LAGOS, Nigeria — Services at The Tribe Lagos church in Nigeria are held in a chic, urbane cafe resembling many others like it in the area: a long, fairly spacious room with stark white walls and light casings made from woven raffia palms.
On a recent Sunday morning, around 80 congregants in their 20s and 30s began trickling in for the 9:00 meeting, per usual. Their fashion choices were hip, personalized and elaborately conceived — bright vintage tees paired with baggy, gently rolled up jeans; colorfully patterned dresses flowing above high rise sneakers. There was an undeniable metropolitan vibe suggesting an uncontested comfort in their skins.
It was my first visit to The Tribe, having learned of it through friends who are regular attendees and speak highly of its impact on their lives for its nontraditional approaches. I was curious to see if it might have the same effect on me, a queer millennial in search of fellowship in a country where homophobia has been written into law.
I observed an opening prayer, followed by musical performances by the church band. Everyone seemed to know each other, and the service moved freely from one form to the next — at times it could have passed for an open mic session or karaoke among friends. The casual and collaborative atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the Nigerian churches I grew up in, where authority is concentrated at the altar. Here at The Tribe, everyone seemed to be equal in their participation; even the pastors could easily be mistaken for congregants.
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The Tribe began in 2017 as a weekly event called “Coffee and Conversations,” with the intent of having “objective conversations around spirituality,” according to its founder and pastor, Ferdinand Adimefe. Like many young Nigerians, Mr. Adimefe, 34, was conflicted about the conservative leanings within Christianity that dominate the country’s culture and laws.
“The approach of the church didn’t seem to have answers to modern problems,” he told me during an hourlong chat, “or didn’t even seem prepared to take up the questions” his generation seemed to be asking. He decided to take an indeterminate break from his Pentecostal church to question its beliefs and create a new narrative he felt needed to emerge within Christianity.
The Tribe has gained a steady following and grown to serve more than 150 members in Lagos and a smaller branch in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. The community is part of a larger wave, beginning in the early 2000s, of more progressive Nigerian Pentecostal churches led by young people that have risen up to fill the space conservative churches have left unexplored. Tapping into a generation’s concerns about mental health, relationships, identity, sexuality and finances, these organizations ostensibly offer their congregants a friendly space to unpack whatever they might be dealing with alongside the teachings of God.
Like many queer people, my most defining contact with homophobia began at church. Though I was raised Catholic, at 15, I switched to a traditional Pentecostal church when I went to live with my older sister, who lived in a different Nigerian state, following the death of my mother. The experience was profoundly dispiriting.
I was subjected to conversion therapy after my family found messages I’d shared with my partner at the time, and it left me physically and emotionally scarred in ways I am still processing four years later. I stopped actively participating in my church’s youth activities because it seemed dishonest and impossible for me to reject who I am and worship God at the same time. Prayer was used against my sexuality, and my personhood.
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But faith dies hard. And I find that I am still drawn to church culture, particularly the singing and the small pockets of community it can provide. I have also always lived by the certainty of a higher being who affords me a spiritual footing. I still believe in God, or the faintest notion of its existence, and continue to seek out relatively healthier places of worship.
I first encountered a nontraditional place of worship when I visited Harvesters, another youth-oriented church that was founded in 2003, as a 19-year-old in search of a departure from my traditional Christian upbringing. I was able to attend services there only a couple of times — the distance from my home makes it difficult — though I appreciated the practical and objective conversations aimed at addressing the issues of the young congregants.
As a queer person, the existence of spaces like Harvesters and The Tribe, which operate on the basis of a more open-minded kind of love and acceptance, can be refreshing.
But for all of the openness these new-wave churches profess, the conversations around queerness have often played out via correctional undertones and are sometimes avoided all together. When I’ve tried talking about issues specific to being queer with other L.G.B.T.Q. people who attend these services, this avoidance seems to be a key motivating factor in their decision to keep returning.
They can worship without being subjected to hateful sermons condemning homosexuality. But how does silence equal equality?
Outside places of worship, queer Nigerians are frequently subjected to violent attacks, blackmail, extortion, indiscriminate arrests and public ostracism. It’s risky to report these injustices to the police, who have openly advised queer people to leave the country or risk prosecution.
When I asked Mr. Adimefe about The Tribe’s stance on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, I learned that while the church will not exclude queer people or pray against them, he encourages his congregants to be open to the possibilities of becoming straight when they meet with teachings from the Bible. “Acceptance is not an endorsement,” he said.
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This contradiction has posed a conundrum for me. A space like The Tribe could serve as an occasional refuge where my existence as a queer person isn’t in constant negotiation, at least on its surface. But it’s not a community I can honestly and completely call my own.
Friendships and relationships are formed here, and I want to be a part of it. But the corrective bent of The Tribe floats over my head like a bad cloud.
After I left that Sunday service with The Tribe and my conversation with Mr Adimefe, I was reminded yet again of the privileges even the most progressive Nigerian churches continue to afford heteronormative identities. Such churches might provide safer spaces for young Nigerians, but they come with limits for young Christians who are queer. And in this way, they are one and the same with the conservative churches from which they try to distinguish themselves. It’s just a more benevolent form of homophobia.
I still haven’t found a fellowship where I can truly be myself — but my faith in such a possibility hasn’t been shaken yet.
Nelson C.J. (@nelsoncj3) is a writer and curator in Lagos, Nigeria.