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RGOD2: Supported on the shoulders of others

This coming Saturday, I will be deeply honored to receive the Pride Award from Equality California in recognition of the international work we are ALL doing for global equality.

The event has been sold out and we are expecting 300 people in the beautiful garden of hosts Joyce Rowland and Pamela Morgan, who were also sponsors of our successful “Spirit of 76” initiative last month.

I accept this honor in thanksgiving for the army of people who work tirelessly day in, day out to bring dignity and hope to millions of LGBT people. When we work collaboratively, we can do much more and I am grateful to the wonderful people who made our training events in Washington, D.C. last month, so successful. I want to thank everyone who gave generously of time, talent and treasure and to ask for your continued prayers and support.

Expanding the circle

With your support and 20 sponsoring organizations, we were able to welcome 26 individuals from countries where it is illegal to be LGBT to spend two intense weeks in Washington and attend the International AIDS Conference and build deeper relationships.

As well as providing staff time and coordination from my office in San Diego, St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation also recruited Danie Akakunda, (then living and working at the foundation’s Nairobi office) to coordinate applications for visas, accommodation and overall logistics. During June and July, several key volunteers from the Washington area (Dr. Philip Moeller, the Rev. Carol Flett and Richard Parkins) were augmented with a half-time staff position (Eric Scharf) who coordinated the work locally. The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer of the United Church of Christ assisted with fundraising for the pre-conference registration and accommodation while Sandy Sorenson of UCC’s Public Policy Office, Mark Bromley of The Global Equality Council and Josh King of HRC coordinated the Capitol Hill Advocacy Day planned for July 24. We also had assistance from the Robert F. Kennedy Center and Human Rights First as key partners.

The initiative sparked a lot of interest and energy in Washington and around the country and attracted three main sponsoring Foundations, the Open Society Foundation, The Ford Foundation and USAID. Overall, the delegates worked very well together and were an inspiration to many who had an opportunity to meet them and to hear their stories. They returned to their contexts with new skills renewed energy and a deeper network, including our own Facebook page “Turning the Tide: the Spirit of 76.”

Since returning home, we have kept in weekly contact with all of the delegates and have submitted two grant proposals in common as we seek to build infrastructure, improve professional skills, governance and service delivery systems. Several delegates have also run into significant issues because of their attendance at the conference and the network has continued to support them, giving advice, emergency financial help and greater networking capacity as a result of the experience.

For many, the first time to stay in an American home

Delegates stayed in the homes of 12 local faith congregations before and after the 10-day residence at Howard University. A bus tour of Washington on July 18 provided a helpful “icebreaker experience” for this new group of international visitors.

Delegates and the sponsors and host congregations attended the opening event at First Congregational UCC Church with openly gay Dan Baer of the State Department as the keynote speaker. An orientation day followed that focused on storytelling and clergy training (Pieter Oberholzer and Judith Kotze from South Africa). Delegates then attended the two day Interfaith Conference organized by one of our sponsors, Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. Several members led panel discussions and this was the first time EAA had included workshops on LGBT issues.

We also attended an opening party at the World Bank sponsored by MSM Global Forum which was a great opportunity for networking and a special meeting with four executives from the World Bank was arranged by GLOBE (World Bank’s LGBT Affinity group). The delegates shared personal stories about how discrimination affected their educational, health and business opportunities and we were introduced to World Bank’s concern for “Quality of citizenship” for the first time.

This meeting with the World Bank was a significant moment for many of our delegates and was a high light for them as indicated from their evaluation and later comments. We also attended the interfaith service at Washington National Cathedral with the Names Project Memorial Quilt and several delegates spoke in churches both weekends of the conferences. Congregants were deeply moved by their testimonies and several have offered continued support for some of their projects upon return home.

International AIDS Conference

The International AIDS Conference was attended by 25,000 people from July 22-27 and delegates had a rich and varied experience presenting panel discussions at the conference, attending events in the Global Village, speaking a the conference and volunteering. This was a unique experience for many of the delegates and they valued the opportunity to improve their skills, knowledge and networking.

Several articles were written by a number of delegates and they had the opportunity to engage some of the religiously conservative elements from their countries about issues of access and rights. The experience was totally cross cultural and inter-disciplinary.

Improving advocacy skills

On July 24, delegates spent the day in a training session designed to improve their advocacy. This was the day we visited eleven politically and religiously conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill. After an excellent training facilitated by Mark Bromley and Sandy Sorensen, delegates met with staff members who were very attentive and appreciated the stories coming from these “authentic witnesses.”

Our message was clear and concise: to advocate for more AIDS funding from the U.S. government as a continued investment in the global AIDS response, to be more proactive on issues of LGBT criminalization as a strategy for AIDS prevention and to urge more support for the State Department’s new global initiative to protect LGBT human rights.

Several delegates had helpful stories illustrating U.S. Embassy commitment to them and their organizations. Two further meetings with the State Department underscored the need for greater access to political and religious leaders in their countries and the hope the State Department could facilitate further in country dialogues.

There were two faith-related meetings at the White House organized by the Faith based Initiative staff. Greater resources were needed to both engage faith communities in country to build up an alternative and more inclusive voice for LGBT access to rights and services, while curtailing the misinformation that was coming from American evangelicals abroad (i.e. the link between Scott Lively and the creation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda). With 40% of HIV services provided by African faith communities, it was essential to build deeper dialogue with clergy, provide training and international cross trainings for religious leaders so models of inclusive and comprehensive services.

Ron MacInnis from the Futures Group also gave several helpful illustrations about what could be done by NGO’s even when criminalization was still enforced in 76 countries. This cross-training and sharing actual programmatic experience was invaluable to all the participants. A final “Re-entry day” on July 28 was organized by Dr. Philip Moeller of the World Bank. He focused on personal, institutional and organizational needs as the delegates were preparing to re-enter difficult and hostile contexts.

Together with the Facebook page and “Erasing 76 Crimes” blog, the delegates agreed to keep in closer contact with each other, give support to each other and share funding opportunities and closer collaboration. The final day together was spent in host congregations, sharing their experience of the past two weeks and spending a final weekend with their host shepherds who also came to our final party at Lutheran Church of the Reformation. We are grateful to pastor Mike Wilker and his staff for providing the church and premises for the temporary coordinating office and training and socializing facilities for “the Spirit of 76” family.

Everyone left for their home countries on July 29 and arrived safely to continue the good work they had so passionately communicated to a wide local and international audience. It was a remarkable group of courageous individuals who continue to be inspired and to inspire those of us engaged in the intersections of faith, rights, LGBT and HIV issues. The emerging global movement is undoubtedly better off as a result of our collective efforts and we can look back to July 2012 as a seminal moment when this remarkable cohort of individuals gathered to work and strategize.

It is this kind of experience that inspires me to continue the work and without you, it could not happen. So as I receive this award on Saturday, it is you I will thank and the army of people who came together and made a difference. The momentum is growing and the circle is widening. We are becoming the global community God made us to be.

“The Spirit of 76” initiative is ongoing to build a deeper and more resourced global network for LGBT inclusion in 20 countries directly. Please consider making a donation to support this work.

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.