Dominee André – gay spiritual icon
Johann P Boshoff
“Icon, me?” The church minister seemed slightly taken aback when I asked him (was it really a year ago?) whether he realised that he had gained such a status. Seeing him somewhat flustered is seeing something different from the usually confident, convincing and compassionate way in which he normally brings the Good News at the Reforming Church (Reformerende Kerk) Pretoria as full-time minister.
Yes, an icon. A South African (gay) icon. One of whom all South Africans can be proud: the Rev. André Muller. Affectionately called "Dominee André" by members of the congregation he leads.
Ds André, has for quite some time been known as a guest on radio and television programmes about being both gay and Christian. With informed opinions and indisputable credibility at whatever occasion, he serenely gives a voice to and defends the convictions, faith and sentiments of the largely inconspicuous majority of South African gays.
Why an icon? Like other modern icons, he is a role-model par excellence, being esteemed and respected and followed for consistently projecting a strong image, for widely representing sound values, for setting an example to be emulated and, above all, for maintaining unimpeachable integrity. This integrity of his is widely acknowledged by straight, gay and mixed audiences who have heard and seen him in action.
He represents that majority of the South African gay community who are ordinary people who adhere to sound principles. This group remains largely unnoticed, as they never draw any attention to their being different.
Ds André comes across as unusually ordinary despite, since 1994, having gained prominence in the larger church community generally and the gay community in particular. In modesty, he participates in the public debate on gay issues because for him it is about the greater cause to be served, not about his ego.
“Nothing, nothing at all equals the experience,” he says, “of being instrumental in taking away someone else's burden or in making their plight easier, and of facilitating a personal relationship with God”.
I urged him to talk about himself, where everything started, and so on. Gradually two interwoven stories emerged: on the one hand the story of being faithful to a promise made to a beloved partner, and on the other, the history of the origin and growth of a unique church.
MC and André
In standard six, while the young André Muller attended school at Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool, Pretoria, he and MC met. This was the start of a relationship lasting a total of some 17 years. The only interruption was when Ds André, while serving as Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) minister in Witbank, believed that a heterosexual marriage would assist him in “getting over” being gay. "In faith" he married his wife. With his usual integrity, he and MC had no contact during that time.
He came to realise and acknowledge that he was living a lie and subsequently divorced his wife.
This divorce left him feeling like so many others who have gone through divorce – an utter failure. In addition, he was hurt by the loveless distastefulness with which the denomination and his home congregation dealt with his divorce and his coming out as a gay person. To top it all, he felt that God had "left him in the lurch by not healing him” of his gayness.
Disillusioned, he literally burnt his Bibles and disposed of them in the rubbish bin, and for a short while lived estranged from God.
MC supported him throughout all of these crises. Not only did MC provide for André in the four months he was unemployed, but he kept on assuring him that God's calling on his life had not changed at all. MC even managed to cause his reluctant partner to attend the occasional worship service. MC also kept on sowing the seed of André’s ministering to gay Christians.
Ds André landed a job at a government department and there came upon the idea of doing registrations as a freelancer.
Then MC died. Of leukemia.
On his death bed he made Ds André promise that he would start a church for gays. Moving to Cape Town to investigate opening a branch for freelance registrations, André daily remembered the promise made to his dying friend MC.
In Cape Town he learned about a church for gay Christians led by the Rev. Hendrik Pretorius in Pretoria, the Reformerende Gemeentes van Gelykes in Christus (Reforming Congregations of Equals in Christ). Pretorius, at that stage, was well-known – even controversial – because of his groundbreaking theological book, Om gay te wees, straf of seën (Being gay: punishment or blessing).
Ds André's conscience accused him of procrastination for not yet having done anything about his promise to MC.
Eventually he called Pretorius and asked him whether he could come and assist with the gay church in Pretoria. Pretorius agreed and Ds André joined him as a tent-making assistant minister.
However, the writing was already on the wall for Pretorius's ministry. Church members were dissatisfied with the unnecessary media publicity given the church because of Pretorius's public profile. Desiring to practise their faith without show or publicity, many did not see their way clear to remain part of that church. Numbers dwindled to such an extent that the congregation as such ceased to exist.
The history of the Reforming Church
Ds André refused to believe that the need for these people to worship together had ceased as well. This was confirmed when he consulted with former members. A new church was subsequently established in August 1992. Acknowledging Pretorius's pioneering work, the new church adopted the name Reformerende Kerk/Reforming Church, emphasising reformation as an ongoing process.
Initially, the small group of believers had their worship meetings in a gay club. More than once they first had to clear the venue of reminders of the previous night's revelry before starting the service.
One night, they unexpectedly arrived at locked doors. The club had closed down. They then moved to another club across the road. This one soon closed down as well. For two Sundays this group of believers held their worship service in the open air at Springbok Park.
Throughout all of this, Ds André unceasingly and resolutely made enquiries in order to find a suitable venue. In vain. The request was turned down every time when he informed them that it was going to be used for ministering to gay Christians.
Almost at the end of his tether, Ds André finally turned to the former minister at the Andrew Murray Church. The Rev. Brian Cross merely replied: “I represent Christ. Christ would not have turned you away. Neither will I.” The rest is history, as they say.
Since early 1993 the congregation of the Reforming Church Pretoria has been meeting every Sunday and Tuesday night in venues at the Andrew Murray Church, Bailey's Muckleneuk, Pretoria. The two congregations maintain and enjoy cordial relations.
The Reforming Church initially had an ecumenical nature, with members coming from a variety of church traditions, both Afrikaans and English. After the secession of mainly Pentecostal groups, and a season as the Reforming Church MCC, the Reforming Church today, faithful to its name, has a clearly Reformed nature, also in Johannesburg.
Through friendship evangelism new members are being added to both congregations. The church's website, www.gaychurch.co.za, is also used for this purpose.
Ds André is excited about the direction the Reforming Church aims to take in 2005. Experiential worship and growth will be encouraged and will be supervised by a representative church council and the leadership of interest groups. Directive training will be offered, focusing on increasingly empowering church members.
In the long run Ds André's vision is that “every large community will have a congregation or group where gay Christians may express their faith”. In order to achieve this, consultation is already taking place between the Reforming Church and some thirteen other gay-affirming congregations nationwide, inter alia those of Agallia and of the worldwide Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC).
In addition to these “internal” ecumenical consultations, the Reforming Church today openly and publicly consults with the broader church community in South Africa, including interaction through writers, counsellors and intercessors from within its ranks. In this, the role of the media cannot be disregarded.
Ds André and the media
The long road walked by Ds André has unfortunately been characterised in the media by frequent attacks by the mainstream church leadership and membership. Fortunately, however, really open dialogue has also taken place where participants have investigated issues together. The latter is on the increase.
“I say what I believe in,” Ds André replied calmly when I asked him about the ease with which he deals with obviously "difficult" situations in the media.
Some of the highlights in his public discussions came about after he had forwarded a well-substantiated letter to the Bible Society of South Africa on (mis-) translations of the so-called "gay-condemning" verses in the 1983 Afrikaans translation of the Bible, in which he also suggested better translations. The Bible Society publicly agreed to a proper revision of these verses.
A significant watershed was reached when the DRC (Dutch Reformed Church) changed its dialogue about ministering to gay members of the church to actual dialogue with such members, also consulting with Ds André and a few others of known similar convictions.
During a worship service in Ds André's congregation the general secretary of the DRC Synod, Dr Kobus Gerber, apologised as follows on behalf of the DRC:
It is also the calling of the [DR] church to, without prejudice and aware of our own brokenness, call upon our members and to guide them into lovingly and compassionately interacting with one another in truth. In light of this, the General Synod apologises to all homosexuals and their families, within and without the church, who have been hurt and wronged in the past, inter alia due to lack of proper guidance, and for where God's love cannot be seen in the actions of the church. [translation]In the good spirit of this apology, Ds André has since been invited by DRC congregations in many places to address them on being gay as well as Christian. He is, however, convinced that the Reforming Church is well-positioned to assist the DRC by presenting relevant teaching. The DRC and other churches are being encouraged to establish gay interest groups under trained leadership in their various congregations.
Spiritually disheartened, estranged gays should take heart: “Nowhere does the Bible refer to being gay as we understand it today. In the Bible, references to homosexuality are not about being gay, but about degenerate expressions of sexuality found in the cultural and historical contexts of those times.
This he is saying in a time when so many church people are calling upon the Bible rather than on God in order to make human factors rather than the God-factor decisive in respect of eternity, in much the same way that church people did in the past with the so-called justification of slavery, the so-called justification of the subservient role of the female and the so-called justification of racial supremacy.
His dedication to his calling led me to ask whether he had any time left for himself.
“I have a very small private life,” he answered. “I cherish it. I swim, go to the movies, and I paint … whenever I have the time. In summer, I find it precious and satisfying to get up very early and have my quiet time, my devotions."
His private life is private indeed. Very few people know that, for the second time in his life, he recently had to deal with the death of a partner, who died of a heart attack.
I asked whether I may take a few pictures, knowing full well that his modesty hardly permitted such vanity. Amazed by his choice use of language, his enthusiasm, his unobtrusive convictions and his enviable serenity, I took some pictures. "Maybe it will serve the bigger cause," he said.
The bigger cause. How is it possible for any one man to stay so focused?
Then I realised that because of his firm faithfulness to his calling, it is not only the gay community that has a worthy role-model in Ds André Muller, but also the broader Christian and spiritual community – in fact, our entire society.
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