By John Johnson
On the eve of July fourth, I wondered how many would actually attend: A Conversation with Davis Mac-Iyalla. The venue was St. Thomas’ Episcopal Parish in Dupont Circle and the event was sponsored by both St. Thomas’ and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. As 7 p.m. arrived the sanctuary was nearly filled with some 75 Episcopalians and visitors. I didn’t know who all was there from St. Marks, but I was amazed by the number of non-Episcopalians that attended. Davis spoke to the congregation gathered for nearly 55 minutes before taking questions and answers and the evening was followed by the beautiful Compline service from the Book of Common Prayer.
The altar was adorned with a simple white altar cloth with several black-based candle holders and lighted candles for the evening’s event. The clergy, senior and junior warden were robed in traditional black and white Evening Prayer vestments seated in the first row. Davis, dressed in blue jeans with a cut off sleeveless shirt and rainbow wrist band, joined them.
Davis was invited to be part of the Altar party for Compline after his presentation. The plate was passed as he vested and he was presented with $1000 gift as he concluded his 60-event, 20-city tour or the United States and left for the Church of England’s General Synod meeting. The money is greatly needed because Davis has been hounded from his home in Nigeria and now lives in Togo, where he ekes out a living by running a small restaurant.
Davis sang the Doxology at a reception following the service. For someone who lives in exile, who has been jailed for speaking truth to ecclesiastical power and who has been beaten in Nigerian Police custody, he remains remarkably cheerful, favoring friends with a deep gregarious laugh.
Prior to the evening’s events, I had the opportunity to interview Davis.
Q: What do you think is most important for the Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgenerdered community here in the United States to know about the lives of gay and lesbian Nigerians?
A: We have no access to information about gays worldwide. Most of the gays and lesbians in Nigeria have no idea about the lives of the GLBT community in the U.S. and no ability to share ideas and information. A gay American is no different than a gay Nigerian. And we need to know more about each other.
Q: How would that communication help gay Nigerians?
A: In many ways…One of the connections I have made with the GLBT community in the U.S. is your vocal efforts to secure your own rights. You have the freedom of speech here and I think you should use it to fight oppression in Nigeria and not just with your members of Congress but your bishops and priests and members [of your churches] too.
Q: What would you like Episcopalians or the Episcopal Church to do here in the United States to help the GLBT community in Nigeria?
A: Well, our Archbishop (Akinola) is breaking communion [with the Episcopal Church] by his actions. We want to remain the ties Episcopalians [in the U.S.] so that we don’t feel abandoned. We don’t have anywhere to go but the Episcopal Church. We want to remain in communion with the Episcopal Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury. [Because] for example, the welcome of the Episcopal Church of everyone.
Q: Is it helpful for activists in the United States or the Western world to raise their voices in defense of those who are being persecuted in Nigeria?
A: Yes! We have had many cases when our friends outside Nigeria help to bring awareness. I strongly agree that people all over the world should be raising their voices. It is helpful.
Q: What has impressed you most about your time here in the United States?
A: I have been welcomed in most of the places I have been. Not everyone agrees with me [about homosexuality] but everyone agrees that it is wrong how the Anglican Church in Nigeria treat me the way they have done. The death threats from church members in Nigeria—everyone basically disagrees with the attitude of the church toward me.
Q: Will you be going back to Nigeria?
A: I have received so many death threats that I am in exile. I am just one person but I want Nigeria to be a better place for GLBT people. I think I can go home one day. That’s why I am doing all this.
Q: What are your greatest hopes for your country in terms of GLBT rights?
A: [Audible sigh]. My hope is that the attitude of the Church and the government will change toward us. And that all of the laws to criminalize Gays and Lesbians will change. My hope is that the Church in Nigeria will be a welcoming church for all of God’s children, GLBT, everybody.
Q: What is the status in your opinion of the Nigerian legislation that would bar the GLBT community or their supporters from speech and association?
A: The new Vice President is an Anglican. The bill did not pass in the last administration. [But many of those who were in the previous Congress were re-elected.] But we keep talking about the bill because this new Vice President is an Anglican and the anti-gay Archbishop [Akinola] can seek favor from the V.P. to reintroduce or sponsor the bill.
Q: Have you heard that Archbishop Akinola plans to do that [re-introduce the bill]?
A: He has never given up his agenda and until he publically withdraws his support for the bill, we still hold him responsible.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say?
A: As I began to get national attention and recognition, in December 2005, the Anglican Church in Nigeria began a defamation and smear campaign against me. I want to say that what was publicized on 28 December 2005 on their [Nigerian Church Web site] is all false. So I am thankful to the Americans to give me the opportunity to tell my side of the story and for trusting me. I have been to 20 cities with 60 events and that’s why I want to thank Americans, the Episcopal Church, other churches and secular groups for letting me speak.
John Johnson, a member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Washington, D. C., is the domestic policy analyst for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.