David R. Weiss, February 16, 2013
Uganda. The name itself breathes. And beckons.
Still, of all people I am a most unlikely candidate to go. I like a good trip as much as the next person (especially in the company of my beloved wife, Margaret, who is more adventurous and less flappable than me). But honestly, wanderlust does not come naturally to me. I’m a pretty happy homebody. Give me a familiar forest trail, a backyard vegetable garden, or the sand dunes of my childhood, and my need for adventure is quickly contented. I’m not averse to going new places, but my inner world is SO rich that I just don’t feel the urge to travel to exotic places. I guess my own inside is exotic enough for me.
And yet, here I am, going to Uganda next month. Why? The answer is a tapestry of several threads.
In 2010 Wingspan Ministry, the LGBT ministry at my church, St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, made a decision to seek out ways to partner in faith-based advocacy for LGBT persons in other places around the globe. We chose Uganda as our first focus because of the dire conditions faced by LGBT persons there. Homosexuality is heavily stigmatized, often using Christian rhetoric. And it is punishable by prison sentences ranging from 7 years to life in prison. But it gets even worse.
Back in 2009 a bill was proposed that would greatly heighten the penalties for engaging in—or even supporting—homosexual activity. That bill (officially the Anti-Homosexuality Bill [AHB] but often referred to as the Kill-the-Gays Bill) has not yet made it to the floor of Parliament for debate. But it still sits in Committee, waiting in the wings. And there are strong signs it will finally come to the floor this spring, perhaps yet this month. In its proposed form, the AHB prescribes the death penalty for instances of “aggravated homosexuality,” including in this broad definition offenses ranging from rape to “serial offenders”; under the latter category, being in a committed relationship could get you killed. Further, the AHB would criminalize being an Ally. Offering support of any means, whether material goods (like housing) or emotional aid or pastoral care (like counseling or educational resources) could get you imprisoned for seven years. And simply being aware that your child, student, or patient is LGBT and failing to report them within 24 hours would get you a prison sentence of three years.
There are rumors that the death penalty will be “reduced” to life imprisonment in order to pass the bill, but that can only happen during actual debate—and whether the death penalty remains in the bill as a specified punishment or not, the force of the bill in any form is to make life deadly for LGBT Ugandans. The message of the bill declares their lives without dignity and without value. It encourages social hatred … with full knowledge that social hatred breeds acts of violence.
The Bill would create an all-encompassing field of terror for LGBT persons, as well as their families, friends, and Allies. It would effectively make any public speech about human rights for LGBT persons a criminal offense. And it would unleash a wave a blackmail threats. If it is possible for a situation in which homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment to get worse, this bill makes it worse. By far. Already the rhetoric of public debate around the bill has political leaders, religious leaders, and the media regularly demonizing LGBT persons.
Moreover, in some very significant ways, that the AHB bill exists at all is the result of American Christian influence. Pre-dating the crafting of the bill, a number of fundamentalist American pastors (among them Rick Warren [who later distanced himself from the AHB], Lou Engle, and most notably Scott Lively) made trips to Uganda, carrying with them a wildly homophobic message about “the homosexual agenda.” Some of these persons, with followings in the U.S. but with theologies and aspirations far too reactionary to carry any weight in our public square, have gone to Uganda because they see it as a place where their worldview can still make a political impact. They have specifically reached out to Ugandan religious leaders and politicians in an effort to make Uganda as “gay-free” as possible. As an American Christian myself, I am horrified to realize that my tradition—a source of grace, comfort, and ethical guidance to me—is being twisted to inflict unspeakable terror on others.
Early in 2011 I met Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop, and Frank Mugisha, an LGBT activist with SMUG (Sexual Minorities of Uganda) at a conference in Minneapolis. Bishop Christopher is perhaps the highest profile Ally for LGBT persons in Uganda. He experienced a “conversion” around this issue after meeting several gay Christian men through free counseling services he offered early in his retirement. His solidarity has cost him his pension and his credentials within the church. Frank was a close colleague of David Kato, another SMUG activist brutally murdered in 2011. Frank’s own work and visibility place him under constant threat. From these two men I heard not simply the facts, but also the feelings. I heard their stories and the stories of many more. I saw faces. And, I saw Christ.
Some of you may recall that in the days after this conference I wrote my anthem for Uganda, “Preserve Uganda’s Future Hope.”
Throughout 2011 and 2012 Wingspan’s Uganda Task Force worked to raise awareness here in Minnesota about the plight of LGBT persons in Uganda—and about the connection between American fundamentalist Christianity and Ugandan terror. We also did fundraising to support the work of Bishop Christopher. His St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Centre in Kampala, Uganda provides both direct services and social change initiatives to a range of marginalized persons, but is one of the few places where LGBT persons can receive social services without fear. He also works to educate fellow clergy about the realities of being LGBT and the need for gracious and affirming spiritual care. He is something of a saint, though I can hear him quickly saying, “Oh, no, no, no, no, David! Not a saint.” But he is.
During the summer of 2011, I met Rev. Mark Kiyimba, a Unitarian pastor from Kampala who is also an outspoken Ally for LGBT persons—also at significant threat to his own reputation and safety. Rev. Mark spoke at a Unitarian church here in St. Paul, and although we did not get to visit at any length, I was able to give him a signed copy of my book.
Then, Bishop Christopher and I crossed paths again in the fall of 2011 and in the summer of 2012 while he was traveling here in the U.S. Both times we had an opportunity for further conversation. He extended an invitation for someone from our Uganda Task Force to “come and see” the work we are helping him to do. Now, as our partnership of solidarity with and support for his ministry continues, it seems wise for us to accept his invitation and send someone to see firsthand the work we’ve been supporting. This will be a step toward deepening our partnership and helping us imagine further ways we can support their work.
But we know that we don’t simply need to send a pair of eyes and ears there. We need to bring back words and images. We need to send someone who can listen with empathy and insight—and then bring back to Minnesota both an articulate understanding of the situation and an eloquent rendering of the stories for whom this is not a “situation” but a personal life. That’s why Bishop Christopher invited us to send someone. And that’s why the Uganda Task Force asked me to be the someone who went.
So I’m going. I fly out of the Twin Cities on March 20, reaching Kampala just before midnight on March 21. I’ll be there until late on April 1, when I begin my journey home. During my time there I’ll spend several days at the St. Paul’s Centre with the bishop. I’ll spend a couple days with Rev. Mark at his Unitarian church and school. I’ll have a chance to meet with several other LGBT activists as well as some of the ordinary people whose lives are caught in the crossfire of this transcontinental culture war. And all of this will frame my experience of Holy Week this year: I arrive in Kampala two days before Palm Sunday; I leave the day after Easter. I cannot begin to imagine how my life will be remade by it all.
During my days in Kampala (which will be 8 hours ahead of CST/daylight savings time), I’ll be staying at the Namirembe Guest House, an old Anglican monastery and retreat house near the center of the city. I’ll be blogging each day about my experiences while there—you can follow my blog at http://www.davidrweiss.com; if you subscribe (upper right corner of the web page) you’ll receive my posts by e-mail. But ultimately, I am going there … so I can come home. Once back here, drawing on all that I have seen and heard over there, I will do my best to bring Uganda to you. Through my writing and speaking I will bring home the stories and images, the hopes and needs, the fears and gifts of these children of God, our brothers and sisters in a different land but members of the same Body of Christ. Frederick Buechner defines vocation as the place where your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. Words are my deep gladness. And right now words are Uganda’s deep need. Vocation means “calling.” And right now Uganda is calling my name.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”