In religion and spirituality a pilgrimage is defined as "a long and sometimes sacrificial journey in search of a great moral significance." Integrity and many of our friends and allies across the country and in Ireland have shared a deeply enriching pilgrimage with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, retired bishop of West Buganda, Church of Uganda. We are so indebted to him and his East African spiritual traditions and wonderful family for their generosity and sharing so much time with us all.
The bishop arrived safely in Kampala yesterday. For eight weeks, he shared his life and dreams with all of us. There is a Celtic pilgrimage tradition observed by saints like Columba and Gall of "White Martyrdom," where the pilgrim is for one reason or another is exiled from his or her base community and sets forth on a journey completely dependent on the goodwill of others and God’s Grace. Integrity’s own John Fortunato once wrote "The spiritual journey always begins in exile," When Christopher was speaking in many different venues, he was aware of the many marginalized and spiritually exiled people in his presence. His message of welcome always resonated through Christopher’s own personal exile from his "home" community. Pilgrims were inspired by his courage to face it. His openness and love was infectious and we were all drawn into his family. Like the Celtic saints before us who made friends of strangers and exiles, Christopher invited everyone to become part of the "ecclesia" (gathered ones) and fellowship of the Beloved. St. Francis once said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and use words if you have to". In an age where we define church solely as buildings and property, pilgrimage is a counter-cultural way of becoming part of the "gathered of God" and I sense many church damaged people have been healed and walk a little lighter on the earth because of Christopher’s testimony.
This summer, as part of a different personal pilgrimage in the steps of St. Paul, I visited cities and sites in Greece, Italy and Turkey associated with this very "under-rated" Christian. The conservative and progressive churches have both found different ways of exiling St. Paul from "gathered of God". We have trapped him in "leaded stained glass windows" or (for progressives) often reject his work totally because of interpretation of several misquoted passages on women and gays. My summer trip to the sites of Paul helped to liberate him for me. I was ordained on the Feast of Peter and Paul in 1978 and now see Paul totally differently than I have ever viewed him in my 32 years of ministry. My goal is to live to see these significant sites [i.e. Ephesus and Corinth] associated with his life and work as important enough to be considered part of a trans-border World Heritage Site, with reconciliation as his "Outstanding Universal Value." Imagine an international World Heritage Trail that brings Muslim Turkey, Catholic Italy and Orthodox Greece together! The dialogue between EU countries and Turkey could do with a boost right now and Paul is the undiscovered link to Europe’s future because he is so embedded in the traditions of Europe’s past with a strong connection to the Middle East. He is, next to Jesus Christ, the most important figure and influence on a billion-person movement. His work is still read and studied every week through Christian liturgical practices and he is an inspiration to a cross section of people from Christopher Senyonjo to Pope Benedict XIV. His life was a pilgrimage to join together male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, and every "opposite" humanity might imagine into one "human and divine" family. His life was full of hardship and suffering and even today in his own birthplace of Tarsus, there is still no recognition to the achievement of this most famous "Turkish leader" to reconcile humanity. Yes, we don’t think of Paul as Turkish…and that’s my point. Not even the Turks claim Paul as one of their own–an interesting starting point for Christian Jewish dialogue? Christopher loves Paul. He uses his teaching ALL the time.
As I journeyed with you all and with Christopher this summer, there was something very "Paul-like" about his mission to us. Here was someone who was being persecuted by his own community for religious reasons and risks all for the gospel of inclusion, even if it means going to jail. As I was with him, I was aware many times of being in the presence of the holy and many of us were touched by Christopher’s intelligence and ability to communicate the issues and share his wisdom with us. He represents the best of the Anglican tradition in East Africa–a gospel of the Love of God in Jesus and a compassionate church that has not quite sold out to newly-fangled " Gospel of Prosperity"--the brighter upside of the darker religious homophobia were have exported to Africa. He may be the last remnant of a great East African church that, under the glitz of the "Prosperity Gospel" is passing away, but God has a way of working with remnants that defy statistics and trends.
I am beginning a summer series for the Walking With Integrity blog inviting fellow pilgrims to share their thoughts and reflections on how Christopher touched and perhaps changed their lives when he was visiting your community. There was so much that happened during the tour that only a fraction of it could be actually communicated and reported to date. Now is the time to share more deeply what he left with us and how we are moving together into deeper community.
Finally, I want to end by expressing my deep gratitude to my fellow board members of Integrity USA--and particularly Louise Brooks, who led the media and communication strategy for the bishop's pilgrimage. Thank you to John Clinton Bradley, our wonderful Acting Executive Director who, with Bruce Coburn, gave support to the tour and our national team of city hosts. We are now able to continue our financial support of Integrity Uganda because of sponsors like the dioceses of New York, California, New Hampshire and Los Angeles; Equality California; the Human Rights Campaign; and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), particularly through the work of Ann Craig and her strong amplification of the Ugandan progressive voices. The support of the Domestic Workers Union of the USA also made the pilgrimage possible. I give thanks for the two outstanding consultations at the Center for American Progress--coordinated by Sally Steenland, Sharon Groves and Josh King--and the inspiring United Nations Consultation around the decriminalization of homosexuality with eighty organizations and delegations represented. Many thanks to Bruce Knotts and Rev. Patti Ackerman, Geronimo, and Erin for all your dedication to make this a memorable visit for all of us. Every "city host" also played a significant role of offering hospitality and arranging visits to important people and institutions and I am grateful to Lou Slimp and Terry Takeda in Los Angeles, Rick and Lindy Miles in San Diego, Ed Miscevitch and Scott Westerfield for their hospitality in Orange County, Andrea Shorter and Rev. John Kirkley in San Francisco, Dean Brian Baker and Bishop Steve Skiffington in Sacramento, and the EQCA offices in Sacramento who made the bishops visit to the California Legislature so memorable. Thanks to my friends at Integrity at St. Paul’s Cathedral, HRC San Diego, and the Imperial Court for a wonderful fundraiser at Top of the Park led by Linda Perrine, and a later event at Pamela Morgan and Joyce Rowland’s home. It was great for an old friend of Bishop Christopher to host him in Minneapolis, the Rev. Cynthia Black--whose "Voices of Witness Africa" video was of great help to all of us. Rev. Lee Ann Watkins and Rev. Mark Thompson and the good people of St. Paul’s and the Cathedral community all made his visit to Minneapolis such a success.
Finally, his visit to Washington DC and New York would not have been possible without the support of the Rev. Joan Beilstein, and Libbie Griffith who hosted the bishop in DC with Rev. Peter Antoci and Chap Day and Rev. Winnie Varghese who worked with Anne Craig and the UN Universalist Unitarian Office in New York, arranging so many meetings for us, including Union Seminary, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Rehoboth Church in Harlem and Joseph Tolton. The bishop was particularly grateful to Josh King from HRC who accompanied him to all the meetings Josh and Michael Guest had arranged for him in DC. The bishop enjoyed meeting with staff and board members of Intersections in New York and staff at Trinity Wall Street, the Arcus Foundation and the Episcopal Church Center. We were guests of the Lutheran Ministry to Seafarers, again a fitting image of a pilgrim people with an international perspective. Finally, I am grateful to my friend Archbishop John Neil of Dublin for opening the doors of Christchurch Cathedral to our Ugandan pilgrim and to one of my oldest friends from high school, the Rev. Mervyn Kingston, and Dr. Richard O’Leary of Changing Attitude Ireland. Thanks to the Dean, Canon Michael Mays and Rev Darell McCallig of Trinity College, Dublin; Stephen Adair and Philip Reain; David McConnell and Rev. Sandra Pragnell for opening their Irish homes and hearts to a contemporary Celtic saint who happens to come from Uganda! He loved your welcome and was inspired by the reconciliation work that has been accomplished in Ireland. The Irish share a wounded and "colonized" soul similar to the Ugandans and we have much to share in our experiences of healing each other and our institutional "post colonial" damage, particularly in the churches. We are now common pilgrims and fully included in the "ecclesia of God" just incase anyone hasn’t noticed!