On to Mbale: Holiness at the foot of Mt Elgon
David R. Weiss, March 28, 2013
The road to Mbale is actually a good road. It takes you across the dam that catches the first flow of the Nile as it leaves Lake Victoria. Like all the roads in Kampala it is a magnet for little villages along the way, but in this area the villages are as likely to include traditional Uganda huts as they do simple and/or ramshackle homes. It is a long drive, three-plus hours even in good traffic. And today – yes! – we had good traffic.
Moses and I had a chance for more leisurely conversation than we have had when jetting (hint: that was irony) around the big city, though I will confess that when he asked at one point if I’d been taking a little “power nap,” I was. Still, he kept me appraised of the countryside, we talked about families, about racism and homophobia, and about our perspectives and roles as allies. And we drove past off to one side the place where David Kato is buried and off to the other side the place where he was murdered in January 2011.
We reached Mbale, population about 100,000 – and bustling with energy – about 1 p.m. Mount Elgon was straddles the Uganda-Kenya border, greeted us as we approached the city. At 14,000 feet it’s one of the tallest mountains in Africa. The city itself sits in the foothills, at 3500 feet. As I said, it feels busy. But in a different way than Kampala. Moses noted as we turned onto one of the main streets that driving here is different. A bit more courtesy holds sway. And less omnipresent attention is required. A Kampala driving style will not make you popular on the streets of Mbale. Life is busy and moves fast, but most people here have lived in this area their whole lives. People know you, and that frames the bustle with a measure of friendly leisure as well.
We headed right for the Mt. Elgon Hotel at the north edge of the city, quite beyond the noise. It is a minor luxury. A beautiful courtyard out back and even an outdoor pool. Spacious rooms, well-appointed. But at only $30 a night (which includes breakfast), it seems a reasonable luxury for a single night. Plus, Moses said it would be quiet at night (it is), and so I would get a good night’s sleep (I’m not – it’s 2:20 a.m. and I’m still writing the night away). Oh well. Also, although Moses didn’t say so, I’m certain that another plus is the relatively discrete safety of a setting where the locals don’t venture regularly. Later he would bring a lesbian woman and two gay men to meet with me in the courtyard – a tolerable prospect here and a daunting one in the city center where the hotels are cheaper. That friendly attitude because everyone knows you doesn’t carry over if everyone knows you’re gay.
After lunch and a shower we stopped by the boarding school that Moses two older children attend. The principal called them out of class to visit with Moses briefly out in the yard. Eleven year-old Tracey looks like her father, with a wide bright grin. Seven year-old Andrew was more reserved; he’d been awakened from an afternoon nap. I presented each child with the gifts I’d brought for them (see my “First Flight” blog). I explained that their father has been very good to me, and these gifts were a small thank you. Tracey was clearly pleased, delighted, surprised, grateful, astonished by the book and dream-catcher and coin purse. Her face is like a lava-lamp-mood-ring carrying every emotion across it. Even Andrew, who stood close to his father’s side the whole time (sleepy, shy, and “always thoughtful” Moses said) offered a glimmer of interest in the book and obvious interest in the harmonica. They both thanked me and ran off to bury their treasures safely in their rooms before heading back to class. Moses had also brought them treats: a gallon jug of juice, a loaf of bread, and a can of jam. Food for after hours snacks. And their excitement at receiving these staples testified to a life much closer to the bone than my own.
As we drove off Moses remarked about my gifts, “For once they will be the envy of their classmates.” Maybe so, but to have a father as devoted to their well-being and to a better world for them to be in, that is worth the envy of their classmates even if they don’t realize it.
From the school we drove through town to the far side where, just outside the city proper we picked up a dirt road that took us to the land that Moses’ father left to him in a neighborhood of small plots. Houses running the gamut from sticks and mud to brick and plaster. Moses’ home is a work in progress. He and Sara (his high school sweetheart and partner of twelve years) had been renting in the city and slowing working to build this house. One of the things about Uganda is that almost everyone owns a small plot of land. It may take years to put a house on it, but the land is there. But when Moses was outed as an Ally, and then when he lost his work as a consequence of that, the need to leave the city became an economic priority to eliminate a rent payment. And all the more pressing because as they fell behind in their rent the landlord had the right to come and confiscate all their belonging. So, while it is not quite accurate to say they “fled” their apartment in the city, it is entirely true that they moved here in a hurry, to a house not yet ready for occupants, but far enough along to accept them as refugees.
Today the house still lacks glass windows (though many houses here do without them altogether), to have windows is a plus. The home looks modestly nice from the front. When you get to the back, where the unplastered brickwork is still exposed it looks much rougher. Walk through it and three of the four rooms are virtually unfurnished; only the bedroom is “complete.” When he needed to move his kids from the public school to a boarding school (they were being taunted because of his visibility as an Ally), and when Sara lost her job because of her link to him, all the imagined household furnishing were delayed in favor of school fees and rent in Kampala where Moses can at least occasionally find work. The house is bare because he dared to be seen.
One room that is bare (well, except for the couple of chickens kept in it) has special significance to me. Moses and I met through Pastor Brad Froslee (another story, another night) who e-mailed Moses the anthem I wrote for Uganda in spring of 2011. We debuted it at St. Paul-Reformation on Pride Sunday in June 2011. About that same time, a tiny group of gay Christians gathered with Moses in this room and he taught them my anthem. One day, two years before I came here, my words furnished this room with hope. It will be nice when it has furniture as well. But for me – and for Moses, too (he told “this was the room” with a sense of shared pride) – this room is already full in its own way. Everything else will be icing on the cake.
Out in front three men are digging and bricking up a septic tank. This neighborhood does have running water and electricity, and Moses knows that his pit latrine is filling fast and that it is not healthy in the long run. But the hygiene of a toilet comes at a steep price: about $1000. And progress comes to a halt when there are no more bricks or cement. Tonight I paid Moses in advance for his work as my driver later this week so that before we head back tomorrow he can give the men his wages to build a better place to hold his shit. In the most humbling and literal sense.
I will pay Moses about $500 this week – it will be the majority of his income for the month. And a third of it will go to his rent in Kampala; a third to his delinquent children’s school fees; and a third to build a better toilet for his family. The furniture and the windows are way down the road. Hopefully someone else will hire Moses months from now and it will mean a sofa or an easy chair. But I’m a good Lutheran, so if, a month from now Moses can sit down on a toilet and be grateful to me while he takes a crap, that, too, counts as gospel. One person becoming Christ to another in a world with need enough so that everyone can take a turn. And often enough already Moses has been Christ to me.
In the late afternoon the real holiness of the day sets in. And my eyes are wet before I even try to tell it.
Before he lost his job Moses helped convene a small circle of gay and lesbian Christians here in Mbale: the Rainbow Fellowship they called themselves. One of the conveners was killed in an accident. Another, a pastor, was outed as an Ally, kicked out of his church, and fled the country. Moses just moved to Kampala, but it means that there is no one to gather the people right now. Not that there are many to gather. But, wherever two or are gathered … and right now that rarely happens.
But today it did. Out in the yard behind my Hotel Moses brought three members of the Rainbow Fellowship to meet me. I promised them that neither their names nor their photos would appear on the internet. Even with that promise one of them asked not to be photographed. They all knew that gay couple where not too long ago one partner was beaten to death by his lover’s family. One of them had been beaten by her own family when they found out she was gay. She was only twelve years old. In Ugandan in general – and anywhere outside Kampala in particular – you don’t claim a gay identity, you risk it, at times with your life. So my words about these three holy persons will be general.
Two gay men and a woman, and Moses, of course. I borrowed deeply from the trust they place in him to get this meeting. I bought them all supper. Well, Wingspan did. When the food came Moses invited me to bless it. It was a prayer of short simple sentences. Anything longer and the tremble in my voice would have become a full weep. These people were far from starving, except for fellowship – for company with saints. And the food on our plates was WAY more than just food. We had communion in the shade on the grass in the yard outside my hotel. One of the men spoke very little English. I think he followed some of what we shared in words; I have to trust he followed everything else in faith. It was clearly important for him to be present even if the words failed him.
Over supper I listened to them explain a bit about their fears. The need to be guarded at all times. The knowing that being outed will cost you your job, your family, your friends, your community, your education, your dreams, your health, your safety … And yet, for each of them, for different reasons, going to the big city is not an option. If you don’t have connections in Kampala or an immediately marketable skill, the fear that is familiar is preferable to the fear that is not.
Except for the (now on hiatus) Rainbow Fellowship, none of them have a worshipping community of any sort. As Moses explained, “Even a dog knows where it is not wanted.” If there is never a word of grace or welcome or gospel uttered that has your name on it – and if the only words that connect to your experience feel like rocks hurled your way – eventually you don’t come around anymore. And here is one tragic observation: while they all clearly miss the tiny Rainbow Fellowship (it was never more than eight persons at its peak), they don’t miss a “church” per se. I think they can’t even imagine well enough that one could possibly welcome them to yearn for the day that it might.
I asked them what they wished for, what would actually make a difference to them in their lives. Here’s the short list. (1) A safe place to gather again (since being outed on TV, Moses’ home is no longer a viable option). (2) A local leader and pastoral points of contact – even if distant. (Words of thanks invoked to Pastor Brad on this count.) (3) A vetted network of professional persons to whom they know they could go to in times of need, whether bankers, doctors, pastors, etc. (4) Having access to training that allows them to be self-employed (and thus not fired at the whim of a boss who senses they’re not straight – a big fear). (5) Financing like microloans that make it possible to start your own business. (6) Scholarship aid for education (tuition varies, but about $13,000 can cover a three-year college degree. It’s a pretty practical list. Not easy, but hardly extravagant. I couldn’t grant any of their wishes, but I could hear them with an aching humble presence. And I could thank them for trusting me with their words. To which the woman said, as though it was the most important words she had spoken all day, “No, thank you. Because you came.” There is no end of tears for me as I replay these days at night.
When we parted after two hours I gave the two who knew English a copy of my book. The other man, who couldn’t even shape a sentence longer than a “Thank you,” let it be known in vigorously spoken Lugandan that he wanted a book, too. Right now it is probably the only tangible proof he has – that he can pick up and hold in his hands even though he can’t read the words – that there are actually people (theologians, no less) who claim him for the love of God. Whether he ever reads the book or not, it may be one of the most important ones I given out.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”