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RGOD2: When in Rome ...

An Irish medieval traveler once wrote: “Going to Rome involves a lot of travel and difficulty. You will not find your God there unless you take God with you.”

St. Paul’s Foundation has four delegates in Rome this week to petition the Roman Catholic Church’s support on LGBT issues, particularly around access to HIV health services in the 76 countries where it remains illegal to be LGBT. Anglican priest, the Rev. Macdonald Sembereka, and Maxensia Nakibuuka were excellent advocates on a panel at the World Bank last April and spoke passionately about the economic cost of homophobia and asked the Bank to help end LGBT poverty and lack of access to healthcare.

Excellent African leadership

MacDonald was in New York with his nation’s president, Joyce Banda of Malawi, who spoke this week at the United Nations, where he acts as her counsel for non-government organizations (NGOs).

Maxensia is the chair of the Women’s Council of the Laity in the Catholic Archdiocese of Kampala and is eager to extend more HIV prevention and care to the underserved vulnerable populations of Uganda where HIV infection is running at twice the national average, particularly among men who have sex with men (MSM).

On a continent where 40% of health services are provided by faith-based organizations, these two leaders are important messengers from two important churches who could collaborate and share best practices to reach the most marginalized and invisible communities and this week’s visit is exploring ways this might happen. Both are people living with HIV and have spent their lives working for reducing stigma and increasing compassion and access to testing and drugs. They are both living examples of how things have changed in recent years and without these religious support systems and access to drugs they would be long dead and their children orphaned.

Now, they want to reduce stigma even further and extend compassion to the LGBT community. When MacDonald started publically advocating for health services to LGBT people and reduction of stigma, his home was fire-bombed with his children sleeping inside. His mission has not been deterred, however. Maxensia returned from the international AIDS Conference last year and convinced 200 clergy that her home-based care program could no longer exclude LGBT people and they supported her willingness to serve everyone.

In a country where it is illegal to be LGBT, many organizations are worried about publically reaching out because they could be accused of “promoting” homosexuality and the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill will have stiff fines and imprisonment for people who provide services and do not report LGBT clients to the authorities. So MacDonald and Maxensia are brave people and we do not underestimate the personal price that is often paid by straight allies who are stepping out more and more to show solidarity. This is why we are in Rome.

On Saturday, the dynamic Catholic Community of Sant Egidio will be hosting a 400-person conference in Rome looking at how the Church can more faithful and expansive in service. The community was formed in 1968 and their mission is to care for the poor. They have extensive feeding and support programs for Rome’s poor. From a base in a traditionally working class district of Rome (Trastevere), this lay community offers a very appealing form of worship to the local residents who live here. The work is more than a traditional non-government organization.

I have attended their services several times and the sanctuary is packed with young people who have found a passion for service to the marginalized. Using an inclusive interpretation Scripture, preaching is dynamic and contemporary with a backdrop of incense-filled 12th century ornate architecture. People have worshipped here for 1,700 years, so it is a holy place.

Sant Egido parish began an ancient hospital here in Trastavere and now serves hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and they just opened a program for children in Malawi. They represent the more inclusive and creative side of the Roman Catholic Church and they have always had a special relationship with the Pope (who is officially their Vicar or head clergy). It is perhaps this kind of Catholicism that Pope Francis wants to see more of – a spirit-filled, dynamic and a human service model. Like his namesake, Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis’s is calling the church to “Preach the Gospel at all times ... use words if you have to.”

LGBT people are clearly part of the marginalized and rejected that Francis is trying to reach. How to do that is now uniquely before us. MacDonald and Maxensia have some ideas how it could be done in their contexts and given the recent statements from the Pope who is reported to be addressing the conference on Monday, the Community of Sant Egidio and people like us are eager to explore what these opportunities may mean.

The Anglican Center in Rome

On Thursday, Eileen Blumenthal from St. Marks’s Capitol Hill and I met with Archbishop David Moxon, who heads the Anglican Center in Rome. Since the 1960s, the center has been the place where formal ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion (70 of the 80 million member church are Africans with half of the countries where it is illegal to be LGBT remaining part of the British Commonwealth).

“We have 75% agreement in areas of doctrine and tradition,” said Moxon, who recently retired as an Archbishop in New Zealand “with only 25% of issues we do not yet find agreement.”

So Moxon is encouraged by recent renewed dialogue and has had several extensive meetings with the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby, who is also a new appointment.

“Pope Francis has spoken about walking together in this new opportunity for deeper work and commitment to ecumenism,” said Moxon, who was hopeful that some new initiatives in health services could be created with the same commitment by both churches to the relief of human suffering around the world. The Sant Egidio community has also invited Archbishop Moxon to the conference this weekend and has been working with the Anglican Center for many years.

So, we are here, pilgrims of hope and reconciliation, representing so many people who are not only absent from the table, but live in fear and hostility, sometimes fueled by churches who have contributed to their persecution. It was here, Paul of Tarsus (our founder St. Paul) was executed by the state 2,000 years ago, and now the LGBT community has our own martyrs, like Eric Lembembe of Cameroon. We are here for Eric and we are here to prevent this kind of senseless killing and to urge the church to not only to do no harm, but to work for deeper dialogue and listening.

Rome is full of memorials to past martyrs, and is literally built on the bones of people who lived and died for causes they deeply believed in and values that could not be compromised. Many of us know what that looks like in a contemporary world still hostile to LGBT people and our allies. Yet, we come looking for God in each other, created in God’s image. Yes, for many, coming to Rome is a lot of trouble, but the quest for God in each other is a noble one and if we can find still find God in institutions who claim to act in God’s name, as we walk together, who knows what may emerge?

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

Photo captions on left

Middle left: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle

Bottom left: Eileen Blumenthal, Archbishop David Moxon and the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle