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RGOD2: Holy Week with Uganda’s LGBT community

For Christians all over the world, Holy Week describes the most important moments in the life of Jesus –his suffering, torture, crucifixion and resurrection. I begin this most solemn week in Uganda and will worship with the little LGBT and ally community at the St. Paul’s Centre in Kampala.

Here in Uganda, these people are suffering, tortured and even killed simply for what they are or believe. During this most Holy Week, in almost 70 countries over the world, Christians are persecuting other Christians for simply providing pastoral care and HIV services to LGBT people. In some places like Russia, it is illegal to even talk about it.

Here in Uganda, the Anglican Church and the nation’s president deny the reality of this persecution. It is difficult for them to explain why straight ally Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has not be restored to his full status as a bishop by a Church who has actively stigmatized him while supporting the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, aka the Bahati Bill and the “Kill The Gays” bill. They still withhold his pension and his ability to baptize and marry even members of his own family.

Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, is visiting Uganda this week and had lunch with President Yoweri Museveni, who told her the Ugandan government and church is not persecuting LGBT people. A report of her visit is HERE.

Denial ain’t a river in Uganda

How can Christian leaders and followers of Jesus enter Holy Week and be so unaware of the connection of the Holy Week story to LGBT struggle for dignity and wholeness? How can we be so blind to the irony that the Holy Week story may apply more appropriately to this largely invisible minority of people within many societies?

In most of the laws that criminalize homosexuality in 76 countries, God and nation is clearly present: “A crime against God and nature” or “A crime against God and our Constitution.” These are words of condemnation that send us to jail, keep us victims of blackmail and hold millions of us captive.

When we read the actual legal charges made against Jesus, anti-gay laws share similar themes. “He is destroying both our temple (religious traditions and values and even the lucrative Temple economy) and our nation.” The crimes of Jesus are the same crimes often used against us.

Three young African gay men who were arrested, lost jobs and in two cases were brutally tortured by police or military were all accused of treason and attempts to overthrow the government. Their only crime was to be LGBT. For President Museveni to tell his international visitors that LGBT Ugandans are not victimized begs the question: “Which planet is the president actually living on?” While he thanks the churches for helping him fight homosexuality (which he is on record as associating with child abuse), he is beginning to realize his LGBT Ugandan citizens are here and want him to get to know them and the realities of their world. He also wants to learn why the international community is so concerned about how his government is not respecting the quality of citizenship for all his people.

Street protests

On Sunday, the Jesus story read in every church will focus on the entry of Jesus riding on a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem and how the crowds greeted him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” Jerusalem is in “lock-down” mode, with Roman soldiers everywhere. This is an occupied place and there are local resentments, terrorist attacks against the occupying forces, and the power plays between rival factions. And here comes Jesus in a highly provocative symbolic gesture that he was the liberator of his people. In Jewish folklore, the Messiah (Anointed One) was to come to Jerusalem begin the revolution just like he did. Clearly, Jesus was not a warrior prince or a man of violence, but he became a political scapegoat not unlike the way the LGBT communities in Kenya and Zimbabwe were used in the recent political elections.

Two-thousand years ago, politicians and religious leaders had as much political capitol to gain by sacrificing a local zealot like Jesus to satisfy the fomenting mob as contemporary leaders do with LGBT minorities. We see this happening all over the world in alliances of politicians and religious leaders know how to raise funds and gain votes when they promise to rid their societies of the scourge of homosexuality.

Shutting down corrupt banking practices

Jesus continues this final week of his life by overturning the booths of the FOREX dealers. Secular (polluted) Roman coinage had to be exchanged for Temple coins (pure) so people could buy animals for sacrifice to fulfill their religious obligations. Jesus rages against the commercialization of religion that has become a consumer commodity. “You have made my Father’s House of prayer a den of thieves.”

The exchange of currency between religious people and organizations to continue to enslave LGBT people is well attested and documented. It was present when disgruntled American Anglicans bought the support of their African counterparts at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma’s study “The Globalization of the Culture Wars” was the first significant research documenting the church’s contemporary financial transactions around LGBT oppression in Africa.

We also know of the recent dubious funding of anti same gender marriage campaigns in places like California by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We see it in the transactions between U.S. government contracts with religious organizations that carry out significant relief efforts in countries where it is illegal to be LGBT and these organizations have a zero tolerance policy for LGBT employees while pretending to serve everyone.

When pressed by PEPFAR and USAID as how they are serving “most at-risk “ populations, they respond to donors by saying they are simply not showing up for services. This is no longer an acceptable excuse or good public health policy with 13.7% of men who have sex with men (MSM) testing HIV-positive. How can we support LGBT rights internationally as an extension of U.S. foreign policy and share a small budget to assist emerging LGBT organizations while giving millions of dollars without any accountability to powerful Christian organizations who are known to support LGBT marginalization.

World Vision was responsible for creating a powerful ecumenical Christian Council in Ethiopia which, in turn, brought so much pressure on their government to eradicate homosexuality from their country that rampant persecution and torture of LGBT people began. I would love to introduce Richard Stearns (CEO of World Vision) to some of our LGBT refugees from Ethiopia and elsewhere so he can see the fruit of these holy financial transactions. As the emerging LGBT community says to the faith and relief community “We are here,” we face enormous challenges from the well-funded and organized faith community to help them see reality. Sensitivity training on “most at-risk” populations should be provided by all these organizations from USAID, to PEPFAR and their contractors as well as to faith based community clinics and hospitals.

“Father, forgive for they know not what they do” is a contemporary prayer for the church’s denial that LGBT people are in their communities. Every time local health leaders attempt to implement this kind of in service training for health professionals, these individuals and organizations are accused of “promoting homosexuality.” The church often sanctifies this inertia and resists opportunities to discuss the effects of this silence and invisibility with deadly consequences. If we cannot talk about it, how can good public health practices and prevention ever succeed? When Peter is asked by the authorities “Are you one of this man (Jesus’) followers?” the Gospels report on his denial. “I do not know him!” is our own denial by the church toward LGBT members of our communities.

Injustice and suffering as the seed of the new community

It has been two years since I was in Uganda, and the confidence and organization of the LGBT community is an inspiration. They have created one of the most powerful social movements in a very short time with the attention of the world upon Uganda’s every move. This journey has been far from easy.

There are two traditions about how the church began. The dominant one is that Jesus gave the symbolic “keys of the kingdom” to Peter. The crossed keys on the Pope’s coat of arms comes from this “top-down” Roman Church authority model. The Celtic Church (an equally older tradition paralleling the Roman Church) had another story that the church was formed at the foot of the cross when Jesus says to the only friend who stayed close to him risking his own life and reputation, “My son, behold your mother.” To his mother- the only family member who stood by him, (now a criminal), he connects her to John: “Woman, behold your son.”

The birth of the movement that we call “the church” comes out of direct suffering or sometimes from our close relationship to acts of injustice and powerlessness. I am sure John and Mary were so traumatized by witnessing this man’s death that their hearts were both broken and opened to a different kind of reality. Although this alternative account of how church and community form and renew, this is a compelling and reasonable tradition of how the church started. It makes sense to those of us stigmatized and kicked out from our churches who find kindred spirits at the foot of a variety of crosses.

The only thing we have in common is shared stigma and shame that we must overcome to be a resurrected people. We help each other do that and I do not believe resurrection ever happens without someone there to be a Mary or John. The dominant church tradition is the imperial top-down model, yet the second (minority) model has never quite disappeared. It keeps appearing in unlikely places, even in places like Uganda.

I will be sharing in this good news with a congregation this coming Sunday in Kampala who gathers at the foot of the cross of LGBT suffering and oppression. This is not some distant Bible story but an everyday reality. Only this week, there is a story circulating of a suspected lesbian and her child who were burned to death in their home in western Uganda. This unconfirmed story was recently cited in a sensitization workshop we are holding here for health care workers in Kampala as an example of the culture of fear that these professionals must wade through to serve everyone. This two-day training program is awesome and is part of the way this community of straight allies is growing!

A Ugandan Easter story

When I first watched the film “Call Me Kuchu,” I could not stop thinking that the life and death of David Kato was a modern day crucifixion story, complete with friends, mother, religious persecution and even at his burial, the pleading for dignity to treat his body with respect. This story moved from a tomb to be heard all around the world.

Like the Jesus story, the Kato story does not end at the grave. His sacrifice inspired a movement that is actually more in touch with the truth of the real meaning of Holy Week than most Christian churches who will sing “Jesus Christ is risen today!” next weekend. They have lived suffering, torture, political violence and death through resurrection.

In the West, we can easily go through the motions of religious remembrance and celebration without the experience of the suffering cross and resurrection. We are comfortable and powerful people in the world and have forgotten our own longer journey as a Christian family. Many Ugandan Christians exclude the LGBT community from the Jesus story. I reject that. Deeply religious people crucified Jesus and used the State to end his life. There is a part of the church, more aware than most, of our participation in the persecution and suffering of LGBT people and the tragic irony of how close the LGBT movement’s story mirrors its own tragic beginnings as the church. If we are open to listening to these stories of courage, and heroism, while seeing through the expediencies of political, religious and economic exchanges as part of the culture wars, we may travel through Holy Week with a different understanding of its significance for everyone.

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.