Retired Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Buganda has a simple, if dangerous message: "God is not only for heterosexuals … [if you are gay] accept yourself, love yourself."
Senyonjo, 78, recently kicked off a six-week speaking tour at St. Paul's Church, Pomona, in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to raise awareness about repressive anti-gay policies in Uganda, where lawmakers recently considered imposing a death penalty on gays.
He also called upon advocacy groups to network to help develop the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and other under-served communities in Uganda and to promote understanding and education.
The married grandfather of 11 has been compared to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. because of his outspoken gay rights activism. His advocacy was born of listening to the struggles of others, he said recently.
"The church should be on the side of those who suffer, who are persecuted and who have been misunderstood," he told about 75 people gathered at the May 11 forum in Pomona. "To me it is sad. Very often, people go to the Bible and read it the way they want to and say if you don't read the Bible this way you are out, an outcast. I know; because I've been there."
But, he added: "Christ came to bring justice and love. Culture is not static and Christ can transform culture," he said, noting "Christ's imperative was to love, not to hate your brother because he is different."
The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Integrity USA's vice president for national and international affairs, said the 35-year-old LGBT advocacy group within the Episcopal Church sponsored Senyonjo's tour.
They hope to create awareness, he said, because of Senyonjo's "witness and his speaking truth to power at a time when few will oppose what amounts to state-legislated genocide."
Senyonjo has met with groups in Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Orange County and Los Angeles, Ogle said. Other stops include Minneapolis and New York, Dublin and Belfast.
Ogle said the tour is part of a fundraising effort to support Integrity Uganda's office as well as a literacy project. Eventually, he said, the goal is "to build a coalition of progressive Ugandan organizations … to partner on such things as LGBT issues, women's rights, human rights, HIV/AIDS and democracy. We want to invite people to visit Uganda to help create awareness."
Retirement and a new ministry
Senyonjo said his ministry as chaplain to Integrity Uganda began after he retired in 1998. He was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1964 after earning a master of sacred theology degree at New York's Union Theological Seminary. He was consecrated a bishop in 1974 and served 24 years in the Diocese of West Buganda before retiring and starting a counseling service.
"One day a young priest came to me and said there were some young people who he thought needed my help. They had nowhere to turn because of their sexual orientation. They came and talked. I listened very carefully," he recalled.
Now, he said, "I am helping these people to come to terms with their sexual orientation. I know I'm doing the right thing, the work of God. I tell these young people who come to me, to be yourself … accept yourself. God knows you and God loves you. God is not only for heterosexuals."
But his self-described mission put him on a collision course with church officials. In 2006, Archbishop Henry Orombi stripped him of all church responsibilities and financial support and he is no longer recognized as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Senyonjo described "a time in 2009 when I remained in the United States, after I started saying that homosexuals should be listened to. Things were very difficult in Uganda then, I was being told that if I went back I would be in trouble."
Eventually he returned to Uganda, only to discover that conditions had worsened.
Even though the Bahati Bill, named for David Bahati, who introduced it, was tabled by government officials earlier this month, "there are still people who are interested to see that kind of bill passed. It is very harsh, inhumane," Senyonjo said.
The bill called for gays to be executed in some cases. It also said that gays should be extradited, and required Ugandans to report to the authorities within 24 hours anyone known to have committed a homosexual act.
"Humans are different; we should learn to live with our differences," Senyonjo told the Pomona gathering. "We need to go forward and respect human rights and to me human sexuality is a human right.
"Change starts with a few people," he added. He noted that Jesus "started with twelve. But what is needed is networking together. We need to develop the African LGBT community."
The Rev. Mark Hallahan, rector of St. Paul's Church, said he committed the Pomona congregation to helping to raise awareness and to supporting Senyonjo's efforts.
"His ministry is really to speak for those who don't have a voice, and we know that in Uganda right now the LGBT community is very much in danger," Hallahan said.
"We, as people of faith and also people of action, people of justice need to help people like Bishop Christopher in making their work and voice stronger by our involvement and support," he said.
"We believe when Jesus said all were invited to the table of God's bounty, he meant all," agreed the Rev. John Forney, an organizer for Progressive Christians Uniting (PCU) who helped arrange the Pomona event.
"PCU has been on the forefront of the struggle for equality, the struggle to raise up the least of these," Forney added. "As a straight person he [Senyonjo] is willing to stick out his neck for what he believes because of the gospel which values everyone, even those the government says are of no account."