Eric Lembembe was one of the Pope’s many children.
He was a devout Roman Catholic and was selected to represent Cameroon at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. this time last year to be part of 26 people representing countries where it is illegal to be LGBT. I re-read through his application form this week and a grant proposal he later submitted to St. Paul’s Foundation and the Robert Carr Civil Society Network:
“During the World Day against Homophobia and Human Rights, we have organized an exchange on "religion, homophobia and transphobia" our point of view CAMFAIDS (Cameroonian AIDS Program) was intended, to address issues of identity that MSM encounter in relation to religion, that is to say, whether they should continue in spirituality despite being homosexual, an idea emerged from the discussion begun at the initiative of the day door-door, the one that, homosexuals are entitled to strengthen their faith because as indicated by our slogan: "I'm gay, lesbian ... and God loves me" or as "the church welcomes everyone," we are all children of the Lord.”
His native language was French but he wrote about his faith in English:
"I am a practicing Catholic Christian. I go to church all the time and I try whenever possible to meet the commandments of God, despite my homosexuality. I know that Bible condemns homosexuality but, what can I do, I'm a human being.”
The fragile life of a human-rights defender
Last year Eric Lembembe [pictured at bottom left] had technical difficulties with an old written passport and could not be granted a visa by the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon until he obtained an electronic version of his passport. It was very difficult for him to obtain a passport in a country deeply corrupt and homophobic. In spite of every effort to bring him to Washington last year, he could not join us.
However, Eric continued to keep in touch with our Spirit of 76 network and began a deep friendship and professional connection with Colin Stewart, who offered Eric a platform for his excellent journalistic skills. He exposed someone who blackmailed LGBT people and wrote about the grave injustices in his country towards his people. He experienced the deep pain of trying to provide HIV services to the LGBT community in a country where homosexuality is criminalized and as a result there are few resources for emerging organizations who commit to serving the most marginalized.
Camfaids worked under enormous constraints, and Colin invited Eric to write a chapter in the book “From Wrongs To Gay Rights” to describe what this looked like. The organization has no funding, not even to pay for Eric’s funeral.
Young, intelligent, courageous and deeply committed to the service of others, Eric Lembembe followed the example of Jesus and served everyone. His dedication and service cost him his safety and security, and finally his life. His body was found in his room, locked from the outside. His limbs were broken and he had been tortured with an electric iron.
Yes, he was one of the Pope’s children. He would have called the Pope his “father in God” and it is time Pope Francis spoke out clearly and emphatically about violence and sectarianism against LGBT people, particularly from his fellow bishops, other Christian leaders and to call the church to stop persecuting their own kind. This is a family at war. The Pope needs to call a truce and condemn all acts of violence against LGBT people in word and deed, beginning with his own fellow bishops.
Two weeks ago, a Cardinal of Santo Domingo made an offhand remark about a newly appointed American ambassador that “he was a faggot.” In December last year, the Archbishop of Yaounde, Victor Tonye Bakot, used his Christmas homily to compare homosexuality as a “crime against humanity.” He believes that homosexuality is opposed to the ideal of human reproduction and is a danger to the family unit, “an affront to the family, enemy of women and creation.”
Bakot argued that the Roman Catholic Church preaches the virtues of tolerance towards gay people, pedophiles, bestiality and other perversions, which he unfairly lumps together. But he says: “This does not mean that Catholic morality endorse homosexual behavior and the life style that it inspires.”
“We need to stand up to combat it with all our energy. I am particularly thankful to our local media that has been spreading this message of it as a criminality against mankind.”
These comments came after a wave of anti-gay persecutions and news of a three-year jail sentence given to Jean-Claude Roger Mbede, 32, who was found guilty of homosexual conduct because he sent a text message to another man telling him he loved him.
A time of conscience and a moment of grace
As Eric’s friends and family begin the process of mourning and Cameroon faces the reality of what this kind of preaching and legalism can lead to, we pray for a moment of grace. The Pope needs to decide if this is the kind of gospel (good news) that will take the African church into the 21st century or not.
The African Catholic church is seen as one of the great places of renewal and vitality among its billion adherents, but issues of human sexuality will remain a challenge. The role of women in the church will dominate Pope Francis’s administration and the concern about rampant homosexuality in Africa will soon be overrun by a much more sinister sexual crisis – the vast number of Catholic clergy and bishops and even Archbishops who have children outside of wedlock. Recently a Ugandan priest was suspended when he raised these issues publicly claiming numbers were as high as 40% of Catholic clergy who are real fathers. Their children are also the Pope’s children and the LGBT community is not going to stand by and witness more murders happen to our leaders while Archbishop’s dehumanize us while hiding their own dirty little secrets.
Homosexuality provides a convenient deflection and scapegoat, but torturing and killing gay people is another issue and this kind of dehumanization has no place in the African church. The Pope has his hands full. Eric was his child too. May the church he loved and served bury him with rites and basic dignity and make sure we do not end up with another David Kato fiasco at the family’s home and graveside.
The Cameroon government is now under international scrutiny to conduct a transparent investigation. Who did this and why was an AIDS activist tortured? The role of the U.S. and European embassies will also come to light as we try to piece together why this happened and what could have been done to prevent it.
Why “God Loves Uganda” is such an important film
Tonight here in San Diego, at the screening of “God Loves Uganda” at 7:30 pm at the Birch North Park Theatre, in the presence of Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams and the Mayor of San Diego, we will honor Eric Lembembe’s life and ministry with a moment of silence. The Los Angeles community did the same this week at Outfest, and there will be other opportunities for moments of reflection, anger and action.
Roger’s film portrays the intimate connection from what we hear from our pulpits and the violence it causes to LGBT people in Uganda, Cameroon and globally. The dehumanization of LGBT people has no place in our churches, yet there is no institution more vitriolic and hypocritical than the church, particularly in Africa and financially supported by U.S. funding. We are all tainted by Eric’s death and nobody can escape the sheer brutality of it all. One day, the church that condemned him will canonize him, and will finally claim him as their own … but until then, we all have work to do.
Tickets can be purchased online HERE.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.