Film explores American evangelical, homophobia link in Uganda

(Photo: Pink Peach Feature)

When Ugandan gay-rights activist, David Kato, was murdered in 2011, people around the world mourned another soul lost, mourned another crime rooted in the hate and intolerance.

Not Ugandan churches.

As Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams' new documentary God Loves Uganda, records, the priest presiding over Kato's funeral used it as an opportunity to publicly deplore the sin of homosexuality.

As mourners wailed and fell to their knees, wracked by grief, they were told – yet again – that they were evil, that they were broken, and that they hated by God.

But this is the flavor of Ugandan Christianity – at least, Ugandan Christianity as it has been seen flourishing under the guidance of conservative American Evangelicalism.

In Uganda, celebrity pastors lay hands on the politicians responsible for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, openly balk at the idea that gay rights should be considered human rights – and then fly to their second homes in the United States where they received their theology degrees at conservative American seminaries.

God Loves Uganda sheds light on the Bible Belt-to-Uganda flow of ideas that has created a deadly situation for many Ugandans – whether it be from a rampant and angry homophobia, to a mandate for abstinence-only sex education in a nation battling HIV and AIDS.

"For American conservatives, sharing the good news is not about the Gospel, but about spreading American culture wars," Rev. Kapaya Kaoma, an Episcopal priest, says in the film.

Missionaries came to Uganda in the 19th century.

British explorer Henry Morton Stanley believed Uganda was the "Pearl of Africa" (a moniker also by evangelical missionaries in God Loves Uganda), and thus challenged his compatriots to evangelize the nation.

The London-based Church Missionary Society answered the call.

CMS believed in grassroots church-building, working with the local community and as a result, Christianity became deeply rooted Ugandan culture.

In 1961, The Church of Uganda broke away from the Church of England, though it remains a full member of the Anglican Communion.

It does not recognize the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but maintains that he has some level of influence on the church "as a result of our history."

Today, the Ugandan population is 84 percent Christian, with the vast majority of Protestants belonging to the Anglican Church.

Yet, while the Anglican Church in England ruled that celibate gay clergy could preside over churches in 2005, and its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, has welcomed openly gay clergy since 1994, Ugandan Anglicans defrock clergy members who stand up for gay rights.

In fact, on its website, the Church of Uganda condemns the American Episcopalian Church for its views on homosexuality stating that "their Archbishop does not believe the Bible when Jesus says, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to Father but through me.'"

Williams and those interviewed in his film say disparity is the direct result of conservative American evangelical missionaries in Uganda. But Williams thinks his film can kick start helpful dialogue.

He plans to take God Loves Uganda to churches and film festivals around the world, all with the goal of breaking down prejudices on both sides of the issue.

Already, one of the evangelical missionaries featured in the film has changed her stance on whether gay people ought to be imprisoned – simply "because she got to know me," Williams said.

God Loves Uganda premiered January at the Sundance Film Festival, and since then it has garnered attention from evangelicals and the LGBT community alike. Saturday, it won the Pink Peach Narrative Feature prize at the Altanta Film Festival.

This month, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., hosted a private screening, as did the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Mo., and the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

Sharon Groves, a seminarian and director of the Human Rights Campaign's faith and religion program, said the film is important because it forces Americans to think about the effects of their influence, especially when it comes to short-term missions, which are featured in God Loves Uganda.

"We have responsibilities when we travel, and – if we're Christian – when we preach the gospel," she said. "We have responsibilities for communities that we're speaking to. And I think the film raises questions about those responsibilities, and that I think is its power."

The D.C. premiere of the film earlier this month drew a diverse crowd, including White House and State Department staff, as well as ecumenical faith leaders.

Dennis Wiley, co-pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ was in attendance, as was Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, president of the St. Paul's Foundation for International Reconciliation.

Many of those in attendance said the film was painful to watch.

Bishop Gene Robinson said he was "a mess" after watching the film, more so because he had spent 20 years in Uganda and was distraught to see how the Ugandan people were being manipulated by a fringe, ultra-conservative social agenda.

Rev. DeWayne Davis, a member of the public policy team at the Global Justice Institute, said his reaction to the film was visceral.

"There were many moments during this film where I heard one of the missionaries – in communication, or in a sermon, or in a prayer – when they said something, my mind was like, 'That just does not make sense to me!'" he said.

"And it's so hurtful, and it's so destructive. And I had to really muffle myself because there were times when I was audibly gasping and shaking my head. It was just painful to hear."

But Davis also said the film inspired him to continue on his mission for equality.

"It lets you know how big the challenge you have," he said. "We are here every day in Washington … trying to convince the American people that equality for LGBT people is a part of our narrative in America.

And then to know that other Americans are working hard and with so many more resources than we can ever imagine are transporting a kind of a message that is in direct contradiction of the advances we've made … it is a disturbing, tense thing to experience, but I welcome it, because it lets me know that I have work to do."

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