Surely the biggest blessing that Integrity has given has been my web of relationships with lesbian, gay and transgendered Africans, particularly those in Uganda.
Although I had been visiting East Africa regularly for many years as a Board Member of a small nonprofit that funded community-development projects there, I was sure that no one would ever dare to be “out” in that context. I certainly didn’t. In the summer of 1998, while all the Bishops were meeting at Lambeth, I was traveling around Rwanda researching the aftermath of the 1994 genocide there. I met wonderful people who moved me deeply and fell in love with the beauty of the country and her people. My last Sunday in Kigali, there was a special Eucharist presided over by the just-returned Archbishop and many Bishops in transit to their home dioceses’ were in attendance. After the sermon and before Holy Communion, the Archbishop invited one of the Bishops to come forward and give a brief report about the events at Lambeth. A female priest sat next to me and graciously translated his Kinyarwanda into French for me.
I honestly remember very little of what he said, until he got to the part where he was literally gloating about how they were succeeding in keeping the gays out of the church. He apologized that they weren’t yet able to prevent all gays from being ordained, but they were making progress. I don’t think I can adequately describe the terror I felt arise in me at that moment. After all, I was sitting in Rwanda where 4 years earlier 800,000 people had been killed mostly by machete because the killers thought that simply by being alive they were a threat. For the first time ever, I felt my life was under threat if anyone found out about me.
I returned to the US from that trip and was heart-broken, because I knew it was far too dangerous to go back to Rwanda again and maintain the friendships I had made with so many in the church there.
Several years later I was working on a D. Min. degree and I met a fellow student, an Episcopal priest from Arkansas, who told me about Bishop Christopher Senyonjo and his ministry to LGBT people in Kampala in Uganda. I was amazed. I had the opportunity to spend a month in Uganda that summer and made a point of contacting Bishop Senyonjo who invited me to come to Integrity:Uganda’s weekly meeting and worship service. Meeting Bishop Senyonjo felt like meeting Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The clarity and strength of his conviction was profoundly moving, made even more so by the realization of the sacrifices he had made because of it. In a world without pensions or retirement savings, a retired Bishop in the Church of Uganda usually supports himself by being an “elder statesman” and preaching and celebrating around the Province for a fee. But this Bishop was barred from doing that – at great cost to not only himself but his ailing wife and the children whose education he was still paying for. Thanks to the support of Integrity in the US, and in particular the support and friendship of The Rev. Michael Hopkins and John Clinton Bradley, Bishop Senyonjo received a small stipend to live on and money to rent an office which he used for counseling which doubled at the Integrity:Uganda meeting place.
Later that Sunday afternoon, the members of Integrity:Uganda started to stream in. Young men and a few women, most lesbian or gay, but some straight, all with astonishing stories to tell – some stories of love and support and others of utter rejection and pain.
A year later, I returned to Uganda to listen and record the stories of these courageous youth who were resolutely living their lives according to their own terms, in a culture built on conformity to strict traditional rules. The entire month for me was one mind-blowing inspiration after another. I met the most amazing people—an older man in a remote village who had succeeded in avoiding getting married, a group of 13 lesbian small business owners finding refuge with each other in the city, a young man who had been with Integrity since its inception despite being betrayed by their initial leader, a former teacher turned community activist, a young woman whose life was regularly threatened because she continued to speak out openly on the radio, in the newspapers, wherever she could be heard.
Without the support of Integrity in the US, this group wouldn’t even have the bus fare to get together and support each other. Most of them are unemployed and those that have jobs are always afraid of being found out and losing them. Now because of the financial crisis, that support has been withdrawn. The Bishop has no means of support and I doubt the group is able to meet very often (they also don’t have the money to send and receive e-mails). This, at a time when a bill has come before the Ugandan Parliament advocating prison sentences for anyone who even counsels “homosexuals”.
There is so much to do in Uganda and there are people there willing to risk their lives to be who God created them to be. They are a daily inspiration for me and surely many of the thousands of blessings that are being withheld from the church. Integrity stepped in and helped make this revolution possible and stuck with them through some difficult times. I surely pray that we will be able to do so again and take our support the next level by helping to empower the members of Integrity: Uganda to become viable and the organization to become sustainable for the long haul.
To read and watch more stories of blessing, and add your own, visit at http://100000blessings.integrityusa.org/.
To contribute to the 100,000 Blessings campaign and support Integrity Uganda, visit https://secure.groundspring.org/dn/index.php?aid=30549.