I just read this story from the New Vision website about Ugandan Pastor Umar Mulinde being attacked in an incident that is believed to be another ugly attack on religious pluralism in Uganda.
“As I turned away from the attacker, another man poured the liquid on my back and ran away shouting ‘Allah Akbar (God is great).”
Pastor Mulinde said he caught a glimpse of the attackers but could not disclose the details as this would jeopardize investigations. He blamed the attack to some people who are opposed to his conversion from the Islamic faith to Christianity.
“I have got threats for a very long time, but didn’t take them serious until now,” he said.
Mulinde was raised in a staunch Muslim family and his father served as the local Imam. He was a sheikh before getting converted to Christianity.
Mulinde said the attack occurred shortly after his church had concluded a seven-day crusade at in which over 300 people gave their lives to the Lord.
I have spent a number of years observing the compassion and cruelty of religion. Finding middle ground has been difficult. As someone who was raised with an unquestionable reading of scripture I have learned to free myself from reading the “Word of God” as the unadulterated “Word of God.”
The Self : I grew up in Mengo, a small town in Kampala known for its large community of Somali Muslim immigrants. There are as many mosques as Balokole (Pentecostal) churches in this town. My family’s Church, Trinity Christian Fellowship, was one of them except that it was a home fellowship where everything happened inside our house. I attended a number of Balokole crusades in my childhood. After all, it was the norm and mom was an evangelist. For years I watched Imams and pastors tussle it out in a barrage of arguments and counter arguments on whose Book or whose prophet is God-sent. I was blessed to grow up in an environment of Christian extremism and to remain sane as to have an independent and liberal mind.
The problem of the Absolute: My theology has always been simple. God (whoever your god is) cannot be defended and does not need to be defended. The whole idea of being God (god) is that you can speak for yourself. Otherwise what is the point in worshiping a super natural being who is helpless? I have always believed that as so-called Christians, (the phrase so-called herein used to portray how much I despise our self-righteous attitude as Christians) it is not our job to defend God. The attack on Pastor Mulinde is unfortunate but it points to a more complicated problem among Pentecostal Churches than among Muslim fundamentalists. It is also a profound attack on the preaching of the gospel.
The US: Uganda is a country of diverse religions and faiths. Despite the fact that Pentecostal Christians in Uganda received official recognition by the government only two years ago after being in existence for about four decades, everyone should be free to exercise their religious or faith freedom. When I was growing up, the Uganda Television broadcasting company (the only TV station in Uganda at that time) had strict instructions from government not to broadcast Balokole programs. The Idi Amin administration had launched a violent attack on Pentecostalism that to be a Mulokole in Uganda was a very shameful thing. It was even worse that the Balokole faith preached the prosperity gospel which meant that most of its followers were impoverished, uneducated, and miserable people. The number of Balokole who were well-off was too insignificant to attract respect. The Museveni administration is behind the freedom that the Pentecostal Church enjoys today. Beside his unconfirmed Pentecostalism and his wife’s confirmed Pentecostalism, President Museveni overturned the oppressive NGO laws that bound Pentecostal Churches to being registered as Non-Governmental Organizations. Recently, the President declared Pentecostals as an officially recognized Faith and granted them the same religious freedom as enjoyed by Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, and Anglicans.
The Now: Looking at how far Pentecostals in Uganda have come, it is surprising that their pastors should hold open door crusades and preach the gospel to potential converts while being blasphemous to Muslims and Prophet Mohammed. For a country that has been through too many bloodshed wars, religious war is the last thing Ugandans need. My plea to government is that these crusades that become a violent attack on divergent religious views be abolished especially if pastors and Imams are using them as a platform to vent their hate. I am a Christian. I have no business with Prophet Mohammed but that does not give me any right to condemn my Muslim friends for not following Jesus.
Pentecostal pastors such as Mulinde need to begin respecting religious traditions that are not their own. The attack on pastors and the blackmail that we so often read about is not a result of some hate campaign against Pentecostalism. Rather it the consequence of pastors using hate speech to front the Pentecostal faith as the absolute faith tradition that every Ugandan should follow. If we are going to promote religious pluralism in our country, we also need to advocate for an end to religious blasphemy that is promoted by Christians themselves.
I am happy that Secretary Clinton mentions the need to train LGBT activists and staff of their organizations as a way of empowering them for the struggle. We need to raise a generation of activist thinkers and professionals ‘who can speak the language of the oppressor.’ From the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement, nothing gave voice to their struggles as empowerment for education did. My professor, Ed Rodman, has once remarked that, ‘Had slave masters known better, they wouldn’t have taught slaves how to speak English.’ Rodman believes that learning how to speak the master’s language empowered slaves to rise against their oppressor.
Our oppressors don’t expect us to have knowledge and/or to use it to our advantage. They don’t expect us to think or reason. By caging us in a life of discrimination and fear, they know that they will control us so we are left powerless to fight back. Our allies on the other hand speak on our behalf because they are taken seriously because their academic credentials! They write our research and tell our stories not because we cannot do what they do but because they have knowledge we don’t have. I respectfully acknowledge the contribution of allies to our movements but the only way I see Clinton’s speech bringing the change we need is when LGBT persons will become the experts of their own movement and an authority on issues affecting them.
Allies such as Sylvia Tamale, Jeff Sharlett, and Kapya Kaoma among several others are able to make a significant contribution to LGBT movements because they command authority and respect because of their professional achievements. A friend of mine, and a great admirer of Dr. Tamale, often jokes that, ‘Even when Tamale makes a point that does not make sense it makes sense to people because of the respect she commands.’
Well my friend, I don’t know about that but what I want to argue here is that if we are going to raise a generation the Martin Luther Kings, Hilary Clintons, Sylvia Tamales, Jeff Sharletts, and Kapya Kaomas of this world, we need to make it possible for LGBT activists to further their education in their fields of interest. An LGBT activist with a law degree or a PhD in a room of the likes of Martin Ssempa makes a huge difference.
We know the story. We activists are received with great honor overseas. It’s a different story in our home countries. We sit in conference rooms and people sniff and jeer at us because even when we make good arguments, people question our credentials. I believe that for people to disagree with your opinions but still be able to respect you is a powerful thing. We need mutual respect- even in our differences. Nelson Mandela was able to begin conversations with his Afrikaner oppressors because first, he learned how to ‘speak their language’ and two, he won their respect. We are not going to build our movements if the only respect we command is from our allies overseas. Our own people need to begin taking us seriously and we have to break the myth that if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, then you’re destined for failure.
I have read Secretary Clinton’s speech. I have seen great potential in her remarks- she may not even realize the weight of her contribution. I have projected the future and I have seen how far this speech is going to take us. She had done her part. We need to do ours. Let us all identify what we can do in line with her remarks and let’s get it done.
My journey to the Episcopal Divinity School began in the most unlikely way. I had been nominated by the United States embassy in Kampala to attend the International Visitor Leadership Program. While I was smitten to stand on the shoulders of world leaders who are alumni to this program, my leadership was put to test as I now understood the weight I was carrying on mine shoulders. At that time, I was volunteering as one of the spokespersons for the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a position that greatly improved my leadership capabilities and launched my activism to a wider audience.
It was during this program that I was introduced to the contribution of faith leaders and communities in the struggle for LGBT rights in the U.S. Coming from Africa, I had always looked at the Church and, even faith leaders, with great suspicion and fear.
I was born and raised in the evangelical tradition. My mother, a mission evangelist, traveled to different parts of the country with our choir and team of evangelists to minister at crusades and churches. If there is any story that I can pull out from my childhood, it is the story of growing up as a “pastor’s’ kid. At a time when the Pentecostal movement was growing in Uganda, I silently observed my family’s enthusiasm for preaching the gospel often with admiration and sometimes with suspicion. It is a family legacy that I am proud of and yet, one that gave me a painful childhood.
Even if I was encouraged to take roles in our daily evening church service, my leadership and voice were in many ways suppressed for the lack of self-esteem. There was never a time for me to bond with my mother because she was always consumed by ministry. Every conversation in our home was God-centered and there was hardly time for me to share my deepest feelings, let alone my personal interests. Because of this, I have come to understand why many church-raised children grow up to reject the very religious values that they were raised in. I know of many pastor’s kids who still struggle to find themselves in the confusion of wanting to please their parents and having the freedom to choose their own path. I grew up with the same confusion. For me, it was the personal struggle of feeling a betrayal on my part for not fitting in into my family’s expectations of church ministry and heterosexuality. Knowing that I was being “set up” to become some sort of ‘church fanatic,’ I rejected every Christian teaching that had been drummed into me and decided to find God on my own. As I found out, this God whom I wanted to find was a hateful God, at least for people who identify as gay.
While attending the International Visitor Leadership Program, I encountered several progressive leaders who changed my long-held perception of the Church. In one of my meetings with some members of the US congress, I had a conversation with US Congressman John Lewis who talked to me mostly about nonviolence and how to ‘be safe’ while in the struggle, but also about the role of faith in the civil rights movement. I came to understand that religion has been used and misused; wrongfully applied and rightfully applied; negatively represented, and positively represented.
Coming to a theological seminary happened in the most unlikely way. I was preparing to board a plane back to Uganda after completing my US tour, when an encounter with Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma introduced me to the Episcopal Divinity School. Still suspicious if this was the right place for me, considering my rebellion against certain “Bible teachings,” I wondered if I would fit in. Even then, I longed to know that God loves me unconditionally. My unenlightened understanding of theological schools was the assumption that they teach students to become pastors. I was afraid of this because truthfully I have never felt called for church ministry.
However, what is surprising about my past fear of preaching and suspicion of the church is that my understanding of preaching has broadened beyond church pulpits. I regard public speaking events to which I am often invited to speak about LGBT rights as my way of preaching anti-oppression. I have come to understand that God’s calling to take the gospel to the ends of the world is not restricted to the church. It is a calling that is existent in what every human being does to make the world a better place. If there is any contribution that I can make to building God’s kingdom, it is being part of the struggle for justice and the end of oppression in all its forms.