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RGOD2: “Our stories are free but our people are not”

It was only a year ago Colin Stewart ended his 40-year career in journalism on an all time HIGH. He had built a reputation for good reporting and high sales at the Orange County Register. He had survived the manifold changes within the communication industry over the last decade and at 63 he had built a million-hits-a-month cosmetic medicine blog titled “In Your Face.”

Colin could see the future impact the Internet and Social Media would have on his profession and had courageously reinvented himself bringing the best of his journalism to this open news market. Working in close proximity to sun drenched beaches and prosperity gospel disciples of Orange County’s Good Lifers, Colin’s career was peaking through this blog that reported on the effective use of Botox and plastic surgery and how they are used by celebrities and everyday people.

I have known Colin for over 15 years as a member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills where he and his wife Sue chaired the Christian Education Committee and the Outreach Committee. With a team of clergy and lay leaders, we developed one of the most active Christian Education programs in the Diocese right in the middle of Orange County.

The reason Episcopalians became so inquisitive for biblical and theological knowledge was largely because Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church was a few miles up the road from St. George’s. As ground zero for “purpose driven churches,” pastor Rick had caused some discomfort with good Episcopalians who were frequently informed by his disciples that Episcopalians were not really Christians. Saddleback church baptized believers, not children, and the whole LGBT inclusion issue was causing quite a stir around many office water fountains in Irvine and other OC cities.

So Episcopalians were flocking into programs like Education For Ministry (EFM) to find out what Episcopalians were supposed to believe how it differed from the Warrenite version of Christianity. As an openly gay priest in this notorious (and homophobic) Mecca of prosperity gospel values, I deeply valued Colin and Sue’s commitment to loving God with your mind.

Can we do lunch?

So it was not strange for me to receive a call from these good solid Orange County Episcopalians a year ago inviting me to lunch to pitch an idea and to get my reaction. Colin had been following my career since leaving St. George’s and was particularly disturbed by the reports coming out of 76 countries where being LGBT was a criminal offense.

“What really upset me was the sheer fact that you could be put in prison simply for being who you are,” he recounted later. There was something just wrong with that and whatever fire was kindling in his belly, Colin wanted to use his skills and experience to help communicate to others what was really going on for LGBT people. He also thought the movement needed a consistent and reliable source of news and information. He had just retired from the Orange County Register after 13 years and however gratifying it was to know Orange County residents looked and felt better because of Colin’s journalism, he knew God had something else for him to do than write about Botox.

Colin was about to “Fall Upward.” This is the title of a book by Richard Rohr that encourages people to look differently at retirement as a time to slow down and do less. Rohr invites people to reflect on what they have done with their lives, the skills and relationships that have carefully developed and to seize the opportunity of retirement as a time to really put ones personal agenda into play. No more excuses. Now is the time to do what you really want to do and the training wheels were finally liberated at retirement! Rohr’s approach to retirement is totally counter-cultural and controversial. Yet Rohr’s approach was exactly what Colin would do. After careful reflection and discernment, he chose to do something to help LGBT people globally and to educate others about what this voiceless minority are going through.

Creating a new blog

Within a month, he had launched a new blog titled “Erasing 76 Crimes” and he began to reach out to journalists and others in some of these countries who could contribute articles and find a platform for their stories. He began sifting through news stories and began to give shape and more meaning to seemingly irrational political or religious consequential stories.

Unlike websites created by important watchdog organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, Colin tried to personalize each human rights violation and to give his readers an opportunity to drill deeper into a particular story if they were really interested to do so. This was the first time the Internet provided a more than superficial reporting of some isolated incident in places like Ukraine or Uganda.

Volunteering his time as nearly a new full time job, Colin masterfully created an international resource that is read all over the world and one year later, he has edited his first book: “From Wrongs to Gay Rights.” He wanted to create a short and easily read compendium of real life situations that not only help the reader to understand what it feels like to be one of the millions of people who are largely invisible and voiceless in these 76 countries. He also hoped to assist religious, legal and political institutions to reflect on their own participation in the persecution of LGBT people or begin to actively transform them.

Colin and Sue opened their home last spring for a fundraiser to support 26 people to come to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. and they also became one of the Foundations main sponsors for the event. They were bitterly disappointed when a journalist from Cameroon who is featured in the book was denied a visa to attend the conference. Eric Lembembe commented on what his connection to Colin has meant this year:

“I can say without risk of being wrong that the relationship I have with Colin, the blog and the rest of the team is completely positive for me because it brought me a lot intellectually. Before publication of each article Colin and I generally had professional exchanges on style, writing, and syntax. I also saw my articles -- most of which were in French -- translated into English so they could be read by the large English-speaking community of the United States, United Kingdom, etc.
“This has definitely earned me some fame as a journalist activist in the world. And I feel that, being still in Cameroon, of course, and not well known here, but there is already a certain category of people who no longer consider me a stranger even here Yaounde where I am currently based.

“Thanks to the blog, I -- a simple little Cameroonian journalist -- have been able to make my work known as I seek to give voice to the lives and struggles of voiceless ones, the homosexuals of Cameroon. Last but not least is the contribution, although currently still small and unquantifiable, that our work could bring to the quest for human rights for sexual minorities and the fight against homophobia in Cameroon and in the world.”

Spirit of 76 – Getting to know other activists
Colin spent some time with the delegates and wrote several stories about the Spirit of 76 network and began collaborating with them, featuring their stories and their fears. He reported when two of our delegates lost jobs and homes. He witnessed the pain of political exile and how broken our asylum system is for these extremely brave individuals, many of whom are young enough to be his child. He knows how important faith can be for these leaders yet how horrific churches and other faith leaders have been in demonizing them and making their lives a living hell.

He uses a couple of articles I had written for SDGLN about the faith community to illustrate how people and institutions can move from active hostility and homophobia to acceptance and inclusion. He is clear about the process and gives us some clearly marked lines on the road to travel down. He explores the journeys of religious leaders like Canon George Regas of Pasadena or Archbishop Yona Okoth of Uganda, who moved from places of fear or ignorance to seeking to understand a universal mystery that human beings have not historically engaged with any sense of grace or enquiry.

The most moving chapter in the book for me was a situation I knew about but I failed to really understand the hidden toll that this event actually cost the activists and human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Miles Tanhira authored a chapter called “A night in hell, Zimbabwe Style,” retelling the story of how the local LGBT community center was stormed by riot police and how she and her friends and colleagues from GALZ were treated by the police in urine soaked and freezing cells in the Harare police station.

As a westerner, it is difficult for me to fully understand what human rights violations look like, particularly if our sources are primarily from an Amnesty International report that is written mainly from a policy perspective. Important as these reports are to UN and inter-government dialogues to help prevent these kinds of abuses, they are sanitized from the sheer terror that is often inflicted on innocent, law abiding, community centered individuals who are simply trying to make difficult lives better for the people around them.

As you read these accounts, it is also easy to imagine these police officers sitting in church on Sunday with their children at their sides. Violence and religious reasons for this dehumanizing treatment of Miles and her friends are part of this and many stories like it. If I was a bishop or a pastor knowing that members of my church were treating fellow citizens in this way, I would be concerned about how successful I am being to live out the principles of Jesus and the Kingdom of God that he longed for. After reading this chilling account, I would be concerned, not about the spread of homosexuality, but the spread of God-sanctioned violence and to wonder at my participation or the participation of institutions I respect and may even lead. Is this the kind of church or society I want to be remembered for? This is why Colin’s work is so important.

Moving leaders and institutions from hostility and through indifference to transformation

This book is designed for religious leaders, members of parliament, health care providers in these 76 countries, as well as LGBT organizations and welcoming churches in this country who are focused almost entirely on the domestic LGBT agenda. They may be aware about the “Kill The Gays” bill in the Ugandan parliament and have signed countless petitions about it, but these stories and these situations do not affect me as I await marriage and moral equality in this country.

Yet by simply reading and retelling her remarkable account of that fateful night in August 2012, it can evoke fire in the belly. Over the past year, Colin has shown us what fire in the belly can do when it joins forces with a well organized mind and a lifetime of experience. Colin’s ability to humanize and report the actual effects of these laws and policies is his genius of this little book. It is a simple idea and its time has come.

Our stories are free but our people are not

First editions of the book will are now available through the Foundation. For every $25 donation we receive in February through April, the Foundation will send the donor a free copy of the book (it will retail for $14.95 plus tax and shipping). For every $50 or more, we will send free copies of the book to religious leaders, lawmakers and people in leadership and influence here and around the world. This latest appeal is simply titled: “Our stories are free but our people are not.” This strategy is a great way of supporting the educational process that Colin first envisioned at our lunch last year. Thanks to his work, we now know more and we are stewards of the stories. Now we have the blog and the book, we desperately need ambassadors to share these stories with others. You can share this with your friends, members of your faith community and LGBT organizations. So please take this opportunity to support our work and receive a free copy of Colin’s book. Please help us distribute it to religious leaders and lawmakers in the many of these countries. You can make your donation HERE and please make sure we have your full address for shipping.

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.