a deeply political character in exposing the exclusion of LGBTQIAP+ people in most Christian churches and, at the same time, recognizing and affirming our people as legitimate members in the exercise of their religious citizenship. It is a demonstration that it is possible to be a Church that welcomes, includes and affirms people in their diversity as an ethical and political commitment, which is part of our faith.

Thus, the joy also comes from the possibility that my consecration can be an opportunity for LGBTQIAP+ people in churches to feel empowered to fight for their space and their rights in a religious, but also political context. Furthermore, I am glad that other churches feel challenged to take this issue out of the closets in which they make themes they consider difficult invisible, and have honest and open dialogues, as the true mission of the Church demands.

Q. Your formation has been as a Lutheran, but you were consecrated in a Baptist Church. It is natural for our audience to be curious to know what motivated this. Can you share a little of the story with us?

In the first place, without a doubt, the welcome and the journey together with IBN are what motivate my consecration in that church. As the letter confirming the decision taken in the assembly states: “Beyond a mere formal decision, this approval was given with strong emotion, with several statements of praise and appreciation for all his significant personal, theological and pastoral journey, which we recognize with humility, which adds a lot in the choice to add his history to ours”.

In other words, it is a matter of formalizing and recognizing that our history is common and that our ways of seeing the world and experiencing faith encounter each other on this path.

This does not cancel or eliminate my formation and my trajectory within the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB). In a letter to the leadership of this church, I informed them of the consecration process and stated that I remain bound, even formally, to this church as a member. I also asked about the possibility that this same church will recognize my consecration and include me in its list of ordained ministers.

I believe that those who have taken an ecumenical path and understand ecumenism as a daily practice of coexistence and collaboration among different religious denominations and among different religions understand that denominational identities should not divide or separate us. Denominationalism, in many cases, is a colonial and imperialist inheritance that promotes disputes and competitions among different churches as a form of social and political control.

In that sense, the work of the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil and of the entire ecumenical movement is a concrete sign of the project of unity for the common good, respecting denominational diversity and individuality while announcing collectively a message of peace with justice. For this reason, ecumenism has also been attacked and demonized by groups that seek to impose a religious hegemony and, as we have seen, a political and cultural hegemony.

The fact that various groups of different denominations and religions participated in my consecration is an expression of overcoming this denominationalism and the affirmation that we are brothers and sisters not only in faith, but as a human community on Earth. If churches and religions have any contribution to make in the current context, this being and walking together in everyday ecclesiastical practice and in the struggle for justice is perhaps the main one.

My consecration in a Baptist church does not seek to be and is not, from my part, or on the part of the church that consecrated me, an affront or delegitimization of any church or religious denomination. It is the result of our journeys that intersect and that we want to celebrate. This does not mean that we are not aware of the political implications within and beyond the religious field.

Even so, the consecration is the response from me and the IBN to a calling and to a vocation that is authoritative and legitimate in itself. Among the many questions that it can teach us, one of them is precisely this: denominational differences must not separate us and the dialogue and encounter among different traditions only enriches and strengthens our witness of commitment to a life with dignity for all people and for all the created world.

Q. On the same day as your consecration, you launched your new book, There is Life After the Church(Há vida depois da Igreja”). What is this book about, and why would you recommend it to our public?

This book is part of two projects. One of them is a broader project called “Indecent Theological Essays Series” (from Editora Senso), which aims to make discussions on theology, religion and sexual and gender diversity more accessible, publishing texts in “pocket” format so that, even while maintaining academic and research rigor, allows people to have a closer contact with this type of reflection. There is life after church is Vol. 5 of this series.

The second project to which this specific book is linked is an effort to record stories and trajectories of LGBTQIAP+ people who have been systematically made invisible and erased in most churches. This project is the result of my work with groups from different churches, especially young people, who may know very little about the discussions and processes experienced in their churches in relation to issues of sexual and gender diversity, and makes an effort to give visibility and claim the place of these people in the church tradition.

In this specific book, I recount memories of the process that culminated in the impediment of my access to ordained ministry in my church in 2001. In remembering and retelling this story, I seek not only to tell my personal story, but to record the processes to which many of us, even today, are subjected, denouncing the violence of such processes, but also making memory of other similar stories and trajectories that are not even told.

At the same time, any autobiographical exercise has a dimension of healing and reconciliation with our own history and with who we become from it. There are many silences and many interdictions in this story, as well as many versions – to some extent fanciful – of what happened to me. Revisiting these facts is also an opportunity for each reader to reflect on violence suffered in the religious context, how we survived, and then to answer the question that the title of the book proposes – “Is there life after the church?”—from your experience, as I do from mine.

Launching the book in the context of my dedication to pastoral ministry, 20 years after the events and situations reported, also has the symbolic force of affirming that no process, however violent, needs to be definitive and that, collectively, it is possible to find ways and build relationships of peace and justice that promote life.

Q. In theory, churches should be safe and welcoming places for all people. However, we know that this is not always a reality. Do you agree?

Yes. Unfortunately churches are the most unsafe places for LGBTQIAP+ people, especially because of the religious violence to which we are exposed. Those places and institutions that should be spaces where we can develop in a healthy way – the family, the school and the church – are the spaces where we suffer the most violence and discrimination and that leave the most profound marks on our journeys.

It is past time to overcome the ideas that religious experience and sexual and gender diversity are incompatible and that our religious and sexuality experiences are not valid or legitimate. The call is not just to welcome, include and affirm people who identify as LGBTQIAP+. The call is for us to dialogue honestly and openly about how our sexual experiences relate to our religious experiences and to understand that sexuality is a dimension of the human experience to be celebrated, including in the context of our faith.

The discussion about sexual and gender diversity in the religious sphere has the potential to radically transform the lives of our communities and institutions, as most of us, whatever our sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression, live in relationships and are under structures that violate us and produce injustice. The violence practiced against women, including in religious spaces, for example, is more than evident expression that there is something very wrong in the ways in which we have lived and organized our relationships.

Our struggle for dialogical, horizontal, participatory and democratic relationships and forms of organization must also be a struggle for the transformation of theological, political and pastoral structures in our churches and religions. Being a safe and welcoming space is not a concession that churches make or should make in relation to some groups, but a way of being that makes explicit the fact that we are affectively and erotically interdependent, in relation to ourselves and in relation to the entire inhabited world.

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