Mónica Maher with members of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador before a march for sexual and gender-based rights in Quito, Ecuador.
While LGBT communities gain acceptance in many parts of the world, some still struggle for equal rights, freedoms and protections. Ecuador is one such place where allies of the LGBT community are few, and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender often live in fear of oppression and abuse. Mónica Maher, member of First Church in Cambridge Congregational United Church of Christ in Cambridge, Mass., hopes to change that by turning the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador into a safe space and a progressive voice for LGBT groups and their supporters.
"It's hard to find a progressive face of religion or Christianity here that would support the rights of LGBT people," Maher said. "That is one reason I felt strongly about staying – I felt called to bring a different faith here."
Maher will be ordained in Latin American ministry by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the UCC in March 2014, and will serve as pastor for social ministries with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador in the country's capital, Quito. She has been in Latin America for three years, and currently teaches religion and women's rights at a university. With the support of her home church, she felt a call to become ordained and stay in Ecuador to continue her advocacy. During her three-year term at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador, she will work to bring a sense of healing to members of the LGBT community that have been shunned by their faith and view the church in a negative, unwelcoming light.
Maher has already been involved in a number of efforts to shift the perception of the LGBT community in Quito. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador offers an LGBT support group once a week in English and Spanish that has drawn a total of 20 to 25 people. Maher and other members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ecuador had a presence during Quito's Gay Pride Parade this year, and also marched in an event for women's sexual rights. Last month, the university sponsored a panel discussion about marriage equality and religion that featured a biblical scholar, a lawyer, a theologian, and Maher, and drew about 100 people, including students, LGBT activists and community leaders. In December, members of the church are planning to participate in a public liturgy during which participants will ask for forgiveness for homophobia, followed by a blessing and a celebration of sexual diversity and love.
"We don't just stay within the church walls," Maher said. "We realized that people had a lot of trauma about the way they have been treated in churches, and there is kind of a thirst for more of a liturgical expression."
Maher acknowledges that not everyone will be receptive to her efforts. Ecuador is a strongly Catholic country whose religious community perceives homosexuality as a sin. The country even has roughly 200 gay-to-straight conversion clinics in operation, despite the government's efforts to shut them down. Often operated under the guise of drug rehabilitation centers, the clinics primarily target lesbians and use a variety of techniques – including sexual and physical violence, Maher said – to cure them of their sexuality. But Maher is professionally trained in non-violence and is prepared to respond to her opponents with love, respect, and even humor as she looks to establish a common ground and promote inclusivity.
"We're trying to create bridges, trying to create an even field, because we're all disciples on a spiritual path," Maher said. "I feel there is so much the UCC can offer here. When the need matches who we are, it's just so wonderful."