In the Company of Angels – Grassroots in Kampala
David R. Weiss, March 29, 2013
“Angel” simply means “messenger.” We often imagine wings and a robe, but the litmus test for an angel is neither apparel nor pinion. It’s message. So I’ve spent the last two days in the company of angels: four activists whose message is liberation and good news and whose life is anchored in God. Angels, to be sure.
I first saw John “Longjones” Wambere in the 2010 documentary Missionaries of Hate, and again in the 2012 documentary Call Me Kuchu. He was a close friend of David Kato, the gay activist murdered in 2011 amid the furor over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the incendiary climate created by a couple local newspapers and a handful of American evangelists. In Missionaries Longjones briefly discusses his faith, so as soon as my trip became moved from planned to “tickets purchased!” I let Andrew, who was arranging my trip at this end, know that I would be very interested in having a conversation with Longjones – and yesterday I did.
I’d already shaken his hand on Saturday and again on Sunday – here I am, just one week in Kampala and already moving “in certain circles” J – but this was my first chance to actually engage him in conversation. Most people who meet with him want to talk politics or activism. He does that happily because it’s essential to telling the story of LGBT persons in Uganda, but his face really lit up when I’d told him back on Saturday that I wanted to hear about his faith.
We met in the small chapel at Bishop Christopher’s Centre. It’s a bare room, actually a one-car garage converted into a chapel. It has ten white plastic chairs and a small table for an altar. There’s a photo of David Kato on one wall. We visited for an hour. I told him enough of my journey as an Ally of faith so that he would know where I was coming from, then I sat back and listened to him.
Longjones is 40 years old, tall, lean, fit, and (dare I say) fabulous. Caught in a parental tug of war between a Catholic mother and an Anglican father, his dad won out early on because he was the one who had the car (so anyone who went with dad got to ride in the car rather than walk with mom) and the one who treated any of the eight children who came with him to a nice restaurant meal afterwards. We all begin our faith journeys somehow, and John’s journey began through the lure of a car and a lunch.
Maybe the car was symbolic or providential or both, because over his forty years he’s covered a lot of religious territory. At seventeen he converted to Islam, much to his father’s chagrin. But the generosity of his Muslim friends helped him complete his education as a teacher. A few years later the hospitality of a Pentecostal family led him to reclaim Christianity with a fervor that included revival style outreach preaching in rural Ugandan communities. When life led him to Nairobi, he was adopted by a Muslim family, and his practice of Islam re-emerged, then drifted away.
During a scary period of illness as a young man – for two months his lower body was paralyzed and he was unable to walk – he experienced a miraculous healing at Easter time and dedicated a year of his life to itinerant Christian evangelism and hospital ministry. Having fulfilled that commitment, he began to teach. In the community where he was teaching he met some Latter Day Saints who welcomed him and eventually he was baptized and became quite active in the LDS church. In fact, it was an American LDS woman who first set him up in the travel business, a career he’s pursued for more than fifteen years now (although he has let go of the LDS faith). You can hear this spiritual meandering in several ways – it certainly reflects the real way that economics and personal need intersect with faith – but I think it most reflects a intuitive restless on Longjones’ part (I’m not sure he has yet found a community in which he finds all of himself welcome) and an attraction to the experience of hospitality.
Longjones struggled for years with his sexuality and at times he cried to God in prayer, asking to have his desires changed. But ultimately he put his faith in the goodness of the God who created him – and loved him – as he was. Around 2005 John sort of gave up church altogether, having grown tired of the hate speech that surfaced whenever the issue of homosexuality came up. Today he says he believes in himself, in Jesus, and in God. His faith is defined less by doctrine than by practice: he is generous, compassionate, and committed to being a blessing to others, both gay and straight alike. “I have no fear,” he concludes. “I am confident that on judgment day I will be successful. God created me, he knew me – and that I was gay – before I was born, and he asked me to call him Father. And no true Father would reject his own child.”
Now he begins each day with a simple prayer that offers thanks, asks for protection, and seeks wisdom. He says, “I believe after everything that my days have been preserved for a reason, even though I am not yet sure for what purpose. But I am on a journey of fulfillment.”
“Longjones” is best known for his height, his nickname, and, of course, his LGBT activism and work (he’s part of the leadership of Spectrum, an agency providing care and services to the MSM – men having sex with men – community). But the roots of his passion for justice are grounded in a deep personal faith. Few journalists or filmmakers are particularly interested in that aspect of his life, but if you ask, it quickly becomes evident that the God whose love he knows in his heart is the Power that gives him comfort and courage and that draws him into deep relationship with those around him. As angels go, Longjones is holy in a fashionable fabulous way.
After we ended our conversation and John left, Moses and I headed – through thick traffic to Garden City, a fairly modern open air shopping mall. Thick traffic is the norm in Kampala, but on Thursday it nearly did me in. Equal parts hot sunshine, stalled traffic, thick air, auto exhaust, and an empty stomach (we’d had no food since an 8 a.m. breakfast back in Mbale), left me feeling nauseous by the time we reached the mall for a 5 p.m. meeting with Jay and Frank.
Moses and I would eat our Maundy Thursday evening meal later when we got back to the Guesthouse at the end of the day. But my Eucharist on Maundy Thursday took the form of Communion with Frank and Jay over a tropical smoothie at Café Pap in Garden City. Both the drink and the conversation more than revived my spirit.
Frank Kamya helped found Youth on the Rock in 2010, a grassroots group that serves one of the most marginalized sexual minority communities: LGBTI youth. We had met and chatted for maybe ten minutes on Sunday afternoon at Rev. Mark’s office. In setting up this meeting over a series of text messages while in Mbale he called me “dear” six times, told me I was such a handsome man, and signed off by wishing me sweet dreams. Not that he’s a flirt or anything. He’s just Frank. (But his messages did make me feel special … )
When Frank came out after his last year of high school he was chased out of his home by his mother and told not to come back. He wasn’t from the slums himself, but when his mom kicked him out, it was a friend in the slums who offered him a place to stay. Having been once cared for by these least of the poor, he now works to care for them in return. His group – comprised of five volunteer staff – serves about 200 youth, many of whom are kicked out of their homes when they come out or are outed. With no resources (they’re already in the worst of the slums) they have few options other than to rely on “survival sex” – bartering sex for food or lodging.
In the honest desperation of this situation, the sort of messy reality that makes donors and foundations queasy, Youth of the Rock simply strives to meet the most immediate needs. Sure, they love to empty the slums themselves, but that’s not going to happen. So if they can do some sex education, if they can distribute condoms and lubricant so that survival sex is less deadly, that’s at least a start. If it keeps kids alive until they can escape the slums, that’s at least a glimmer of hope. But a much messier hope than we are used to. We like our hope bright and cheerful. Well, I’ve seen a video of some of the Youth of the Rock performing in drag, and they do have a bright side of hope. But not on most days. On most days they glimpse hope only as seen through a glass very darkly.
Having flirted with Frank by text, I think what struck me most about his presence was his quiet earnestness. Quiet, at least in part, for personal safety. We’d met at a café in a shopping mall with widely spaced tables because public spaces like this or safer than residential areas, less likely to draw attention (which so easily draws violence). But quiet also because alongside his passion, Frank is thoughtful. He says he tries “to be an example” to his members of a better life. And he’s earnest about this work in a way that is disarming. He may seem playful on a cell phone keypad, but he’s well aware that in real life, in the work he does, the kids he serves are playing a game of Russian Roulette in which more than one chamber is often loaded.
Jay is twenty-seven and the Executive Director of Fem Alliance Uganda, an organization dedicated to serving another of Uganda’s most marginalized groups, LBT/WSW (women who have sex with women) persons in both rural and urban areas. That needs to be unpacked a bit. “Executive Director” says both too much and too little. With no budget and no staff, it seems pretentious. With 48 known and named person in rural areas depending on you for life-saving education, material aid, and emotional support, it seems like an understatement. Like Frank, Jay is also dedicated to being a “first responder” of sorts, the person who would like to avoid crashes altogether, but knows that right now that are so many people needing to be bandaged up that this work needs doing now.
And LBT – well, while Jay is a man, he was born in a woman’s body. In Uganda, that means it’s likely he’ll die in a woman’s body. And that’s true for the vast majority of Uganda’s trans population. So Jay, who straddles sexual/gender reality in a way that is at once a bit confusing and a whole lot humbling, focuses his work on serving women, because he’s a woman, too.
In best case scenarios he creates a “cell” – a loose group of individuals in a common area who can offer mutual support to each other. In other cases he simply keeps track of who is where and offers support as he can himself. Many of these persons are HIV-infected, often chased out of homes, thrown out of schools, depressed, desperate, suicidal. They need counseling and support, dental dams, lubricant, and condoms. Ideally they need economic empowerment skills and capital to become self-sufficient. More often they need “lots of little money” to get from one day to the next. And, like a Methodist circuit rider, he travels to where his people are as often as he can. He’s been doing this for three years now.
Jay started Fem Alliance in part because he didn’t feel that the larger LBGT organizations were really (or even really serious about) reaching the person most in need. Having lived part of his youth in a rural area, Jay says, “I’m part of this community.” But, living now in Kampala, he knows it’s much worse for others elsewhere, and although he says, “I’m touched by their suffering,” it’s truer to say he bears deep in his heart the wounds of God’s children in the Ugandan countryside.
Both Frank and Jay are deeply religious in a personal way. They pray daily. They regard themselves as born-again Christians.
Now here is the last thing I will say about these two angels. I say it with hesitation and with resolve. Because you, my readers, you need to hear this testament of incarnation. Jay and Frank are not “funded” in any real sense of the word. (They have received a few small grants and donations, but the needs they try to meet are a yawning abyss. They receive no salary. They sleep where friends let them stay. They eat as friends share food. And they provide what they can to those they serve as gifts come in. The LGBTI community in Uganda has so little, but what little they have, they do work to share with each other, and these two angels are key points in delivering these little bits of mutual aid to the places most in need and hardest to reach. Next to no funds. Sometimes no funds at all. Endless needs. Occasionally these angels enter the messiness of sex work themselves not for profit but for compassion, to fund their own enterprises of grace. Can you hear this?!
We dare to speak about incarnation as that mystery where holy love becomes frail human flesh as though we can imagine what that means. We speak about Jesus as “one who knew no sin yet became sin for our sake.” And we remember, on Maundy Thursday, “the night in which he was betrayed,” the words, “this is my body, broken for you …” Who am I to say that Frank and Jay are not also in these messy moments somehow caught up in God’s own anguished reach – in ways as scandalous as the cross itself – to touch the lives of the least of these?
Today (Good Friday) I claimed as a day of personal retreat. Exhausted by long days, late nights, and interactions that are filled with grace in a most exhausting way, I needed down time. I got some, but I also got a phone call from Stosh, and you might remember from my March 24 “Kuchu” post that “she” (which I now know should be HE) is the one who exploded with a squeal of joy upon being given a copy of my book. He apologized for not returning my message from the day before sooner, but he didn’t have any airtime on his phone. I explained I was “landlocked” at the Guesthouse for the day, having told Moses he was free to run his own errands all day while I was rested, but that I’d be happy to meet him here if this felt like a safe place. Stosh was eager and willing, but had no money to hire a boda-boda to bring him here. I promised that if he came, he could call me down to the front gate and I’d pay the driver for him. So I brought Stosh to me.
He arrived just in time for lunch. So Wingspan, after paying for the boda-boda, also picked up lunch for both of us. He explained, as he set the silverware to the side, that he liked to eat with his fingers (the traditional Ugandan way) because the food tasted better if your fingers lifted it to your mouth. We chatted lightly and softly over lunch, sitting outside at a table far down from the buffet line. In a bit of bartered irony, I’ve chosen to be friendly to everyone here at the Guesthouse, but to not tell anyone here why I’m here … precisely to make a moment like this possible. If other guests or staff knew my purposes I might be less welcome, but I wouldn’t be any less safe. Stosh would be less safe. And my silence bought him a safe place and a good meal to eat today. Such are the choices made in this land.
Stosh is a thirty-six transman. Already as a little girl she never liked wearing dresses and was grateful to have had a grandfather who, when the school complained that she wasn’t wearing the proper uniform, told the school that he wasn’t pay them tuition to dress her but to teach her. So she was allowed to wear the boys uniform. At sixteen, after a hired hand in the family noticed that she was still playing, almost flirting, with girls, he decided to “teach me how to ‘play’ with boys.” Today we call it “corrective rape.” That was 1997. Her family refused to believe that she hadn’t consented.
She became pregnant as a result, but having never been told anything about sex, she thought maybe she had a hernia or some other stomach ailment. When the pregnancy was discovered at five months her family turned on her, refusing to believe she hadn’t slept with other men. Eventually her grandfather, telling her that no child should have a baby like this, took her to a clinic where she received an injection that led to an abortion – the delivery of a dead, but very human-looking fetus into a basin at home about a week later.
(Now, having recounted the rape and the pregnancy, which happen to Stosh as a girl, I will switch back to the correct pronoun for him.)
Stosh himself had been conceived by and born to an unmarried mother, an embarrassment in the culture at the time, so his mother had given him to his grandparents to be raised and Stosh never met either of his biological parents until his late teens. He finally met his mother during the pregnancy. A few years later, when his grandfather died, he tracked down his father in Rwanda. He’d gone there as a soldier during the war, had his jaw badly mangled by a bomb and poorly repaired by doctors. He couldn’t chew any food any longer. He was married. It seems like it was an amicable reunion, but after such a long silence it didn’t produce a fairy tale ending.
In 1996, when Stosh was nineteen his mother became ill with HIV/AIDS and eventually died. At that point, Stosh became scared and got tested himself. He was postive. The only sex he’d ever had was being raped. Having watched his mother suffer, he chose suicide instead. HIV was as good as a death sentence at the time. He swallowed watch batteries to no effect. Tried combined anti-malarial meds with alcohol. But after eight “unsuccessful” attempts he was still alive.
By 22 Stosh had been HV+ for six years but had told no one and sought no treatment. What could be done anyway? He moved around, made ends meet, for awhile started up and ran a little restaurant in Entebbe. Had a “lady partner” for a year, a nd for the first time, thanks to love, his HIV status was not a source of stress. Stosh is clear about this, “I am a man who loves women, but I have the body of a woman myself.”
In 2005, at age 28, the HIV began to manifest itself. About the same time an uncle she never really knew because he’d been in the army and then in Germany for years came back to Uganda. He was a divorced medical doctor and hired Stosh to look after his children. He noticed that Stosh was not well, and showed concern. Stosh decided, “I am ready to die. I will just come out to him and let it happen.” Instead, the uncle broke down and cried, saying, “Don’t you know, you can live!” Stosh has been on ARVs since then and is amazingly healthy today. He says, “We expect miracles to fall out of the sky like something supernatural, but my life, my natural life, is a miracle.”
Shortly after this Stosh became active in LGBT groups, particularly working with HIV+ persons. He’s in a new relationship, though it hasn’t been easy. Three years ago, on different occasions, both of them had their photos published in local papers, outing them to family and friends, costing them jobs, lodging, relationships. Once, when a landlord damaged his laptop and he threatened to report it, the landed laughed it off, saying, “Where are you going to report, you’re gay.” And there’s a measure of truth to that taunt. Being gay is always the worse offense. Stosh has been outed like this four different times. Each time it has a new cascade of consequences. Each time it takes a toll.
There is a measure of resignation in Stosh’s outlook. He is convinced change will come to Uganda, but also convinced it will not come in time to benefit him. He’s seen his education halted and his dreams, like that aborted fetus so many years ago, have been mostly stillborn. He had aspirations to be a journalist once. And maybe still. But the maybe is soft spoken and weary.
He has very little to do with the church anymore, “tired of going to hear the Word of God only to hear human words of hate.” He is deeply disappointed with the American pastors who have heightened homophobia here in Uganda. “We assume that America is a place where people are more learned, but these men, they are scared of what they don’t know.” He wishes we – American Christians who are welcoming – would work harder to shut down the voices of hate from our side. And although he says at this point, he wishes he could just leave Uganda, what he truly desires is a Uganda worth staying in. That’s the dream, however impossible, that he still dares to dream. If not for himself, then someday. For others.
Still, weary resignation and impossible dreams are not the only thing you hear. There is an inexplicable buoyancy in his voice at times. “God” was a constant theme through his story. God as a source of comfort, a companion in loneliness, a reason to be grateful, a surprise n being alive. In a narrative that seemed to lurch from one catastrophic moment to the next, God was always invoked with affection. At one point, in crisply clipped British English – imagine Desmond Tutu, Stosh said with a wry grin, “I think God is a very funny gentleman.”
After spending two afternoons in the company of company of angels, I have to agree. Although I might want to stretch the gender a bit and add some richer adjectives alongside (but not in place of!) “funny.” Then again, I bet these angels would want to do that, too.
What else? Three conversations with four very different persons. Here was one common theme: with each person I lost track of the number of times they said, “David.” These persons hunger to be heard. Partly I think it is the African way, which is so relational. You name the other person so often because each naming strengthens the bond between you. God, I feel tethered to these persons, to their lives and their loves in a way that is uncomfortably holy. I have been named too many times to ever walk away.
Lastly, an observation, when I knew that I would be in Kampala over Holy Week, I anticipated how the liturgical rhythm of the week might shape my time here. In a word, it hasn’t. Holy Week is there, in the background. But Palm Sunday at Rev. Mark’s church didn’t have any palms and no Palm or Passion lectionary. It was gospel encourage like any other Sunday for the people there that morning; they don’t have the leisure to parade around with palm fronds. I never made it to a Maundy Thursday service. After slurping smoothies with Frank and Jay from 5-6:30 p.m. I never really thought about looking for a church service where I could hear the familiar story about Jesus’ body and blood. And although I did go to a Friday afternoon service of songs and readings today at the Namirembe Cathedral, for a whole variety of reasons it paled compared to the two hours I’d just spent with Stosh listening to her life. I guess I’d already had my fill of crucifixion for the day. This wasn’t exactly the Holy Week I’d poetically imagined in advance. Not even close.
You know, we go through all the rhythm, taking for granted that Easter will show up like clockwork, on the third day. But in the week I’ve had here you can’t count on that. You don’t know. And it is way too shallow to say, well, “you just believe.”
Yes. They do “believe.” I heard that again and again. But in a practical lived theology of the cross quite like Luther describe it, they believe in, with, and under broken and breaking bodies and hearts. My week has been holy not because of the liturgy I’ve kept, but because of the company I’ve kept. Angels each one of them. Holy Angels.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”