On Being the Change We Wish to See in the World: Uganda Edition
David R. Weiss
January 1, 2014
It’s easier to get upset about events unfolding in Uganda right now – the seemingly irrational homophobia driving the jubilant passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (AHB) – than to know how best to respond. Even genuine compassion gets stymied at the point of action. What can we really do that will make a difference?
I don’t have a simple or easy answer. But I can outline some options.
1. Make a donation. There are already a great many activists and organizations in place in Uganda working to support LGBT persons and to promote understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of the LGBT community. Wingspan has established intentional relationships with four organizations based in Uganda. These groups are well-positioned to make a difference, both in the lives of the LGBT persons they serve and also in Ugandan society as a whole, and they need our support more than ever right now. Donations to Wingspan-Uganda (second option from the bottom on the list in this link) are 100% tax-deductible and 100% of your gift will go to these groups who will use the funds wherever they are most needed. Top priorities include: airtime to provide a cell-phone hotline for persons in crisis; emergency transportation and housing; workshops to educate about the AHB; and legal assistance. If you prefer to send a check, make it out to St. Paul-Reformation, with “Wingspan-Uganda” on the memo line, and mail it to St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, 100 N. Oxford Street, St. Paul, MN 55104. Bottom line: your dollars do save lives and promote understanding.
2. Establish a rhythm of prayer for the people of Uganda. I believe there is value in being specific and focused in our prayer life, so I suggest creating a rhythm of prayer for the people of Uganda. Perhaps daily throughout January. Perhaps weekly over a longer period. Set a rhythm that works for you. Anchor it with a mini-ritual: light a candle, sit in a specific chair, put on music in the background, etc. Then hold in prayer each of these groups for a moment or more:
- LGBT persons in fear, confusion, or despair right now;
- LGBT activists and allies seeking wisdom and courage in this moment;
- Church leaders who are willing to stand in solidarity with LGBT persons knowing it may cost them dearly;
- Family and friends of LGBT persons whose hearts ache and tremble;
- Christians whose upbringing has made it difficult for them to be accepting of LGBT persons (this group comprises the vast majority of Ugandans), that their hearts and minds might begin to stir with compassion;
- Church leaders whose witness in this moment will be mostly to support the AHB, that the Spirit of God might press upon them the need to speak God’s newness and God’s welcome in Uganda today;
- Politicians – including President Museveni – whose motives are varied, but whose decisions have impacts far beyond their motives, that they find reason to pause before putting this bill into law.
The purpose of such an itemized list is to remind ourselves that all these people are children of God. At different places on the journey, yes, but all children of God nonetheless, and therefore all worthy of being lifted up in prayer.
3. Educate yourself – bit by bit. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed by Uganda’s Parliament on December 20, 2013. As of January 1, 2014, it is not yet law. President Museveni has 30 days in which to respond. He can offer his assent (a) sign it into law; or (b) return it to Parliament with a request to reconsider either specified provisions or the entirety of the bill. He does not have the option to “veto” it. He can twice send the bill back for reconsideration, but if the Parliament reconsiders the bill and approves it a second time with at least a two-thirds majority it becomes law at that point without the President’s assent or signature.
There is much more to know than just those details about the bill (Uganda is a country with a rich, complex history!), but for the immediate situation if you know the last paragraph you know more than 90% of Americans do. These two websites provide some of the best updates on the evolving situation in Uganda:
Erasing 76 Crimes is a website dedicated to covering the struggle for LGBT rights in all 76 countries where it remains a crime. Clicking on the link to Africa takes you to a page with the latest updates from that region, which will include any news from Uganda.
O-blog-dee-o-blog-da is a blog maintained by lawyer-activist Melanie Nathan that carries some of the best reporting on LGBT issues in Uganda. On her home page, type “Uganda” into the search box, and it will pull up the most recent pieces on Uganda.
4. Sign a petition … but. We love petitions. Whether signed with a pen or a click of your mouse, we feel like we’ve done something. And we have. But whether we’ve done something that actually matters is harder to assess. There are plenty of petitions circulating on the internet about Uganda right now. But none of them, as far as I can tell, are perfectly pitched.
The All-Out.org petition has garnered more than 250,000 signatures, but it asks President Museveni to “veto” the bill, something that the Uganda system does not allow him to do. (Yes, he can “withhold his assent,” but then wouldn’t it be most appropriate to ask him in the right wording?) And, even with 250,000 signatures, isn’t President Museveni justified in saying that he wasn’t elected President by these petition signers, but by Ugandan voters who (by almost all accounts) overwhelmingly support the bill? In fact, in some ways the idea of trying to exert international pressure on him through sheer numbers of signers seems like it could just as easily move him to sign the bill to prove he is not caving in to outside pressure. Note: although this petition page has a “20 Dec 2013” update, I believe this petition was originally launched in 2012; there does not appear to be any active link to the petition on the all-out website.
Amnesty International offers a somewhat better option with its Letter to the President template. Like the All-Out petition, the Amnesty letter mistakenly asks the president to “veto” the bill in its opening sentence, but switches to the correct “refusing to assent” language in the closing. The subject line of the email, “Love is not a crime,” may be a nice cry on American lips, but it’s not going to find much play on a Ugandan president’s ears. Still, the Amnesty letter does, in its 4-sentence body, make a rational (rather than emotional) argument as to why the president should not offer his assent.
There is a Change.org petition that asks Citibank and Barclays, two global banks with huge assets in Uganda to publicly condemn the bill. This petition was launched nearly two years ago and has now amassed over half-a-million signatures, but it targeted an earlier version of the AHB that still included the death penalty. Is it helpful to sign an outdated petition? I don’t know.
Finally, and most interesting, there is a year-old GetEQUAL.org petition that actually calls on five American Senators (Jim DeMint [R-SC-retired], Tom Coburn [R-OK), Chuck Grassley [R-IA], James Inhofe [R-OK], and Mike Enzi [R-WY]), all with connections to The Family, to publicly condemn the bill and to call on their fellow “Family” members in the Ugandan Parliament to withdraw their support for the bill. This campaign is from 2012, like the Change.org petition, so it references the earlier “death penalty” version of the bill, so I don’t know how much effect is lost by being out-dated. (Also, one of the Senators, Jim DeMint, resigned in 2013 to take over leadership of the Heritage Foundation.) However, this campaign has a couple things exactly right. It connects the secretive religious-political organization, The Family, to the AHB and it asks Americans to put pressure on our elected officials with ties to the Family. This campaign at least invites us to speak truth to power—and to do so to those who claim to represent us.
5. Write a letter. I do believe that one type of letter can be effective. I know two very visible, very vocal, and right now very vulnerable religious leaders in Uganda. Retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senynojo and Unitarian Universalist Reverend Mark Kiyimba have taken great risks over the past several years as faith leaders willing to be public allies to LGBT persons. I believe we can add a measure of safety to their lives by asking religious leaders here in the U.S. to stand in public solidarity with them as they put flesh on their faith in Uganda.
If, like me, you are ELCA Lutheran, I encourage you to contact your synod bishop and our presiding bishop and implore them to communicate their support swiftly, clearly, and publicly to Bishop Senyonjo and Rev. Kiyimba. If you are active in another faith community, contact a leader in your tradition and make this request of them. This link offers a cautiously hopeful angle on a contact to the Pope’s representative in Uganda.
I am reluctant to give out either the Bishop’s or Mark’s personal emails because I don’t want their in-boxes deluged with words of support that will impede their important work in this critical time. Surely, hold them up regularly in your prayers, but be content to urge our highest religious leaders to reach out to them personally. These overtures by American religious leaders – made swiftly, clearly, and publicly – can weave an ecumenical blanket of strength and (hopefully) safety around them.
Enough for one night. The year is still young, but 2:15 a.m. isn’t doing my bronchitis any good. It isn’t easy trying to figure out the best thing to do. But there are options, and it’s important to do something. I hope I’ve given some helpful hints. Now pick one or more of them, and BE the change!
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). 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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at http://www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl. Learn more at http://www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.