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RGOD2: Finding kindred spirits with straight allies in the faith community

When I spoke at Good Shepherd parish in Silver Spring, Md., about the plight of LGBT people internationally, it was April 14, 2012, the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Here was an average suburban Washington, D.C. congregation who had no connection with the 76 countries where it is illegal to be LGBT.

The question posed to them was this: If we can find someone to represent their issues and country, would you host them to stay in your homes during the International AIDS Conference, perhaps address the congregation so they can tell you what it is like for them living under this kind of oppression and somehow support their work when they would return home?

St. Paul’s Foundation and our Washington-based volunteers worked with 50 congregations during the spring and summer, and 12 agreed to host one of our delegates. This was completely unchartered territory for all of us. It was also difficult work.

The subject of HIV and LGBT in most Washington congregations is not something good Christian people want to talk about. A progressive mosque initially wanted to sponsor a delegate but during the last week pulled out.

In a city that has HIV infection rates as high as some African countries, the International AIDS Conference brought some attention on an issue most congregations did not want to deal with, so these 12 congregational opportunities we had were priceless. We called the local volunteer hosts “shepherds” because they would represent a pastoral and supportive role to our international guests. Most of our visitors had never been to the USA before so this would be their first encounter with ordinary American domestic life and a worshipping congregation who did not endorse hellfire and damnation for LGBT people.

Following up on our work

I returned to DC this week, six weeks after the event, to see what impact these people and their stories had upon the shepherds and their congregations. I discovered that the impact was quite profound. One retired married couple had provided a base for Macdonald Sembereka, an Anglican priest living in Malawi. He is HIV-positive and part of an international network of 7,000 HIV-positive religious leaders called INERELA.

As a straight advocate for LGBT inclusion, Macdonald experienced so much stigma from his faith community that he now works to alleviate it for everyone. When he began to speak out in favor of decriminalization of LGBT people in Malawi, the mob turned on him. As legislators added lesbianism to the anti-gay penal code, someone firebombed Macdonald’s home last year while his wife and children lay sleeping. This did not deter him from working to reduce discrimination against LGBT people and he focused largely on the homophobia within the churches and began to organize conference for religious leaders and politicians to discuss this issue.

So we assigned Macdonald to Good Shepherd in the hope there would be good chemistry and sure enough, the report last night from our two retired teachers was extremely encouraging.

Macdonald had been invited to D.C. to take part in a meeting of the Presidential AIDS Program (PEPFAR) and he wanted to stay with his new friends in Silver Spring. So they were sitting at the dinner table when Macdonald’s cell phone rang and he answered it. He excused himself and began talking energetically and used the word “Excellency” a couple of times. As the new presidential adviser on Non Government Organizations (NGO), Macdonald was speaking with Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi. She was in New York trying to raise support to feed her 1.3 million starving people and was now on her way to Washington to build more support for her case.

Macdonald passed the phone to his host to say hello. Mary was eating her ice cream and didn’t have to time to figure out she was speaking to a head of state. She remembered to call her “Your Excellency” and they had a conversation about her Presbyterian past and the mission she was on in the USA. She told the president how Macdonald had changed their awareness about so many international issues and how impressed they were that she was one of the few African heads of state willing to look seriously at repealing the anti-gay laws on her countries books.

Mary’s congregation raised almost $3,000 to support the Spirit of 76 program to bring 26 international visitors and an additional $1,000 to support a little orphanage Macdonald was helping. A little money for uniforms and school fees went a long way. The couple laughed and recounted how excited he was to shop at our bargain department stores for shoes and clothes for his orphans. He was particularly proud of one who had made it to medical school.

The Silver Springs congregation is now supporting his work and Macdonald is welcome any time in Mary and Paul’s home. Their tangible support of this one man is helping to change a country and simply by opening hearts and homes, Macdonald was able to find kindred spirits and the bread of angels to sustain him on a difficult journey towards equality.

The momentum continues

I have heard other similar encouraging stories this week. Members of First Congregational Church who sponsored a woman from Nairobi are now funding our refugee support work there for four months and another is going to provide temporary housing resources for one of our group who was arrested and tortured by the authorities for attending the conference and supporting LGBT inclusion.

As local organizations scramble to get him a flight and begin the process to get him out of harm’s way and to the USA, the local faith community will provide hospitality to him so he can begin a new life here. These are tangible examples of what happens when local congregations are educated and see tangible ways they can share in the work of global equality.

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.