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Queer Christian on the Road in Uganda

I am in Uganda with three other members the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. We have spent several days at the meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan -- here because it is unsafe for them to gather in their own country, torn apart by half a century of civil war. Our hearts have been stretched and broken, stretched and broken, as we have heard first-hand accounts of torture, murder, and slavery plaguing the Sudanese.

We are also spending several days interacting with peace and justice concerns in Uganda. On Tuesday we met with the Archbishop, several other bishops, and major program officers of the Church of Uganda. We were all impressed with the vitality of many of the initiatives here to cope with the vast need. They told us about (and we have since visited) many sites responding to the various crises, most particularly schools and other services for the 1.7 million AIDS orphans in this country. Africa itself now has 10 million AIDS orphans, and experts predict that number to grow to 40 million AIDS orphans in Africa by 2010 (less than 9 years away) -- the total number of all elementary school children in the United States! Imagine wiping out all the elementary school children in our own country, and you sense the enormormity of the crisis here.

Twelve years ago I met with Archbishop Okoth, the now retired Archbishop of Uganda, and he told me that there was no AIDS in Uganda. He and most church leaders here were living in denial, while whole villages were being wiped out before their eyes.

The response today is radically different, and Archbishop Okoth began that process by repenting of his willful ignorance shortly after we met and before he retired several years ago.

Church leaders whole-heartedly endorse candid and detailed sexual education and promote abstinence as but one of the entire range of safe sex responses. This is a level of candor that we did not find a year and a half ago when we asked similar question about AIDS when commissioners visited Mozambique and the Eastern Cape of South Africa. There the Church was proud just to be able to mention AIDS, but said they could not yet talk about sex.

"How have you broken through the taboo to speak candidly," I asked another group of Church of Uganda program officers, impressed by the new model that I see here.

"We have had to," numerous people have responded. "There is not a family in Uganda that has not been affected."

"How many around this table have been affected in your own families. Every hand went up. "I have lost two brothers, and my sister is dying" said one. "I am raising 20 orphans in my own family said another person.

The morning when we arrived to meet with the Archbishop I had seen the copy of the NEW VISION newspaper on the Archbishop's desk, having ourselves just read in it Integrity/Uganda's article [posted to you separately]. When we introduced ourselves to the Archbishop's meeting, I mentioned that I am the founder of Integrity. Near the end of the session, I said, "I want to ask about another justice issue. What has the Church of Uganda done to live into the promise at Lambeth to have conversations with lesbian and gay Christians.

It was an extremely awkward moment. Several replied that this is a foreign issue, or that this was not a high priority.... Several told me that they had never known any lesbians or gays.

Realizing that their unstated answer to my question was 'we have done nothing,' a chief diocesan administrator moved to get themselves off the hook by asking us what the Episcopal Church had done.

Each of us reported how ECUSA conversations have developed in the context of our diverse views, a diversity which we mirror as a Commission. Our most conservative member noted how important it has been for those of us on different sides to address the questions in a context that is not politically charged, talking across our differences as sisters and brothers in Christ.

I pointed out that I come to the church as amazed as most of them are that God can love me, enormously grateful to return to the Church a portion of the the radical love which God has blessed me. "It is very important to me in witnessiing to lesbigays not in the church to come to the church now only if they are already aware of how much God loves us. It is dangerous for us to come asking others to give us the love that it is ours to give them. But is very important for the Church to hear the Good News that we are living in our lives, even if we make them as uncomfortable as Samaritans made the Jews in the early church. We already are the Body of Christ. We already are those whom God loves, and there is Good News for you to realizes that in God's love for us God is assuring you of how much God loves you too."

The chief diocesan administrator asked to me after our meeting ended, "Why have Integrity leaders here not sought to work with us?"

"I have not yet met them," I replied, "but it is not hard for me to guess. In your press release to the newspapers, twice you called them 'inhuman.' That is not an invitation to discussion."

He shook his head positively as if to acknowledge my point.

"We have planted seeds," said one Commissioner. Most of us felt that the exchange had been good. There was no acrimony. We had not spoken of our ECUSA response until asked to do so. They had asked up only because they realized that they had not promoted the dialog to which they committed themselves at Lambeth.

On the next afternoon I did met with the Integrity leadership, including a retired bishop of the Church of Uganda who is chairman of the chapter. I told them of starting Integrity in 1974 in a church just as hostile as they now face. I reminded them of what Episcopalians thought about queers back then. I told them about the flood of hostility that we faced, and told them how important it is to love those who are hostile, because soon they will be our friends. If If we have been kind to those who devalue us, it makes it much easier for them to receive our friendship when God makes their hearts ready for that blessing.

What courageous souls these folk are, most of them in positions of leadership in their local parishes. Two of them teach in schools, one in a school for AIDS orphans. They are articulate and deeply committed to the gospel. They are aware of their vulnerability. Several members of the chapter have gone into hiding since the attacks that surfaced after the chapter was announced during the Integrity service at General Convention in Denver last summer. Undaunted, the chapter still has plans to establish a physical space. There are no safe spaces for lesbigays to meet in all of Uganda. Whenever a restaurant or other space has become even rumored as a meeting place, the government has moved with cruel force to shut it down. Political leaders use anti-lbg rhetoric almost as fierce as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has called lesbians and gays as "lower than pigs and dogs." When the only visible gays are the prostitutes, it is no small wonder that many good people draw their conclusions about all lesbigays based on the ones whom they have seen reported in the newspapers.

The night after the meeting with the archbishop and before meeting with the Integrity chapter, the Archbishop had invited Commissioners to join the bishops of Sudan at a huge dinner party at his home. At the end of the dinner, we gathered in front of his mansion for introductions and greetings. He read his script closely, introducing and greeting various leaders from the Sudan and Uganda. He also greeted our ECUSA commission, and in apparent exasperation dropped his written text. "'Integrity' seems to mean something different in the United States than it means here," he said. He repeated again how good it was to have members of our Commission here, "But you need to undertand me quite clearly," he said. "We believe it is your Christian duty to support us with your money, but we don't want you to bring your issues here." Several in the audience applauded. Throughout this near rant, the Archbishop did not take his eyes off me.

I was embarrassed for him. He was clearly out of self-control. He had violated his hospitality by inviting us to the dinner to attack us. It seemed that he invested me with demonic power which I neither possess nor seek.

I grieved that others on the Commission were forced to share my stigma. Later in the week, a bishop who had invited the Commission to his home to dinner withdrew the invitation, saying that he had learned that the commission was not a group to be associated with.

I wonder why the Archbishop feels such a need to bully me; is he afraid that some of his co-workers might open their hearts in compassion is they have time with me? Is he now not afraid that some who agree with him about homosexuality may want to question why he needed to strong-arm the situation with insensitivity to the leper in their midst. Or is he merely phobic -- irrationally fearful that I might really be 'inhuman'?

Most of all I grieve that the Archbishop's point of view is usurping the attention the Anglican Communion needs to give to much more urgent matters:

The Sudanese have been quite candid with us as they have told us their stories.

"We admit we are weary with telling our stories. Others have come here and have heard them for days, but when they leave, nothing happens. It is as if they never came."

"We told our stories at Lambeth, but no one listened."

Andy Warhol warned that every person has only 15 minutes on the world stage. While here, I have carried in my pocket an attractive enamel button that I purchased at GC in Denver. Embossed on it as the ECUSA schield and to the right of it, "526-70" --i.e., the vote of the Lambeth bishops on issues of sexuality.

I honor the 526 for voting their conscience, as I honor the 70 for voting theirs. However, I question the integrity of devoting so much energy to what divides us rather than to what can unite us to respond to the needs in the Sudan, in Uganda, indeed, throughout the world.

Jesus tells us, "It is harder for a rich man to enter the realm of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle." How then can you and I in ECUSA be saved? Surely it impossible! "But no," says Jesus, "with God all things are possible."

"Bear you one another's burdens," Scripture charges us. The Archbishop of Uganda has rightly suggested ways that we who are wealthy (as all in ECUSA are, compared with our sisters and brothers here and in most of the world) can help to bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers in Christ. I hope that we will open our hearts and our pocketbooks to meet this challenge.

"Bear you one another's burdens." Sisters and brothers in Uganda, it's rather hard for you to bear ECUSA's burdens when you have taken so little time to understand them. It is very hard to bear another's burdens when you have your fist up to call them "inhuman." It's very hard for you to bear our burdens when you are busy flying round the world condemning those with whom you have not even had a conversation.

Suppose those now attacking ECUSA and making demands on our Presiding Bishop were instead to say, "We do not live where you live and do not know the problems that you face. You have taught us how painfully wrong good-intentioned people can be when you have meddled in our internal affairs without respecting us, and we do not want to treat you in the ways that colonialism treated us. From our perspective, we must tell you that we disagree with ECUSA's stand on homosexuality. But we are not there. We do not know those whom you have embraced. We do not yet even know the homosexuals in our own countries. Much more important, we want to tell you that we respect you and hold you in our prayers as you strive to be faithful to the Gospel in your time and place. And even in our disagreements we will do nothing to try to harm you or to force our views into your province."

"The world will know that you are my disciples by how much you love one another."

May God give us discernment, and even while we see as through only a dirty glass, may we love one another.


See a comment by the Presiding Bishop in response to the controvery this report sparked: http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pb_apology.html

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