A Talk With Bishop Senyonjo, A Straight Ally In Uganda
May 24th, 2010
The LGBT community has always drawn its strength from among its many diverse members, but even in the earliest days of our modern history, we have also been able to count on the support of key straight allies. And these allies have been very critical in times of crisis and great danger. For more than a year now, we have been diligently following a long series of events in Uganda, beginning with a three-day conference in Kampala in March, 2009, by three American anti-gay activists, which led to a long series of events which ultimately culminated in the draconian “kill-the-gays” Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda’s Parliament. Through it all, we have been impressed with the resilience and resourcefulness of the beleaguered LGBT community in Uganda. And I have come to especially appreciate the few brave Ugandan allies who have paid a heavy price for their advocacy on behalf of the the LGBT communities in East Africa.
A week ago, I had the privileged of attending the ordination of the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool as the first Lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church, in a ceremony that took place in Long Beach on May 15. As exciting as that was to attend such a historic event, that wasn’t the reason for my trip. My real reason to go to Southern California was to meet with Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, the retired bishop who has been a stalwart supporter of the LGBT community in Uganda for more than ten years.
The Rt. Rev. Senyonjo studied at the Union Theological Seminary in 1963, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1964 in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He then served in the Church of Uganda, where he was elevated to bishop in 1974. He was the Bishop of West Buganda until his retirement in 1998. And that’s where his real story began, which we will get to in a moment.
Bishop Senyonjo is currently touring the United States to raise awareness of the plight of the LGBT community in Uganda. On the day that I met him in Newport Beach, he had just arrived at the home of our hosts, Ed and Scott, following the consecration in Long Beach. Bishop Senyonjo was among the consecrating bishops for that service, and he was in a very jubilant mood when I met him. Our hosts were getting everything ready for a fundraising party for that evening, so the Bishop and I sat down briefly at the dining table to get acquainted before the guests arrived.
Bishop Christopher is an amazing man, and I hardly know where to begin to describe him. He’s 78 years old yet full of energy and strength, but its a rather quiet energy and strength that I imagine may be easy to underestimate. The first thing I learned that when you talk with Bishop Christopher, the conversation would be long and deep. He’s not much for chit-chat or the one-liners. His narrative is that of a novel, not a short story, and what a story he has to tell.
Later, after the guests had all arrived — there were about thirty in all, I’d say — and after we became acquainted with one another, Bishop Christopher took his seat again at the dining table and the rest of the guests gathered around for a question and answer session led by Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, who is organizing Bishop Christopher’s six-week tour. One of the first questions on all of our minds was how was it that Bishop Christopher became such a great ally for the LGBT community in Uganda. This is what he said:
In Uganda at the beginning of 2001, there were some younger people who had suffered very much because of their sexual orientation, and they wanted to give them some kind of counseling. Because I had studied counseling in 1998, when I retired I decided to start counseling. And I’m very much interested in the area of human sexuality and marriage. Of course, other came and have been coming to me.
Now these young people, they knew that probably I could help them. So they were recommended to come, and I took to them and shared. They were so frightened and had hated themselves so much. Some of them were on the verge of committing suicide. But after discussing with them, of course they realized they are human beings like others. And that God, you know many people, I would say, in Africa believe in God. But they were being told that God doesn’t even love you because of what you are. God doesn’t love homosexuals. And there are a number of people who have hated God because of this. But with my counseling, many of them realize that God loves them as they are.
This is hard for some people, that God can love you as you are. As he loves somebody who may be heterosexual, he also loves LGBT people in the same way. For many people it is not easy who think they are religious. But I’ve been convinced that this is true. One doesn’t need to be converted first to another sexuality to be loved by God.
So this counseling has helped me to understand and to welcome people although they are different from others’ sexuality, I mean as far as sexuality is concerned.
When I spoke with Bishop Christopher earlier, he told me that he really hadn’t intended to become an advocate for LGBT people. After he retired, he thought he would put his education in human sexuality and marriage counseling to use by opening a counseling practice. But very early on he had his first gay client, and Bishop Christopher’s first reaction on learning that this client was gay was to do what he always does: he listened. He listened to the young man as he poured out his struggles and thoughts of suicide, which Bishop Christopher found alarming. The young man, in turn, experienced something that he hadn’t fully expected from the Bishop: a sympathetic ear of a churchman who would not condemn the young man.
As Bishop Christopher was able to help that client through his problems of dealing with his sexuality in such a repressive climate, that client then began to refer others to Bishop Christopher for help. Soon, he started seeing a larger number of LGBT people who came to him by word-of-mouth. And as Bishop Christopher explained to me, he gained as much from the experience of counseling gay people as his clients gained from him and each other. “I discovered,” he said, “that you cannot marginalize the person because of his or her sexuality. What is important is to respect each person for what that person is.” And that was his repeated refrain throughout that evening and in my later conversations with him: respect each person for what that person is.
Bishop Christopher decided that counseling wasn’t enough, so he went on to found Integrity Uganda as a branch of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT outreach organization. He has opened a ramshackle community center where LGBT people can safely gather, and he has worked to provide housing and employment for those were were forcibly “outed.” And for that work, Bishop Christopher has paid a huge price. I’ll have more on that tomorrow.