Bishop Senyonjo on Marginalization and Death Threats as an LGBT Ally in Uganda

Jim Burroway

May 25th, 2010

L-R: Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, Jim Burroway

Yesterday I  introduced you to the Rt. Rev. Christopher Senyonjo, who I had the pleasure of meeting a little more than a week ago. The retired Church of Uganda Bishop of the West Buganda diocese is a tireless straight ally and LGBT advocate, and he is now in his third week of a six-week speaking tour in the U.S.

Uganda’s LGBT community has paid a heavy price in its battle for equality. They have endured threats to their personal safety, some have been forcibly outed in the news media, many have lost their jobs and have been disowned by their families. We’ve covered much of that ground before. Today, you will come to know the heavy price that awaits straight allies like Bishop Christopher when they come to the defense of LGBT people.

About thirty of us had gathered in the home of Ed and Scott for a private fundraiser and question-and-answer session for Bishop Christopher. Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, who is facilitating Bishop Christopher’s tour, led the Q&A session. Yesterday, I recounted how Bishop Christopher happened to become an advocate for LGBT people. Unsurprisingly, when his superiors in the Church of Uganda discovered the nature of Bishop Christopher’s new found ministry, they made their displeasure known. Bishop Christopher said:

So I’ve come to this [becoming an advocate] since 2001 when some young people came and we formed what we call Integrity Uganda. But my church didn’t like this. In fact, they said, “No, no, no, no… You shouldn’t support such a group. What you should be is just ask these people to be converted. And if they are not converted, well you are just leading them nowhere.”

But I said, “I know these people and what they are. In spite of not being converted, they should be accepted.”

And I was told, “If you don’t change that attitude and you don’t condemn them, you are no longer going to work with us as a church in the service.”

I accepted, because I knew the truth and I felt I couldn’t compromise on this truth, which I am sure is right and I’ve remained convinced in spite of a lot of suffering which I may not enumerate one by one.

Well, we wouldn’t let him get by without enumerating just a little of what he experienced, so he indulged us.

In the Anglican Church (as is the case with all lower-case “episcopal” churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian churches, etc.), a retired bishop is still a bishop. He just no longer carries the responsibility of the day-to-day administration and care of a diocese. Retired bishops however are often called upon to conduct services, co-consecrate fellow bishops, conduct confirmations, and so forth. But because Bishop Christopher’s refusal to condemn his LGBT clients, he was barred from performing any official function inside of an Anglican Church in Uganda or on behalf of the Church. (Which explains why Bishop Christopher was beaming so broadly when I met him after having participated as a co-consecrating bishop for the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool just a few hours earlier.)

What’s more, after thirty-four years of service in the Church of Uganda,

My pension was stopped, and of course, I will say I was marginalized as they marginalize the homosexuals, the LGBT people. I’m regarded as the same way as a marginalized person, not respected. It is not easy.

But that was just the beginning of his problems:

In 2001, I was here in the United States, and really that’s when my church knew [learned] that I was counseling the LGBT people and they said they would no longer work with me. There were so many threats – If you read the papers at that time, Monitor, the other paper… I think it’s New Vision, Bukedde Uganda… if you read, you will find a lot of things said against me. Actually my wife was not with me and I was advised by many people that there were so many threats, it was not safe for me to go back to Uganda. So I had to find friends to stay with in Washington, D.C. for six months…

But after pondering on this matter – should I file for asylum, seek for asylum here? — I felt my family is in Uganda, my wife is in Uganda [and each time he says “Uganda,” he draws it out the way people who love their homeland do]. I didn’t think that I should ask them to come over, and I didn’t really see what I had done. Of course the law was not as clear as it might be if [the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill] is passed. Because if it was as it is [proposed], secondly, when I went back to Uganda I might have been arrested or something. But apart from people and what they were saying and the threats, there was no such law. It is there, but a bit mild against homosexuality. I hadn’t done really anything.

After six months, Bishop Christopher felt it was safe enough to his home in Uganda. But the harassment continued:

I remember one time I was talking with a gentleman and I said why these people should be respected and recognized as human beings. He said, “How can you recognize these people? God doesn’t love them.”

I said, “I believe also these people are created by God.”

But that man – he knew me and I knew him – he give me a slap. And I wondered… but I couldn’t return anything. What I do when such things happen, I neglect what happens. I just walk away. Because that’s what I think is the best way, not just to return a kind of angry reaction. If you do it, it can make things worse.

It has also taken a toll on his family, but they have remained supportive:

They’re worried. There was a time of course when I didn’t go back, my wife was saying, “Don’t come back, it is too dangerous.” So I stayed here for about six months. God willing, one day, Albert was saying I should come along with my wife and so she sees [America]… I’ve been here before but … she has been a wonderful help to me. It hasn’t been easy for her. But she said, “If this is really your call, I cannot stop you.”

I have a daughter too. One day I was in Colorado, Denver… And I was speaking to her. It was hard. She said, “Dad, if you really believe that’s what God wants you to do, then do it.” I sometimes talk as though she’s there. “Dad, your voice was a voice from God.”

So, these people have been supporting me in the way I have explained. They love me. I love them. But serving humanity surpasses other things.

Because of the backlash that the Bishop suffered, it allowed him to walk in the shoes of those who were marginalized. In the eyes of Ugandan society, Bishop Christopher became one of “them,” which only spurred him to greater efforts to try to improve the lives of LGBT people there:

Well what it is like [for LGBT people], many have lost their jobs because if someone discovers you are an LGBT person, you couldn’t keep you’re job. And many find it difficult to tell the parents. The parents, many of them, for whatever reason many of them are not happy with the children who come out as LGBT people. So it is really hard for these people.

And because of this, we’ve been trying in our group to start what we call self-help United Uganda, to sort of start their own employment, to have their own employment. They can employ themselves. For instance, there is one young man who grows sugar cane and sells it. Some start restaurants or become cobblers (shoe repair) so they can survive. In fact, this has been a great help.

Until recently, when we were just starting, we had this, what we call “financial recession.” Some of the help we were getting to start this was curtailed. But I believe that if we could do this, many people who have lost their jobs, who cannot be employed because of their coming out and because of this orientation, could be able to survive and get some kind of employment.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (center) meeting with a group in his office near Kampala (From the video, "Voices of Witness Africa")

Bishop Christopher’s group also works to provide rooms or shelter for those who were kicked out of their homes, either by their landlords or their families. But providing these services in such a difficult climate for LGBT people calls for great care and discernment. Bishop Christopher offered this parable to describe how he navigates the roiling homophobia in Uganda:

We have been what we call, “Be wise as a serpent.” You see, one person talked to me about the serpent. The serpent, there is a time for the serpent is very quiet. There may be a some time a serpent in the corner there. [He points to a corner of the room.] But if you don’t disturb it, it may just be quiet. You may not know it is there. Right? And so there is a time of keeping quiet.  Then the serpent, you may find another time, it [he gestures forcefully] — running out, just to rushing out. “Oh! There has been a serpent, a snake here!” Eh? It rushes out!

There’s a time of running away. Then there’s a time when the serpent may attack. But, it’s so hard to know what to do at different times. You need the Grace of God to help you.

Through his work, Bishop Christopher remains both determined and optimistic:

Well I think this is what we should really discuss, because I think we shouldn’t despair. When you despair, you are already defeated. But we can do something. One think I say is solidarity. When your friend is suffering, say “what can I do to help?” Right? For instance, there are times when it will be necessary to be helped out. Supposing the bill passed. There will be many refugees. But this will not be forever. You know, even if we don’t, they are what we call martyrs. People are killed because of what they believe. But some run away, others are killed. Those who run away live to fight another day. So I think we shouldn’t despair.

Things are changing. The world is becoming one. One thing we share, it gives me hope, is the Internet. The Internet! You know what goes on in Uganda, you know it just at that moment and you can respond. The influence is there.

Several days later on May 21, Bishop Christoper spoke at a Harvey Milk Day breakfast in San Diego before approximately a thousand people. I wasn’t there, but I understand that his talk was a huge success. I talked to him by phone later that morning, and he returned to the theme of sacrifice and why he remained optimistic:

Even in the history of the Church or of the world, some people run away and live to fight. Others become martyrs and die for their beliefs. Even today, I’ve been thinking of Harvey Milk. He stood for what he knew was right. The truth for which he died will never die.

Tomorrow, I will cover Bishop Christopher’s observations of the March 2009 conference by three American anti-gay activists which set the stage for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

(See also part 1 and part 3 of our talk with Bishop Senyonjo.)


May 25th, 2010

Bishop Senyonjo is so much more intelligent and well-spoken than Martin Ssempa it’s not even funny. How could anyone listen to hateful idiots like the latter with so much more capable spiritual leadership clearly available?

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