Religion Dispatches profiles Bishop Christopher Senyonjo.
Standing by the graveside of slain Uganda gay rights advocate David Kato at the end of last month, many of the gays and lesbians in attendance at his funeral wept. They were grieving the death of a beloved friend and mentor but they were also shaken by the interruption of the ceremony by a homophobic pastor, who told them that they were all destined for hell. The local pastor exhorted on homosexuals to repent or be punished by God before the microphone was snatched away one of Kato’s supporters.
It might have seemed that the last person the activist’s friends would turn to for support at the moment would be another religious leader. Especially given that the church in Uganda was at the head of the drive for the draconian anti-homosexuality bill still pending in Parliament.
But 79-year-old Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, in his purple cassock and small wire-rim glasses, stood at the head of a huddle of Kato’s friends and supporters, many of them in black T-shirts bearing the image of their beloved leader. “I know that some [gays and lesbians] are discouraged and even not going to church because they are being abused. Even today they are being abused. But please don’t be discouraged. God created you and God is on your side,” said perhaps the only member of Uganda’s clergy ministering to the LGBT community.
Senyonjo was featured on the cover of the Ugandan tabloid pictured standing with David Kato. Over their picture was the headline "hang them!" Needless to say, the bishop's family is afraid for his life.
Kato’s murder frightened Senyonjo to the extent that he almost didn’t want to go to the memorial for his friend and former colleague. “At first, I thought I did not want to go out of doors today but then I thought I wanted to get to the funeral,” he said. Senyonjo received a call informing him of the murder at around midnight the day the activist died; the news kept him awake almost all night. “I hardly had slept, but I was determined to be at the funeral of David,” said the bishop.
The Bishop says that he could not stand by and watch Kato's body be buried without the appropriate rites.
Despite the increased risk, Bishop Senyonjo has continued with the work of shepherding Uganda’s LGBT community. If he didn’t, it’s unlikely that anyone else would. After the other pastor’s invective against gays at Kato’s funeral, locals from his ancestral village refused to carry the casket to where it was to be buried. Some of the gays and lesbians in attendance grabbed the activist’s white and gold coffin, which was draped with a rainbow flag, and hauled it themselves to a space between the dark green trees and foliage to be buried.
They would have had to bury Kato, who identified as Christian, without a blessing from any member of the clergy had Senyonjo not stepped in. “I believed that it wasn’t right just to dump the body there without prayers. I couldn’t bear it at any cost,” he said later.
If Anglicans in one country dehumanize, persecute and imprison minorities, we must be true to the Gospel and challenge such assaults on basic human rights. They key to our ministry must be to educate our people and encourage LGBT people to tell their stories and the impact of homophobia in their lives. Listening to the stories of LGBT people was the beginning of my own transformation. This work of understanding the phenomenon of human sexuality should be taken seriously in our theological seminaries and schools. The clergy should be well equipped to serve and not to ignorantly repel the people of God. A required course in Human Sexuality should be required of all seminarians and clergy.
Many African countries imprison LGBT people because of who they are. As a bishop in the midst of those countries, I am now a shepherd caring for the lost sheep that are persecuted by the Church and threatened by a pending anti-homosexual draconian bill in Uganda. I preach the new covenant of Jesus Christ sealed in love as we read in John 15:12. This is the heart of the Gospel-the Good News. This sacrifice of Love is mocked when sister churches tolerate or promote the violation of basic human rights. Life and liberty are at risk and we must hold each other accountable. A loving Anglican Communion should not keep quiet when the Rolling Stone tabloid in Uganda openly supports the “hanging of the homos,” including a fellow bishop who pleads for their inclusion and non-discrimination! Silence has the power to kill. We have witnessed its destruction this past week in the tragic and cruel murder of David Kato.