David Kato's Anglican funeral: A tale of two churches

January 31, 2011

On Jan. 28, 10 miles from the site of David Kato's brutal murder two days earlier, 300 friends and fellow activists from the LGBT community, his mourning mother and family and foreign dignitaries and U.S. Embassy staff gathered to pay their respects to the outspoken gay activist.

Kato was an Anglican, and as such the local parish church of Nagojje was responsible for his funeral rites. Although tributes had been pouring in to the Kato family from President Barack Obama and other international leaders, the Church of Uganda sent no priest, no bishop, but a lay reader to conduct the service from the Book of Common Prayer.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who runs the Kampala-based St. Paul's Centre for Equality and Reconciliation, an advocacy organization that works on LGBT issues in Uganda, arrived with his wife, Mary. I am in regular contact with the bishop and he relayed the day's events to me.

Bishop Christopher requested time to speak later in the service and planned to read a message from Frank Mughisu, chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), where David had worked tirelessly since 2004.

The lay reader began to make inappropriate remarks condemning homosexuality quite graphically and stating the Church of Uganda's position, which is that homosexuality is a sin and goes against the Bible. The crowd began to cheer him on and as the bishop described it, the event turned into an anti-gay rally. As an excommunicated bishop of the Church of Uganda, Senyonjo has no standing in the official hierarchy of the church. And he wasn't called upon to speak. He felt for the LGBT community having to suffer yet another public humiliation, he said.

In Uganda, church leaders speaking from pulpits have fueled the rabble rousing and hatred that contributed to David's murder. And at David's funeral, after such a brutal death, the church was at it again. The Church of Uganda, a member of the Anglican family of churches to which I belong, took a pastoral opportunity for healing and reconciliation with family members and LGBT people and allies and turned it into an anti-gay political rally.

The anger and frustration of the LGBT community and its straight allies finally erupted when a young lesbian called Kasha, who worked with David at SMUG, seized the microphone and the lay reader's diatribe against LGBT people was finally replaced by the voices of those for whom David fought and died.

Later, Bishop Christopher, dressed in his purple cassock, walked behind the coffin carried by David's friends and family to the graveside. There he found a way to bring words of comfort to the mourners and said the final blessing over David's battered remains. In this one sad occasion we can see there are two churches in Uganda and indeed elsewhere. The bishop said he was horrified by what he witnessed from his fellow Christians and yet told me he was honored to be there and to have the final word of love and peace for David. May he rest in peace.

David's funeral will be remembered as a kind of "Stonewall" in Uganda, when the community said to the oppressors, "Enough. Stop the lies." The bishop was moved by Kasha's courage to step forward and stop the diatribe. What can we in the West learn from this event? We have been too timid in the United States and in Europe to confront the lies and extremism of the Christian right.

The absence of support for the alternative religious voices of inclusion in Uganda leaves bishops like Christopher and the flock he serves to the wolves of rampant homophobia cloaked in a Christian disguise. Inclusive faith voices are in Uganda and we need to support them. We are part of a same global movement for liberation and reconciliation. There is a lot of work to do. Every equality organization in this country needs to step to the plate and join our voices with the voices of LGBT people everywhere. President Obama's message denouncing David's killing this week also informed us of five LGBT people killed in Honduras. Did we even know? Do we care?

What can we in the USA and Europe learn from this historic moment? Kasha's action is one effective way the Christian right needs to be confronted, pulpit by pulpit, platform by platform, column by column. We need to do this for ourselves and for our voiceless ones in places where we are killed by mob violence or state-sanctioned murder, just because of how God has created us. The church is not the enemy, as Bishop Christopher's presence and blessing confirms. The church's rites were fulfilled and the community was comforted, in spite of the inappropriate behavior of the "other" church.

Which church are we going to support in this struggle for truth and reconciliation? Take the microphone if you have to, stand up on the platform and proclaim your truth!

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