Tolu Olasoji

This piece was first published on Reasons to Be Cheerful and is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.


Penda* did not feel worthy of a seat at the table with the 15 religious leaders she found herself nervously sitting across from, seven of them Christian, eight of them Muslim.

"Before I attended that forum, I knew that I was a sinner," she recalls. "I didn't think it was possible for me to go near a church. I didn't even think that I could have a conversation with a religious leader."

Yet in 2014, Penda, a masculine-presenting lesbian, found herself in conversation with these faith leaders, all of whom believed — and in many cases preached — that homosexuality is evil. But this was no ordinary conversation. At Penda's side were three other people: a Kenyan gay man, a sex worker and someone living with HIV. None of the faith leaders knew these details. That information was held back — until just the right moment presented itself.

The forum was part of a strategic faith engagement session organized by Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved in Kenya (PEMA Kenya), a sexual and gender minority group in the coastal city of Mombasa. In Kenya, where the LGBTQ community is a frequent target of conservative religious leaders, who preach discrimination and sometimes even violence against them, PEMA Kenya takes an unusual approach: it works to "convert" faith leaders to the gay rights cause by introducing them to LGBTQ people, face to face, to build empathy, compassion and understanding.

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