When Amsterdam was elected as the city for EuroPride 2016 in the fall of 2013 it only appeared logical to me to visit EuroPride in Riga, Latvia. My initial idea was just to travel there and taste the atmosphere of EuroPride. My special interest was (and is) to see if we can build up to a meaningful and joyful inter-religious LGBT presence in Amsterdam in 2016. As time went by the idea grew not just to go to Riga to be there, but to see if the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups could also do something that would be meaningful for LGBT Christians there. And what better way to do that than to add to all that EuroPride has to offer with a special Rainbow Celebration in a church?
I contacted both Janis Sturmanis and Matijs Milhelmanis, regular participants of the annual conferences of the European Forum, to find out if that would be a good idea and whether or not they would support it. They were both immediately enthusiastic about the plan, and so I went on to find out if the organizers of EuroPride would be willing to guarantee our safety—after all, this was going to be a rainbow service in an Eastern European country that seemed to be far from LGBT friendly. Through the intermediate help of Irene Hemelaar, the then secretary of EPOA, the European Pride organization, I was able to contact Mozaika in Riga. Linda Curika became my contact person. Janis and Matijs were very helpful in finding a church that would be willing to host us: the Anglican Church of Riga, St. Saviour’s. Thanks to the hospitality and bravery of the local minister, Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, we were sure of our location of the service. Also within the Forum I found excellent help in Jonathan Brown, with whom I would preside at the service, as also the blessing of the board of the Forum to go ahead. And so everything was set in motion.
A Significant Celebration
To be honest I had no idea of the significance of our celebration at first. Only when we started organizing the service itself, we found out that the Anglican church, a beautiful church in the old city of Riga, was actually the only church where we would be allowed to hold our service. You might think otherwise in a country in which the Lutheran Church, a protestant denomination, is the biggest one, worldwide having a rather liberal approach to sexual diversity and gender identity. Unfortunately even today this church in Latvia (and also Estonia) can be called homophobic in its attitude and thinking about LGBT people. And not only that. When the new post-communist archbishop took office in the early nineties he issued a new rule forbidding women to hold the office of ministers and also evicting all women then active as ministers out of their position. Of course that promised and promises little good for LGBT people in church and society. When the first Baltic Pride was organized in 2006 in Riga the Lutheran ministers Maris Sants and Juris Calitis decided to organize a LGBT friendly service in their own church. The service met with a lot of resistance both from within the church and outside. The church was raided during the service and the twenty or so visitors had to flee through the back door. Moreover both Sants and Calitis lost their position as ministers. Neither the police nor the Lutheran Church itself protected them or the visitors to the service. Sants fled to the United Kingdom and Calitis continued his ministry with his congregation that by and large followed him into the premises of the Anglican Church that was willing to host them. Ever since then this now isolated and independent Lutheran flock comes together on Sunday afternoons in the Anglican Church, being the only LGBT friendly church in a country that consists of around two million people. Calitis is considered a “crazy” pastor by the official Lutheran Church and no effort has been made to reestablish some kind of normal contact. The whole situation is very characteristic of the position of LGBTs in church and in society. It was only a few weeks ago (in May 2015) that a Latvian Roman Catholic cardinal, invited by a parliamentary committee to share his viewpoints on sexual diversity, stated that the Nazis had been right to prosecute homosexual men and women because they posed and pose a threat to family life and to procreation. Even taking into account that this cardinal is already old and is especially familiar with Roman Catholic theology, the level of ignorance, of lack of information and of rudeness for that matter is simply intolerable and highly offensive and insulting to LGBT people. And it makes very clear that it will still take a very long time until local churches will become safe havens for LGBT people, let alone understanding that LGBT people form an inseparable part of the Christian community (cf. Galatians 3,28).
Honorable Participants and Guests
We were greatly honored to have both Maris Sants and Juris Calitis as our guests in the Rainbow Celebration on 21 June. It was Maris’ first time back in Latvia after five years. He participated in the intercession prayers and Juris gave us his blessing at the end of the service. Around fifty people celebrated with us in a highly intense and emotional hour of worship. Linda Curika and Matijs Mihelmanis testified to their personal life as LGBTs, Marta Herca shared her prayer with us in the intercession prayers. In his sermon, Jonathan Brown led us “out of the tomb” that was and is made for us by church and society, just as Lazarus had once been called out of his tomb by Jesus, to be free and no longer to be held by everything that leads to a life that resembles death. We were also very happy to be accompanied in celebration by the aforementioned Irene Hemelaar and by the deputy ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Martijn Lambarts. It was a happy, joyful service (not least because of the last minute performance of our Spanish organ player Victor Huedo Plaza), in which we felt the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to continue with our life, love and work and also the blessing of God, our Mother and Father.
We sincerely hope our presence in Latvia will leave Latvian Christian LGBTs with a renewed sense of courage to carry on their good and necessary work. After the Pride Parade, which took place the previous day and which numbered 5,000 people, half of them Latvian, there is definitely a spirit of change in the air. This is such a change from ten years ago when only a hundred people demonstrated, facing thousands in opposition. The European Forum was very happy to be in the Parade with about ten people, showing that there is hope and that our LGBT life will get better, also in the churches. We hope all the hundreds of pictures that have been taken of our banner will go around the world and will be a source of inspiration to all who are still struggling.
God bless EuroPride, God bless Latvia, God bless the life and love of all Latvian LGBTs.