In the past year, the fight for gay equality among Christians in America has become inextricably tied to a country that previously hadn’t garnered much attention here — Nigeria. Africa’s most populous nation is now a point of debate for many of America’s gay activists who, in the age of globalization, have come to realize that how gay people are treated in other countries may influence how they are treated here.
As conservative churches have begun to leave the liberal Episcopal communion — many in reaction to the 2003 ordaining of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson — the vehemently anti-gay Anglican Church of Nigeria has sought them out, making significant inroads into the American religious scene over the last five years. On the flip side, the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded in the United States specifically to minister to gay people ostracized by mainstream Christianity, recently opened its first church in Nigeria, and is increasingly attracting more members.
Coming to America
Gay people in Nigeria face a constant threat of violence, exclusion and persecution. Under secular law throughout the country, homosexual conduct is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, a remnant of colonial provisions under British rule. In the Muslim north, which adopted Shari’ah law in 2000, gay sex is a capital crime, punishable with death by stoning. But according to Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian gay rights activist in the Anglican Church, recent events have made it even more dangerous to be gay in the Christian south.
“It is much harder in the south. It is supposed to be more difficult to be gay in the north because you have the Muslims and the Shari’ah, but you have more Muslim gays and lesbians than Christians. The Anglican Church is targeting and drawing attention against the LGBT people. We face more violence and crisis in the south,” he says.
Last year, a bill was fast-tracked through the Nigerian National Assembly that would make illegal any public approval of same-sex relationships, including associating with gay people or publishing a gay newspaper. The bill, which was strongly endorsed by the Anglican Church, was widely expected to pass before the elections in April, but has since been tabled. It is not known whether it will resurface.
Currently, both the anti-gay and pro-gay factions from Nigeria are coming to America, seeking to gain allies in their fight for the future of the Anglican Church.
The Anglican Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has compared homosexuality to bestiality and slavery, and called movements to create a gay-inclusive church an attack on God. “What we are talking about is an attack on the Church by some whose aim is to discredit the gospel, pollute the Church, neutralize its power and pull it down,” he wrote in 2003.
Currently, Akinola oversees 34 orthodox Anglican churches in the United States that have left the Episcopal Church since December; Akinola has appointed the American bishop Martyn Minns to oversee the Nigerian mission in America. Jim Robb, the media officer to the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, says that the conservative churches have been unhappy with trends in the Episcopal Church for a while. “This movement of theological liberalism, which you might call non-orthodoxy, has swept through seminaries
and has taken a real grip on the church. The issue of homosexual leadership is just the latest thing. There had to be some natural places where we’d say we can’t compromise anymore.”
Akinola recently threatened a boycott of the Lambeth Conference, a meeting of worldwide Anglican bishops that occurs once a decade, objecting to the snubbing of Minns, who, along with Robinson, were the only two bishops not invited.
Mac-Iyalla is taking a stand against the Anglican Church’s condemnation of homosexuality, however. Mac-Iyalla, an openly gay man, founded Changing Attitudes Nigeria almost two years ago in the capital, Abuja, to foment gay-positive change within the Church. Now, the organization boasts more than two thousand members and branches in nine cities.
Because of constant threats of violence, frequent arrests and threats to his home, Mac-Iyalla recently chose to leave Nigeria. In addition, the Anglican Church has issued statements which deny that Mac-Iyalla was ever a member of the Church, and that claim he was in fact stealing from it, even though he was awarded a knighthood by the Bishop of Otupko.
But Mac-Iyalla’s love for the Anglican Church persists. “Nobody can stop me from the Church,” he says. “When things change, and I think it is safe to go back to Nigeria, I’ll go back to Nigeria and I’ll go to church. Nobody can keep me from the Anglican Church.”
Mac-Iyalla now leads CAN in exile, and is touring the United States to drum up support for his cause. He will be visiting numerous cities, even riding in a convertible in the San Francisco Pride Parade with Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus. He says he wants Americans to organize and put pressure on Nigeria to change, be it in the form of sanctions, divestment or moral indignation. “The gay American is the same as the gay Nigerian,” Mac-Iyalla says. “We need to work together as a voice to achieve our common aim. We need an inclusive world. We want everyone to be free.”
Furthermore, in concert with Akinola’s protest over Minns’ exclusion from Lambeth, Mac-Iyalla is determined to make sure the gay voice is heard there, even though Robinson will not be present. “Gene Robinson is a model of honesty and truth,” he says. “His not being invited to the Lambeth conference weakens me, but I still believe there is hope. With or without invitations, LGBT Anglicans from all around the world will be present. We must be there to tell our story.”
Going to Nigeria
The Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1968 in Los Angeles as an inclusive place of worship for gay Christians, currently claims more than 43,000 members worldwide, and has congregations in 22 countries. The House of Rainbow congregation in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, is one of MCC’s newest, and is quickly becoming an important bulwark against anti-gay forces.
The Reverend Rowland Jide Macaulay, leader of the House of Rainbow, says his church is an important alternative to the established religions in Nigeria, in that it reaches out to gay people who have been rejected or cast away. He also says that since Akinola began his anti-gay crusade, the situation in Nigeria has become much worse, and a church like his is all the more necessary.
“We are always looking for ways to meet the needs of these people because we assure them that even though the government may be trying to pass a bill to ban gay marriage or same-sex amorous relationships, we want people to understand that God loves them nonetheless. That is so important,” he says.
Macaulay himself left another church over the issue of homosexuality. He was raised in the Pentecostal Church, and was ordained in his father’s ministry in 1998. But when the Church found out he was gay in 2001, he was forced to leave, and his father has since come out in favor of stricter anti-gay laws. Soon after he left the Pentecostal faith, Macaulay also left Nigeria, eventually joining MCC in London.
Founded in 2006, after Macaulay returned to Nigeria, the House of Rainbow quickly flourished. The congregation now has a steady attendance of at least 50 people every week, with a constant rotation of new people. Macaulay estimates that more than 300 people have attended services at his church in the last six months.
This is a stark contrast to MCC in the United States, which is going through a rough phase. While new denominations are springing up across the country, many more have been closing, and MCC has not been able to regain the membership it had in the 1980s. A similar predicament has been plaguing many other congregations.
One of the largest problems facing the MCC in the United States is that as churches grow older, they have been unable to attract younger generations to replenish their ranks. In Nigeria, Macaulay is facing the opposite. His members, who come from many different tribes and traditions, tend to be between the ages of 16 and 32. Nevertheless, a large reason for that is that many older gay Nigerians have had the means to flee the country in search of more accepting societies.
Given the immense challenges facing the gay community in Nigeria, Macaulay sees the need for House of Rainbow only growing stronger. To aid with growth, he is currently looking for an institution in Nigeria to instruct ministers for the organization, but says it is a difficult battle. “Other churches are saying that we’re the anti-Christ, so certainly the religious communities are not welcoming us at all.”
But Macaulay says that his greatest challenge is reaching people who are afraid of being seen. “People are afraid to come to House of Rainbow. They are afraid that someone will attack them if they find out.”