Everyone loves a parade! When Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda heard that he had been named a grand marshal for the San Francisco Pride Parade, he responded in a spirit of pure joy -- “Do I have to wear any special garments?” The mind boggles when you consider the range of possibilities!
Named by the Huffington Post as one of the top 10 most influential religious leaders in 2010, the bishop was disgraced by the Anglican Church of Uganda when he refused to condemn LGBT people. For 12 years since his retirement, the church tried everything to get Senyonjo to recant. They removed his ability to function as a bishop so he was unable to make a living or have a retirement plan. They would not allow him to marry or baptize his grandchildren and the ultimate threat to bury him in unconsecrated ground still hangs over his head and brings tears to his sparking eyes.
His family has also been through a decade-long nightmare where press reports about him defamed his reputation as a senior religious leader. When the Church of Uganda supported the “Kill The Gays” bill two years ago, it was Bishop Christopher who was chosen by the coalition opposing it to present a million signatures to the Speaker of the Ugandan parliament. What is the secret to this man’s courage in the face of so many odds?
Impoverished financially but rich in spirit
When I met the bishop two and a half years ago, he was in a very deep economic and spiritual hole. You can watch the story unfold here recorded at the Harvard Kennedy School last year:
The bishop’s family was trying to convince him to give up his public support of LGBT people and his 10-year financial support from Integrity USA had dried up. He had to sell some of his family land to make ends meet. His faith kept him going and a close pastoral relationship to LGBT people convinced him that he should “hang in there” and continue to do the right thing.
Many of his clergy and bishop friends have deserted him. He was considered a theological leper. I met several clergy who continued to support him and also suffered persecution from the Archbishop, given the church is extremely “top-down” in Uganda. Against all odds, today, the bishop runs a thriving St. Paul’s Centre for Reconciliation and Equality with nine full-time employees.
He is not just a success story, his story is a miracle. He literally had nothing two years ago and today he is known throughout the world as the Desmond Tutu of Uganda. He will ride through the streets of San Francisco with a million people celebrating LGBT Pride. His story is important at this crucial moment in LGBT history because it is about thriving.
Sometimes we all have to step forward in faith, often without any resources, but know that one day, ones work and values will be honored and blest. Faith is not about certainty. There is something inside us that challenges us to step out and believe there will be ground below our step, or we will find a way to fly. What is it that has kept this 80-year-old going? These are the qualities and success stories that make the Pride celebration so inspirational. There may be someone out there who is being squeezed and crushed by their communities to “tow the party line,” but Christopher’s story is about making the right decisions that may fly in the face of your family and church and still thrive against all odds. Christopher’s values are based on the values of Jesus and St. Paul. All three were never populists. They all have a vision of full inclusion in a new energized humanity.
A city abuzz
Andrea Shorter is a dear friend and long time resident of San Francisco. She has also given a lot of support to the bishop’s work over the past two years and commented on the city’s response to our winning theme for Pride: Global Equality.
“People are really buzzing and talking a lot about what is happening all over the world to LGBT people,” she told me. “We have moved on from talking about marriage equality to talking about our brothers and sisters who are being locked up and killed in 76 countries, just because of who we are.”
This is a huge sea change. Andrea arranged the meeting with the Pride board of directors last year when the bishop and I pitched the Global Equality theme. There were almost 30 themes submitted to the board for consideration and the city voted for Global Equality.
London Pride took the lead this year and is supporting the Kaleidoscope Project as the charity of choice for the London Olympics. Kaleidoscope is the British version of the St. Paul’s Foundation and is also working with us for global equality. So the bishop will be in San Francisco from June 19 for a special showing of the film “Call Me Kuchu” at the Castro Theatre. This powerful film is about the life and legacy of David Kato and is a tribute to the brave men and women, straight and LGBT, who continue to laugh and love, serve and thrive against enormous social pressures.
The film makes its USA debut in Los Angeles next week at the L.A. Film Festival (June 16 and 17) and has already won several international awards. Details of where you can view the film is HERE.
Changing the photos inside our heads: From victimhood to thriving
Like the bishop’s personal story, the Uganda LGBT community is moving from a place of victimhood and survival to a place of thriving. The fact the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition is taking Scott Lively to court in the USA for crimes against humanity and is standing up to their Minister of Ethics and Integrity and Attorney General for shutting down a training program, is about moving beyond surviving to thriving.
If the LGBT narrative is only one of victim, we allow the enemy to define us. We concede our identity and futures to others. The bishop and the Civil Society Coalition and indeed the message of “Call Me Kuchu” is about transforming enormous suffering through courage, laughter and wearing fabulous garments!
The indomitable spirit of the LGBT community in Uganda portrayed in the film moves from the courthouse where David Kato and his disciples use the constitutional process to shut down the Rolling Stone tabloid, to a fabulous drag fashion show! In the midst of so much homophobia, the community finds time to have fun to celebrate and bless a long term relationship. The juxtaposition and tension of these two realities are striking.
Hello to my friends in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County
So the bishop is wondering what he should wear to the party! He is going to make brief appearances to his friends in San Diego on Saturday, June 16. There is a brunch in Bishop Christopher’s honor at the home of David Reicks and David Kochs.
He will be in Los Angeles for the film festival on June 16 and 17.
The bishop’s friends in Orange County will hold a reception on Monday, June 18, from 6 to 9 pm at the showroom of Steven Lucas Fine Arts, 1945 Laguna Canyon Road. Tickets can be purchased HERE or donations made to the global equality work.
Volunteer with the bishop in San Francisco
The bishop is looking for volunteers to be part of the Pride celebration and you can support his work to help raise support for global equality. The volunteer shifts are for three hours on Saturday and Sunday, and if we get 12 or more volunteers, we can be part of the Community Grants Program and receive support for our global work.
If we don’t get at least 12 volunteers, sadly we won’t qualify for the program, so sign up now. Send me an email at email@example.com or to Timm Dobbins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shifts are Saturday morning and afternoon, and the same on Sunday.
If you are not sure what you want to wear to the party, then check out the women’s handmade scarves and jewelry that the bishop is bringing from his women’s development program in Kampala. Pauline Miriam and her Hotflash Dances supporters will have exclusive access to these fabulous accessories at the San Francisco Pride Inferno Party on Saturday, June 23. There will be a red carpet reception from 8-10 pm to meet the bishop and so the beat goes on!
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.
(The photo on the left is of Andrea Shorter, who received an award last year from Bishop Christopher (left) and the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle (right) of St. Paul's Foundation for Shorter's work for global equality.