Behold there are difficult times ahead, where you have to stand together. Behold there are challenges facing you, awaiting you. Except that you grow, you may not rise to meet them. Behold I am your only refuge. (‘CK’ prophesying during church service, 4 June 1995)
Sermons, the focal point of HUMCC church services, were a form of performance poetry that involved the poet, the audience, other aspects of performance, the immediate context of the church community and the social context in which the performance took place. As in all performance poetry, there was a strong element of interaction between the performer and the audience. The congregation actively participated through verbal responses, individual testimonies, prayer, hymn singing and through other rituals associated with healing. An analysis of sermons provides insight into the personal (the orator), the social (the audience), and the context (the church community as well as broader social processes). The sermons are best understood as a form of metaphoric and symbolic expression.
At the time of my fieldwork, from 1995 to 1997, the church was in the process of developing an inclusive theology that would embrace lesbians and gay men. The sermons and rituals associated with them were an expression of these new ideas, and were also a key ingredient to identity formation. The church services were an opportunity for church leaders and ordinary members to test out, through verbal and non-verbal aspects of performance and ritual, these new ideas in shape and substance.
Like all oral narratives, sermons create, reflect and negotiate a complex identity through the use of language and the elements of performance – gesture, tone, expression, audience participation, and costume. The reconciliation of Christianity with a gay or lesbian African identity is not an easy task. It has to bring together elements that are usually regarded as dissonant or even irreconcilable. How then did the HUMCC forge a sense of collective identity? What was the role of ‘healing’ in this process? In beginning to look for answers, we can turn to analysing the language of the sermons.
Sermons were not prepared in any detail, as there was a high regard for spontaneity, articulated in the church as ‘the workings of the Holy Spirit’.