Religion and Reckless Courage: Activist Val Kalende on the Fight for LGBT Rights in Uganda

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.


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