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NEWS ANALYSIS: A straight ally puts a human face on LGBT causes, inspires COMPASS Coalition

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series about the three-month goodwill tour of retired Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda. The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego was the bishop’s guide while he was in the United States. These are his recollections and observations about the Compass to Compassion tour. Read the first part HERE.)

SAN DIEGO -- Although technology and mass media unite us in a deeper way than before, they can never replace the reality of someone from another country showing up to an event and talking personally about what it is like to walk in these shoes.

Bishop Christopher and Mary Senyonjo traveled thousands of miles from Uganda to shake hands, share in their pain of the world, and look for a new message of inclusion that people of faith and secular leaders alike can embrace.

The bishop reflected on the meaning of compassion and talked about it for three months straight.

He visited a young Ugandan gay man in detention for 20 months in San Diego and prayed with him through a glass partition. That was a powerful moment.

He blessed the hands of hundreds of nurse aides and workers at Lifehouse in San Diego – people who care for the most marginalized in our society with little recognition and it meant so much to them.

He met with Native American people in Minneapolis and learned about “two spirit” people – our gay ancestors who were respected and honored by their societies.

Always there was the bishop’s personal touch. “Have you been to Uganda?” he would ask everyone upon meeting them. By the end of the evening, the bishop had made sure there would be a welcome for you when you actually came over. A few people on the tour have agreed to visit him in the St. Paul’s Centre in Kampala to see how we can be of support.

Nothing beats the personal connection and relationship. His stories of snakes, women eating chicken as a taboo (which he compares to lack of information and culture for the gay issues in places like Uganda) and his mischievous laugh will always remain with us.

He recognized all of the significant donors who helped to get the St. Paul’s Foundation and Centre off the ground this year and people were personally touched to receive recognition from HIM.

The challenge of progressive ambivalence

Despite the warm welcome and support of individual donors, parishes and a few foundations, we are still waiting for a significant groundswell of support from this country for progressive programs in Africa.

We see this ambivalence equally in the faith community as well as in the human rights/secular community. Progressive faith communities from All Saint’s Pasadena to Trinity Church, Wall Street have not financially supported the bishop’s work in the same way they were sturdily behind Desmond Tutu’s dismantling of apartheid. I still find this reality troubling.

We have made millions and packed churches on the claim we are an inclusive church but Trinity grants program funds millions of dollars each year to churches that support the criminalizing of homosexuality in Africa while rejecting our appeal for funds because Christopher does not have the support of his Archbishop.

Help with media and other outlets are coming from secular sources rather than our own Anglican networks. There is a lot of encouragement that comes from liberal church folk or secular human rights advocates but it often does not translate into checks or support.

While visiting one of the most supportive church communities in the country where the bishop and Cathedral both sponsored the tour at $3,500 each, the Dean of Trinity Cathedral Portland hit the nail on the head when he spoke to 900 congregants:

“There is a difference between encouragement and support. The bishop is here because he needs our support.”

City tour organizers in the 14 communities we visited worked very hard to get people to come and hear the bishop, but some events were poorly attended and some cities just about covered traveling expenses.

I noted several events where attendees came to some of the parties, listened to the stories from me and the bishop, ate the food provided by the hosts and still did not contribute to support the work of the Foundation or Centre in Kampala. Others were amazingly generous and were deeply appreciative of the information they heard about.

Most people had no idea of the extent of global and religious based homophobia and what we can do about it.

We are still short on our financial goals for the tour and we hope between now and the end of November to catch up. We must remember the important goal of the tour was establishing and deepening relationship, eyeball to eyeball, and hearing first-hand what the Christian Right’s “Sex Tourism” (to use a title used by Jeff Sharlet’s address at our closing conference in New York) was doing for the people of Uganda. Sharlet compared sex tourism of westerners to places like Thailand where people engage in activities they would never do at home to the work of American Fundamentalism abroad. Similarly, Rick Warren and an army of missionaries engage in the denigration of LGBT people and reinforce their subjugation in a way they would never get away with in Orange County.

Compass to Compassion consultation spawns COMPASS Coalition

The highlight of the tour for me was spending two weeks at Union Theological Seminary in New York. When we did not have meetings with the State Department or Under Secretary Johnnie Carson in Washington, we were getting ready for a two-day progressive summit.

More than 90 leaders came to the seminary for a consultation on how the progressive faith and secular communities can be strategically organized to get ahead of the Christian Right‘s devastating campaigns of misinformation in Africa instead of reacting to each situation that create (i.e. the Bahati bill).

The conference was inspired by an article written by Ann Christine D’adesky asking the simple question: “Why aren’t progressives doing more about Christian led homophobia?”

We invited the heads of all significant liberal denominations and their public policy and communication staff but few actually showed up. Similarly we invited many of the LGBT organizations across the country but these issues are not in the forefront of LGBT domestic issues – yet. Instead, we had a room full of well-connected and highly motivated individuals and organizations who are creating the COMPASS Coalition (Coalition on Minority Protection Against Sexual Stigma ).

Four initiatives were launched, which should help to bring others into the strategic planning who were not able to attend the conference. For example, an important policy statement on LGBT international rights was issued by Dan Baer, Assistant Under Secretary for Democracy and Labor at the conference and is available on our new website compasstocompassion.com.

Next steps for the COMPASS Coalition

A conference is now being planned at Harvard University after a rousing speech by Dr. Tim McCarthy of the Carr School calling for a complete re-evaluation of domestic LGBT strategies and a call to civil disobedience until our rights and all LGBT human rights are protected.

McCarthy’s observations are suggestions as to HOW we move forward were thought-provoking, particularly in the same week Equality California (one of our leading LGBT organizations in the country) finally imploded.

The four conference panels were all excellent. One of the panels focused on the LGBT human rights and HIV issue and has become a personal concern for me. Washington, D.C. will be the venue for next World AIDS Conference July 22-27, and I would love to see 76 representatives of countries (where it is illegal to be gay or access HIV prevention and health services) be able to attend. The faith community in Washington led by the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Unitarians Universalists will open their homes and pulpits to them.

The bishop’s tour reinforced the need for Americans to have more information and personal relationships with LGBT emerging leadership so we can see and hear for ourselves what is really going on. I am hoping some secular LGBT and congregations might also sponsor someone to actually attend the conference and build deeper connections with partners in the COMPASS Coalition. You can see what else is going on by visiting out new website that was designed and is organized here from our San Diego office.

So the tour helped to build deeper relationships where we can all ask more questions and develop common strategies for issues that have been largely ignored by most of us. At least we have a more organized network and reference points than we had three months ago. If a city like San Diego can create the resources to organize this significant tour, then I cannot wait to see what Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York can do in the coming year with their extraordinary networks and resources. For example, San Francisco had agreed to support our theme “Global Equality” for 2012 Pride. Boston may do the same and hopefully others will see the opportunity of educating more people about the globalization of LGBT issues and the powerful and sinister forces and theologies we are up against.

The conference at Harvard may turn out to be the most important LGBT media event of the decade as we seek to find our moral compass and a direction for our movement, which some fear is running out of steam. Similarly, progressive Christianity will not survive as a movement by organizing supper clubs, jazz masses and praising the likes of Bishop Christopher without a significant commitment to supporting people like him in difficult contexts. It is unfortunate to admit we no longer have many heroes in the church so when we find one, we should support them. The Compass to Compassion tour has opened up more possibilities for everyone and it is up to each one of us to reflect upon our response and how this visit changes us.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is President of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. Donations for the work of Bishop Christopher can be made by clicking HERE.