To mark the 30th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in New Zealand, The Salvation Army joined other Wellington faith communities in an inter-faith service for the Rainbow community and allies. The gathering was held at St Peter's on Willis Street on 10 March, with almost 100 people attending. (The term ‘rainbow’ is used as a composite term to encompass all forms of sexual orientation and gender identity.)
The event, titled ‘Re-stoke the Fires’, was held during Wellington Pride Week and sponsored by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), which was holding its inaugural Oceania Human Rights and Health Conference at the University of Otago Medical School in Wellington. The aim of the ILGA conference was ‘to re-ignite the fires of the LGBTI community on issues of human rights and health in the states of Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, Melanesia and the Micronesian Islands.’
A small Salvation Army brass band provided musical support, with other Salvationists also present. Many of those attending expressed their surprise and thanks to the Army for their presence, given that they still remembered The Salvation Army’s active role is opposing homosexual law reform in New Zealand.
A number of speakers expressed gratitude for the healing nature of a gathering that allowed them to feel welcome inside a church—some for the first time since they had revealed their sexual orientation in the churches of their youth.
One speaker testified to being excluded from his church community after he told them he was gay at the age of 18. He lived on the street for a few years before eventually getting involved with another church. Despite attending that church for a number of years, he eventually left rather than deny his identity as a gay man. He had since found a welcome within a non-Christian faith. In contrast, a transgender representative of the Pacific Sexuality Diversity Network shared her experience as a Catholic in Tonga, where she said she felt fully accepted as part of her congregation.
After a welcome from Deputy Mayor Justin Lester, contributions were given by the Army band, a lesbian singing group, members of the Wellington SGI Buddhist Centre, and a representative of the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation. The Rev Brian Dawson, vicar of St Peter's, gave a brief address, and Mani Mitchell, Executive Director of the Intersex Trust of Aoteraroa New Zealand and an ILGA Oceania board member also spoke.
Lieut-Colonel Ian Hutson (Divisional Commander, Central Division), Major Christina Tyson (Territorial Communications Secretary) and Craig Hutson (Family Store Manager, Kilbirnie) were part of the planning group for the event. Ian said, ‘In July 2006, the 20th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, The Salvation Army issued a statement saying we hoped to “rebuild bridges of understanding and dialogue” between our movement and the gay and lesbian community. This event was a tangible way of doing just that. It was a humbling and moving occasion and a reminder that everyone shares a human need to connect with God.’
In the Fiji Division, similar engagement is also occurring. For the past five years, The Salvation Army has hosted AIDS Candlelight Memorial services in a number of corps. ‘Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Fijians say they have found a more accepting and non-judgemental environment in The Salvation Army than other churches,’ said Wati Seeto, Corps Secretary at Suva Central Corps and a corresponding member of the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory’s Moral and Social Issues Council. ‘It is not uncommon anymore to hear someone in our corps say, “I am HIV positive” or ‘I am gay, lesbian or transgender.” ’
Last year in Fiji, The Salvation Army partnered with UNAIDS (the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) to host a prayer breakfast for World Aids Day, and this year the Army will introduce training for corps officers and youth workers on HIV/AIDS.
‘We can preach love and Christian hospitality until we go red in the face, but if we don’t reach out and take the first step, tiny as it may seem, to begin the dialogue and rebuild bridges of understanding then we may as well close shop,’ Wati said.