After making semi-permanent alterations to his looks, investigative journalist ‘FISAYO SOYOMBO visited four churches and four mosques/Islamic centres, pretending to be gay and in need of spiritual redemption. Six out of those eight centres fed him with a litany of fake prophecies before demanding cash and material possessions from him. Bringing down the curtain on this seven-part series that has run every other day for two weeks, he writes about the Holy Cross Cathedral on Catholic Mission Street, Lagos Island, where all that happened was a dialogue with a reverend father. Holy Cross was one of only two — the other being the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM) — of eight institutions where nobody asked him for money or gave him fake prophecies.
First impression: there is an inexplicable aura of ease about Reverend Father Raymond Emedo. Once he invites me into his office at Holy Cross Cathedral on Catholic Mission Street, Lagos Island, on January 13, he starts to converse with me as though we had been friends forever. As with other religious institutions, an advance team had gone ahead to say a gay man was coming. But this didn’t show in his demeanour; he was quite welcoming.
“How have you been? What’s up with you?” he asks as he offers me the seat directly opposite his. He sounds like a gee. Still, we disagree with each other on many counts.
For instance, I tell him I am seated right there purely because my family resents my sexual interest in fellow men. Father Raymond doesn’t raise his eyebrows; he only asks me why. My answer is that “variety is the spice of life”; if God created some tall and others short, some dark and others fair, then nothing should be wrong with some men developing interest in women, and others in fellow men.
“I understand your feelings,” he replies, “but that doesn’t make it right.”
Father Raymond speaks about the rights of people to make choices even though this doesn’t mean all choices made are automatically right.
“It’s not a matter to be forced on you or fought over,” he tells me. “It’s more, for me, a discussion — because unless you understand someone, you cannot really help them. Unless you’re able to enter into someone’s world to find some understanding of the person’s perception, you can never truly be of any benefit to the person.”
Father Raymond asks me if I believe in family life, “that is, procreation”.
I mull the question for a few seconds then decide to be evasive. I tell him it’s not about “belief”; it’s about who I am — growing up to discover that I like men rather than women — it was never a “choice or belief”.
This was what a number of people told me during my research before this investigation. One was upset when I told him I didn’t think it was right that he suffered workplace discrimination because of his “sexual orientation”. “That’s the problem,” he had flared up. “People make it look like I opted to be gay; it’s no orientation problem. You speaking with me, you’re straight but it wasn’t your choice; you grew up to discover you’re into women just like I grew up to see I’m into men. Being straight was not a choice you made; being gay was not a choice I did too.”
Father Raymond inquires about my nuclear family. I tell him I’m the last of three children, the other two having given male and female children to my parents. He asks if my parents are still alive and, after I answer in the affirmative, adds that he’s “sure they feel strongly shattered” about my situation.
“I don’t see it like they’re shattered…”
“I’m not talking about how you see it,” he cuts in. “I’m talking about how they see it. Do you think they’re worried or happy?”
I tell him I think their worry is selfish. “I can explain it,” I say.
“You cannot want my happiness for me more than I want it for myself? That cannot be possible. I feel their worries are selfish because they’re about how society expects one to behave to be deemed important or de rigueur.
“It’s similar to parents pressuring their children into getting married. If children make the wrong marital choices out of pressure, the parents won’t be present in that marriage to share in the misery. That’s why I think it’s selfishness; it is disguised as genuine concern but it is indeed the compulsion, the desperation, to look good in the eyes of the public.”
A REVEREND FATHER AGAINST AN INCONSISTENT CONGREGANT
Father Raymond obviously disagrees but he doesn’t say it. He simply asks me the church my parents attend, if I attended church with them as a child, if I do now. To answer the last question, I name-drop some churches, some of which I have never stepped into. I add that I’m an inconsistent congregant.
“I’m not a regular churchgoer, but I consider myself better than the regulars,” I say.
“For instance, several years ago when I was in school, there was this pastor-lecturer who was threatening my friend with failure just to sleep with her. Sex for grades! I, as gay, consider myself better than him — because I would never do that. I consider myself better than a rapist.
“You know, some of the people who are straight and are talking me into conversion, I look at them in the eye and tell them they do not have the moral ground to. People who steal public funds or their employers’ funds and come to the church to pay tithe and offering will look at me and say I’m evil because I’m gay, but I’m also analysing them and wondering how exactly they’re better than me.”
Father Raymond asks me what my social life is like. “Poor,” I reply emphatically. “I enjoy my work a lot; I’m very career-driven. I don’t have an active social life.”
“So, you don’t go to parties? You don’t drink alcohol, even?”
“No, not even Smirnoff Ice.”
“Do you smoke?”
A CRIMINAL OFFENCE
He asks to know what “my circle of friends” is like. I tell him it’s very small — because of societal perception of LGBTQ people. He reminds me that it is a criminal offence, “at least by Nigerian laws”.
In January 2014, President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act into law, ending eight months of withholding assent in the face of western pressure over gay rights.
The bill, which contains penalties of up to 14 years in prison and bans gay marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships” and membership of gay rights groups, was passed by the national assembly in 2013 but Jonathan initially had delayed signing it into law.
“Persons who enter into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union commit an offence and are each liable on conviction to a term of 14 years in prison,” the bill says. “Any person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations or directly or indirectly makes public show of same-sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and shall each be liable on conviction to a term of 10 years in prison.”
The law only existed on paper for a while until 2019 when 47 men, from a total of 57 arrested at a hotel in Egbeda, Lagos the previous year, went on trial for public displays of affection with members of the same sex. The case had been widely seen as a test of the country’s laws banning same-sex relationships. However, after several adjournments, the judge struck out the case against the accused for “lack of diligent prosecution”.
In responding to Father Raymond’s argument’s on the illegality of same-sex interactions, I put forward some of the sentiments I had listened to from the LGBTQ community.
“The law was made for man and not man for the law,” I tell Father Raymond. “So, even though it is currently a criminal offence, there are no guarantees it won’t change in the future. There was a time when 25-year-olds could not stand for election in the House of Reps, but now they can.”
He asks me how soon I think the current anti-gay law can be repealed. “Nobody knows,” I reply. “The #NotTooYoungToRun bill was signed into law [by President Muhammadu Buhari] in 2018, ahead of the 2019 elections. But four years before, nobody knew for certain that it would happen.”
A MUSLIM-MUSLIM TICKET IS IMPOSSIBLE. WELL…
In continuation of the engaging conversation, Father Raymond asks me the persuasions that influence human decision-making the most. “Do you think they are political, social, economic or religious?” he asks. “What do you think is the dominant force?”
“Social and religious,” I answer. “You know, we are a deeply religious [not necessarily godly] people.”
Father Raymond agrees but not totally. He believes cultural facts supersede social. I agree, too.
“You know why I asked that question?” he continues. “Socially, in politics, we can decide to give you the chance to contest or hand women 35 percent affirmation. But the moment the set issues border on religion or tribe, that is culture, you will see that people will immediately start raising eyebrows.
“I am saying this in the context of the optimism you have expressed about the change in the [anti-gay] law and I’m trying to make you see that your #NotTooYoungToRun example was a purely political decision.
“And in the scheme of things, such decisions, on a political basis, move slower when placed on the same pedestal with religion and culture. You already alluded to that when you said we are a deeply religious people, which doesn’t mean we’re holy — another point you made. That people go to church, that they are pastors or whatever, doesn’t mean they are actually living the life that their state of life is supposed to reflect, because if someone goes to church every Sunday and is a member of the workforce, you expect some level of integrity, moral probity, in the life of that person. You expect them to do the right thing when nobody is watching.”
Father Raymond argues that our religious life is perhaps the most important and fundamental consideration, even in Nigerian politics.
“Why do you think it has been impossible to have a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket?” Father Raymond made that comment on January 13; six months later, the seemingly impossible happened.
“It is easier, if you ask me, to have another president from the North than to have a president from the South who is a Muslim and Vice from the North who is also a Muslim,” he continues. “Why do you think pro-abortion laws won’t pass through in Nigeria? It is certainly not because of health or economic reasons; it’s not even science.”
Father Raymond projects that a reversal of the current anti-gay law will not happen in the next 20, 30 years — “not even in our lifetime”! For that reason, he asks me to consider how my ”decision” is affecting my loved ones. At that point, I interrupt him.
“It’s not a decision,” Father Raymond. “It’s like someone asking you if you’re not concerned about your decision to be fair in complexion? But you didn’t choose your colour; you were so born!”
“So all through life, this has been you?” he asks. “Wow.”
He asks if I ever considered changing myself.
“Well, that’s why I came.” The declaration is music to his ears.
“That’s good,” he says. “You remember I said at the beginning that it isn’t about force but it’s a discussion. It is good that you’re willing to give this a try, and that you want to do this with an open mind, not out of compulsion of any kind, because, then, it would only be a charade. It won’t linger, it won’t last or achieve anything positive.”
The first step, he explains, is for us to see how I can expand my circle of friends “a little”. He says I have to begin to learn how to be comfortable in the company of women — not as a licence to indulge in indiscriminate sexual exploration but to try to know them, be comfortable around them, develop feelings for them. “If you don’t open yourself up to these new possibilities — possibilities I call them — you’ll never know.”
He continues: “I’m sure your family probably thought this would be all about a prayer session. Is that what they told you, that I’m going to pray for you and your [sexual] orientation will change?”
I answer him but quickly redirect the conversation towards a question I had been willing to slip in: if my family had forced me to come here, what would he have done?
“Well, for a man who is 35 years [my fake age], can you really be forced to come here?” Deliberate question — I wanted to know the Catholic Church’s handling of LGBTQ people coerced into changing their sexual orientations.
“Well, you can be blackmailed into doing something,” I reply. “I mean, if my mum said she would kill herself if I wouldn’t come here, that’s blackmail.”
“Was that what happened?” he asks.
“Close to that,” I reply.
“Well,” he begins, “when people do certain things, we also have to consider the intention. Did the person do it because they hate you? Is it because they are selfish? Is it because they care?”
He continues: “In all of this, I’m sure you’ll not deny the fact that, clearly, your parents are interested in you. They care about you; they love you; and they want the best for you.
“Now whether what they consider best for you is actually the best for you is another question entirely. And even if they want something that you don’t, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you; it just means how they love you doesn’t work well with your own personality. So I wouldn’t want to agree with you that they are ‘selfish’; I want you to see it from a positive angle.”
Father Raymond is enthused by my willingness to be part of this process, but warns that he is “not a magician”.
“You have been open-minded enough to say ‘let’s see the possibilities’; that’s encouraging — because if you don’t try, you may never know. In all sincerity, please give this your best shot. When I say ‘in all sincerity’, it is an admittance of the fact that in this age and time, you cannot force anybody to do anything. If your parents were here, I would say this to them.
“If you force people to go to church, for example, yes they’ll go. But what happens when the force is removed? They wouldn’t — so it means it was a waste of time. Therefore, I don’t want you to see this as being hoodwinked into doing something you would rather not do.”
NO PRAYERS, NO DELIVERANCE, NO SACRIFICE
Thirty-seven minutes into the conversation, Father Raymond says he wouldn’t want to keep me “for much longer” although he hopes we will “have another session soon”.
“This depends on you,” he emphasises. “If you are in Lagos or anytime you’re free, you can come in and we’ll just have a discussion.”
This leaves me in shock. “Okay?” I wonder. “No prayers? No deliverance sessions?”
“Deliverance from what?” he asks me.
“Well, I’ve heard a lot of things. I’ve been told I need deliverance, prayers, laying of hands, maybe there is one spirit in me that needs to be cast out.”
“What do you think?” Father Raymond asks me. “Well, science and faith are not in opposition. Everything we can pray about, but not everything is a spiritual attack.”
“If I’m walking and I trip, it doesn’t make it a spiritual attack. Could it be? Yes, it could. But it is not in every instance that this is a spiritual attack,” he continues.
“You know, they say, to a carpenter, every problem can only be solved with a hammer; that’s not how we are trained. We need to know those that are spiritual, those that are emotional or psychological or physical. It doesn’t mean there can’t be a nexus between them all. This is where you need the spirit of discernment. I’m sorry to disappoint you if I’ve not been shouting ‘Holy Ghost fire!’ Actually, if I have disappointed you in that light, I’m sorry but no apologies.”
Father Raymond accompanies me as I make my way out of the building through a corridor of offices. He places an arm around me and enthusiastically offers me a handshake; I take it. It is warm and hearty, and provides the perfect climax for an afternoon of positive first impressions. For a moment, I wonder how good it would be to sit down with Father Raymond again — not as an undercover journalist this time but as the regular human — then I remember Beauty and the Beast, the movie. It would be a bad idea, I conclude.
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