California Senate Resolution honoring his equality efforts to be presented Dec. 2 in San Diego
SAN DIEGO – The Right Rev. Christopher Senyonjo could have retired in 1998 as Bishop of the Diocese of West Burganda, Uganda, with his pension and the satisfaction of serving the Anglican Church faithfully for many years.
But in 2001, he felt a calling to help the young people who came to his private counseling service for advice on how to deal with coming out in this east African nation of 33 million people where homosexuality is illegal and where gays and lesbians are routinely tormented and harassed.
So Bishop Christopher, as he is fondly known and who is often referred to as the Desmond Tutu of Uganda,, was compelled to help the confused and frightened young gays who had mustered up the courage to seek his counsel.
The bishop, sipping tea this week at Caffe Carpe Diem in the trendy North Park neighborhood of San Diego, shared his fascinating and tragic story of how he went from being a distinguished bishop in Uganda to becoming an outcast in the Anglican Communion.
His outreach to LGBT people has cost him his pension, made him a persona non grata among Anglican religious leaders in Uganda, and the victim of homophobic lies that accuse him of being a pedophile who is recruiting 100,000 Ugandan children to become homosexuals.
A scandalous tabloid in Uganda called Rolling Stone even put his image on the front cover of a recent edition that called for the hanging of LGBT people, putting his life in danger. Never mind that the bishop is straight, and is a husband, father and grandfather.
To his enemies, Bishop Christopher turns the other cheek. He believes he is doing God’s work – and so do many of his supporters across the globe.
The bishop is in San Diego this week to accept California Senate Resolution 51, which will be presented to him by state Sen. Christine Kehoe on Thursday, Dec. 2, during a reception at Eden in Hillcrest.
Senate Resolution 51 commends Bishop Christopher’s work and calls for government to be more stringent in monitoring abuses by churches that are supporting the false claims of so called “ex-gay ministries” and exporting homophobia to countries like Uganda. It also encourages faith-based organizations in the U.S. to support the creation of policies in other countries that do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ever the humble man, Bishop Christopher says he feels honored by the resolution.
“Thank God there are people who appreciate what I am doing,” he says. “I didn’t think, in my lifetime, that I would be recognized for what I am doing. … It encourages me to go on serving to the end of my life.”
How he became a human-rights champion
“In 2001, a young man came to me and said a group of young people wanted counsel. They were rejected by the church and by their family because of their sexual orientation,” he says.
Bishop Christopher studied human sexuality as an undergraduate in the U.S. and felt comfortable counseling the five young LGBT people who sought his advice.
“They felt so disheartened by what people were telling them,” he says. “Why, when God had created them, would the church and family reject them? I told them that God accepts them for who you are.
“God loves you, I told them. They were happy to hear that. But the church was not happy to hear that. They wanted me to condemn them and ‘convert’ them to being straight.”
The “ex-gay movement,” which has been widely discredited in the U.S., has been exported abroad, especially in Africa where homosexuality is largely taboo, if not illegal. The Christian right in the U.S. is largely behind these efforts, but the conservative Anglican Church in Uganda is also supportive.
As word spread through Uganda that Bishop Christopher was ministering to LGBT people, he was increasingly ostracized by his peers, especially when he began his pioneering work with Integrity-Uganda.
In March 2001, he came to the U.S. to learn more about Integrity USA, whose “mission is to be a witness of God's inclusive love to the Episcopal Church and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.”
Back home, church and government officials were perturbed that Bishop Christopher was meeting with Integrity and there was loud chatter that he would be arrested upon his return. He decided to extend his stay in the U.S., and notes that he was here during the 9/11 terror attack.
The church also debated putting the bishop on trial and attempting to defrock him. That hasn’t happened, though.
“I felt like I was doing something right,” he said. “LGBT people should not be shunned by the church.”
He quietly returned to Uganda without incident. Still, he tells of being harassed, verbally and physically assaulted for his beliefs, and yet he continues to attend Anglican Church occasions fully dressed in his bishop’s robes. He seems to enjoy the role of being the thorn in the sides of church hierarchy.
When Uganda’s Parliament began debating the notorious “Kill the Gays” bill, Bishop Christopher was among the loudest voices leading the condemnation of the measure. International pressure became intense, and Parliament put the bill on ice earlier this year.
But with national elections coming up next year, the bishop is concerned that the bill will be resurrected. And if that happens, he promises to be among the first to speak out against it.
Planting seeds of knowledge and understanding
Bishop Christopher’s passion these days is his newest project, St. Paul’s Center for Reconciliation and Equality in Uganda.
“He is courageously creating what only can be described as a gay/straight alliance for adults on a national scale through an inclusive and welcoming faith community in the face of increasing homophobia from the government and the churches,” says the Rev. Canon Albert J. Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, who recently visited with the bishop in Uganda.
The bishop beams when talking about the center and its satellite offices around Uganda. He is creating education and employment opportunities for LGBT people and their allies. He is establishing classes to teach people job skills and trade crafts. He is building a bridge of understanding between straights and LGBT people in a noble attempt to counterbalance the homophobia being exported by American evangelicals.
He talks about the need for money to fund his projects, the shortage of scholastic materials and school fees, and the urgent need for help from those who support his cause.
The bishop also wants to set up safe houses for LGBT people who feel endangered or may be seeking asylum in another country.
He proudly touts a young gay man he is counseling who has started a sugar cane farm and is employing people; another man who is manufacturing shoes; a widow who is raising poultry; and a man who is making bricks for construction.
Bishop Christopher is planting seeds for the long term.
“It is a beginning,” he says. “I’m not working for just my time (on Earth) … but for the future.”
He firmly believes in his calling.
“It is God who is leading me to do it,” he says. “I am encouraged so far. I want LGBT people to know they are loved by God. So many young people in my country hate themselves for being gay. But through counseling, they have come to love themselves.”
Bishop Christopher talks about the suicide problem, which is not just an issue in the U.S.
“How many people are dying because people tell them God doesn’t love them, their parents don’t love them, that society doesn’t love them?” he asks. “Which is false! God loves you – but the church doesn’t want to hear that.”
On ignorance, fear and homophobia
Bishop Christopher holds enlightened views on human sexuality, unlike many of his peers. He is well-versed in Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior.
He is encouraging seminaries to teach a course in human sexuality as a way to promote greater understanding of the issue.
“We have pastors who only know about Adam and Eve,” he says, laughing. “That is the extent of their knowledge of human sexuality. Too many human beings are afraid of their own bodies and their own sexuality.”
He blames Uganda’s aversion to homosexuality on ignorance, fear and the homophobia being stirred up by the Christian right.
“Ignorance about homosexuality is causing huge problems,” he says, pointing to the hate slogans and lies being spread about gays and lesbians.
He says it leads to “mob justice” where stonings and beatings are “justified” by religious beliefs.
“It is very dangerous,” the bishop says. “It is infuriating that some people think God should have control over society, instead of democracy. They want to use simple, fundamentalist laws to govern, like the Ten Commandments.”
He accuses the Christian right of fomenting hate to create divisions as a way to gain power and influence.
“They are not acting very Christian,” the bishop says. “They are creating divisions within families as parents throw out their LGBT children. They are creating hatred. This is not the Gospel as I know it.”
He opposes the use of selected passages of the Bible to justify hatred of homosexuals, such as the passage from Leviticus and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“The Bible should be used in proper context,” he says. “The real heart of the Bible to me is Jesus Christ. The real heart of Jesus Christ is love. Hatred is not in the spirit of God.”
He ponders only briefly in describing what would Jesus say today about LGBT issues.
“He would say, ‘Let them love God, and don’t throw them away!’ Jesus loves all of us. But that is not the spirit of the church right now.
“I’m standing on the side of love.”