Tuesday, 24 May 2011

MaltaToday: [WATCH] When pride met prejudice


Televangelist Gordon-John Manché in an exchange with Malta Gay Rights Movement coordinator Gabi Calleja. (Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday)

Gay rights activists picket the site of 'gay conversions' by evangelical pastor Gordon-John Manché.


Filming and photos: Ray Attard/Mediatoday

It was a meeting of parallel universes, as Gabi Calleja, the head of the Malta Gay Rights Movement later said of her exchange with Gordon-John Manché, the pastor who leads the River Of Love evangelical fellowship. Nothing, it seemed, could bridge the gulf of two identities separated by a belief in the Bible which, Manché said, provides the proof as to why homosexuality is a sin and a lifestyle he cannot agree with.

He fired chapter and verse from the good book. "1 Timothy 1, Galatians 5, 1 Thessalonians 4, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 9-12. Oh, and don't forget Sodom and Gomorrah."

"I'm not happy with you," he said referring to MaltaToday. His Facebook event 'Gay No More' – the testimonials of three gay men who claimed they were converted (from homosexuality) by their belief in Jesus Christ – had angered the gay community, and led to this protest two weeks later. But while Manché found himself overwhelmed by the sudden interest in the conversions of gay men, he inadvertently threw the spotlight on his psychologist wife, Mariella Blackman, who had to deny that she is involved in alleged 'gay reparation' treatment.

In an event that briefly stole the show from the current debate on divorce, where religion has often clashed with civil rights, the protestors chanted 'It's ok to be gay' at the windows on the first floor of the Sapphire Suite, the headquarters of the River Of Love fellowship, where worshippers were heard booing them for a few seconds.

Calleja addressed the crowd, saying that while the Evangelical Alliance – the federation of the 14 evangelical churches in Malta – had expressed regret at the offence caused, the MGRM was still not happy.

"Their apology was very nice but it doesn't calm us. We're still angry. Although they are free to have their own belief system or believe in any fairy-tale they create, it doesn't mean we are not concerned at the harm their beliefs are doing.

"We come across many cases where parents send their kids to psychologists thinking they can be cured or healed by 'Jesus', and here lies the case of a lot of harm."

One of the protestors asked Calleja to make a formal report to the Malta Psychologists Association about such abusive therapies. Calleja said the MGRM is in the possession of an alleged event in which a gay person was subjected to so called gay reparation, but refrained from mentioning Blackman by name.

As far as televangelists go, Manché appears to fit the bill. A former ballet dancer, his journey to San Francisco brought him back to Malta to head the Nations For Christ ministry. With his American affectations, and a gratuitous sprinkling of 'Praise God' with every imploration he makes, his Smash TV programme attracts curious listeners and believers alike. And outside the Zebbug headquarters of River Of Love, Manché cuts a striking figure with his red-rimmed sunglasses, and purple shirt with double-cuff.

Cyrus Engerer, the PN councillor for Sliema and a gay activist himself, approached Manché, presenting him to Gabi Calleja.

"We don't hate gays. We don't hate nobody," Manché tells Calleja.

"You just hate homosexuality and its expression of it," Calleja tells him, shaking his hand.

Manché then offered Calleja "help… if you would need us" – to which Calleja responded, "we don't seek your help… you are being homophobic because you believe homosexuality is something that needs to be changed. It tells parents of young people who are coming out that they children are not ok… You are forcing people to hide what they are, and to not express their desires."

This became the start of an exchange between activists and Manché, who single-handedly stood up for "his right and [his] community's right to be free to believe what they like, whether you think it's a truth or a lie." At one point, he warded off one his congregation's members, who came with a bible in hand to quote a verse or two. "Stop it! I have told my congregation to stop it."

But even though both sides stood firm in their beliefs, and both Calleja and Manché heard each other out civilly, the message went beyond the simple right to believe.

"The reason the gay community is oppressed is because there are many people who believe in that book [the Bible]… and it is also why there are people like ministers who believe the Virgin Mary weeps tears for us," Calleja said, in a reference to Tonio Fenech's recent platitude on divorce. She pointed out that religious belief can overstep the simple freedom of worship by suddenly convincing parents that a cure was available for their gay children. "And to be fair, it is not just evangelists like Manché… we can't forget the Roman Catholic Church either."

Even so, among the gay activists were members of Drachma, a Catholic community for gay men and lesbians. "We are greatly concerned about claims of healing from homosexuality through the intervention of Jesus Christ. One of the first problems is that Jesus is presented as someone who is against the gay person, and that his love is presented on condition that 'you' change."

Another activist, Neil, was adamant in challenging Manché's apparent stand to have both sides agree to disagree. "History shows us the greatest evils happened when people stood passive, like the Holocaust."

Manché stood his ground. "I will defend your freedom of speech, but it doesn't mean I approve of your lifestyle… Nobody forced these men to do anything."

But Calleja asked that he stop the testimonials, because of the harm they do to gay youths. "We won't you to stop affirming people denying who they really are."

Manché turned to her and asked her if she believed in the Bible. "These people may have gone 'mad' because they believe the Lord has changed them, but don't they have the right to do that? You may say it's a lie, but they have a right to believe it is their truth."

And then he went inside the Sapphire Suite, where worshippers could be heard singing. Manché may have upheld his freedom of religious belief, and the alleged testimonials may have been honest inspirational accounts of gay men who have refrained from sexual activity through their belief in Jesus Christ.

But even in this brief encounter of opposite minds, the message that religion cannot be used as a justification for homophobia – or the intolerance towards other beliefs for that matter – rang out loud in the current climate.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on MaltaToday's website.]

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