Windhoek, Namibia -- First there was the anointing.
The church prophet poured a small, steady stream of oil over Marco’s head as he knelt, crying on a rough brown sack in the back room of a Pentecostal church in the Namibian capital.
His country’s flag and the smell of candles are all Marco, a pseudonym used to protect his job, remembers about the space.
Along with the oil and ash, the 25-year-old says he washed away the traumatic memories from that summer ceremony in 2014, but only after he’d assured his mother, the church prophet and a church elder, that he was no longer gay, that he’d been cured, and that the evil was gone — vanquished by fervent prayer and scattered ashes.
Marco didn’t ask any questions about the ceremony at the time but later researched it online. Ash, according to Old Testament stories about Job and Nineveh, is a symbol of repentance. Sackcloth was worn as an expression of humility, and Jesus’ disciples used oil to heal the sick.
From the substance of their prayers, Marco concluded that his mother, the prophet and the elder believed he was being influenced by an evil spirit.
“The prophet took my hands, the three of them surrounded me, and they were all saying different things, mostly that they wanted the thing in me to be gone so I could fulfill my greater calling on Earth. Eventually they started praying in tongues,” he said.
Two years later, Marco says he is still gay.
Sodomy between men remains a crime in Namibia, though the law has not been enforced. But gay condemnation is common. In 2005, the deputy minister of home affairs and immigration blamed LGBT people for the AIDS pandemic and said they were an insult to African culture.
Judgmental attitudes are even more common among the nation’s Christian ministers.
George’s nightly prayer sessions began at 15 when his parents discovered explicit text messages on his phone.
Both Pentecostal church leaders, George’s parents believed the way to stop their son’s same-sex attraction was to forbid him from seeing gay friends and to pray with him every night for six months.
Intense, focused prayer sessions were mandatory in the kitchen or in the living room after dinner. His parents would place anointing oil on his forehead and ask God to change their son.
“I believed God would change me, but I struggled, because why would God make me this way if it was so wrong?” asked George, also a pseudonym.
“I had to pray by myself and with my parents, focusing on specific verses about Sodom and Gomorrah. I asked to be forgiven. I read out verses that highlighted how unnatural I am, how I’m an abomination.”
George hoped he would eventually become attracted to women, but he never did.
Like George’s parents, Pastor Duane Dowie’s preaches at the nondenominational Floodgates church in Windhoek’s industrial area, and tells congregants that sin without repentance leads to literal fire and brimstone.
“If a gay person came and asked me for help, I would embrace the person,” Dowie said. “I don’t treat homosexuality any differently from any other sin. There must be some form of chastising. They must be disciplined. If they sit under my ceiling, change will come.”
But like Alan Chambers — the former president of Exodus International who was at the forefront of a faith-based ex-gay movement in the U.S. before publicly requesting the LGBT community’s forgiveness in 2013 — Dowie doesn’t think a person can “pray the gay away.”
“I think you must decide to change, and that you can infuse that with prayer, but whether you bombard heaven with prayer, you will obviously be tempted until the end of your days. Just like I may be tempted to sleep with someone other than my wife. Gays just need to have discipline,” he said.
Dowie’s attitude toward sexual minorities is something Madelene Isaacks is all too familiar with.
A lesbian and a Christian, Isaacks started the faith-based nonprofit Tulinam to help create safe spaces for sexual minorities in Namibian churches.
“As a LGBTI person, you are expected to leave your sexuality at the church door,” she said of her experiences with local faith communities and LGBT and intersex people. “Where there is compassion or tolerance, it comes mostly with the notion that ‘if you let us pray for you and if you confess your wrongdoing, God will free you from this sin.’ So a pastor will tell you ‘we love you, but we hate the sin that you do.’”
A few denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia, tolerate LGBT Christians. But most do not.
“These churches are fiercely homophobic, to the point that, if they can identify them, they will single out gay people in their congregation and ‘drive out the gay demon’ or attempt any ritual that they feel is needed to deal with this person,” she said.
“It’s as if some pastors do not realize that they are dealing with human beings, with feelings and emotions.”
This sort of shaming and lack of support can lead to severe depression, emotional dysfunction, feelings of isolation, loneliness and even suicide, said Windhoek-based clinical psychologist Shaun Whittaker.
Still, Isaacks, Marco and George continue to see God as the compass in their lives.
Marco maintains a loving relationship with his mother and attends church regularly. George continues to attend church with his parents but nurtures a relationship with God outside of church.