For Uganda’s Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, compassion is a calling

[Washington Window] Though he has taken a bold stand as a gay rights activist in his native Uganda, where homosexuality is considered a crime, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo is no firebrand.

He simply believes that homosexuality should be universally decriminalized, and that people should focus on using their talents, not worrying about their sexuality.

Bespectacled and softly spoken, the 79-year-old former bishop of West Buganda was named one of the Huffington Post’s 10 most influential religious leaders for 2010. He is father to seven – three adopted – and grandfather to eight, and he dotes on his wife, Mary, who had cataract surgery in September while Senyonjo was on a U.S. speaking tour (All Souls, D.C., was a stop).

Mary has stood by him through what has been a difficult decade.

In 2001, Senyonjo refused to condemn five young gay men he had been asked to counsel, and was inhibited from ministry by the leaders of the Anglican Church in Uganda.

He was prevented from conducting services – an important source of income for a retired bishop – and told if he did not recant he would not be buried in consecrated ground. The press and the government joined the fray and the outcry against him was such that Mary feared for his life.

Senyonjo fled to the U.S., and was taken in for six months by the Rev. Michael Hopkins – then president of Integrity USA, an organization that works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the Episcopal Church – and rector of St. George’s, Glenn Dale in the Diocese of Washington.

At the end of September 2001, Senyonjo returned to Uganda.

“I went home,” he said. “They were harassing me, but I was there: I stayed. So I decided to continue my call. I considered what I was doing my call.”

Senyonjo found peace in his decision. “It’s better to obey God than what I believe is not God’s voice,” he said. “It is better to have compassion.”

“Compass to Compassion” was the title of his recently concluded speaking tour, and compassion has been a central theme in his work. Compassion, he says, “is to listen and put ourselves into the shoes of another person, and then do something about it.”

Touched by the stories of the five young men he counseled – rejected by their parents, misunderstood by the church and on the brink of suicide – Senyonjo acted.

He formed a support and advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – now Integrity Uganda – and now oversees the St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Center in Kampala, Uganda. (Integrity USA supported Senyonjo with a small stipend until 2009 and sponsored the first of his speaking tours, which raised the money to set up the center. The center is primarily supported by the San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation).

The St. Paul’s Center, which Senyonjo describes as a “gay/straight alliance,” has a staff of eight. It offers four programs that serve marginalized people and promote compassion: HIV/AIDS testing and counseling (this program recently received a two-year grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation); self help projects which support those trying to find work; hospitality rooms where people being harassed can seek temporary refuge; and education. The center also houses a chapel.

“A lot of prejudices are due to a lot of miseducation,” Senyonjo said. “We want the people to understand about human rights, how to deal with domestic violence, women’s issues, gender issues and glbt issues. … After more understanding, I think more and more people will understand and accept that there is no reason we should discriminate against people because of their sexuality. We may be different, but we are all loved by God.”

Through his work at the center and his speaking tours, Senyonjo has put a human face on the suffering of gay people in Uganda, said the Rev. Canon Albert J. Ogle, a former Integrity board member and current president of the St. Paul’s Foundation. “But Uganda has become the face of something much larger. There are 76 countries where homosexuality has been criminalized, and 40 of the 76 are members of the British Commonwealth.” (In other words, countries where the Anglican Church is predominant).

“There is a need,” Ogle said. “You multiply that 75 times. These people are being persecuted and killed. But in Uganda, we can put a face on it, thanks to Bishop Christopher.”

* Learn more about the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and Bishop Senyonjo’s work, or support the St. Paul’s Center with a pledge: $3,500 pays the operating costs for one month.

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 80, No. 6 November/December 2011 as

Bishop Christopher, protect us

For Ugandan bishop, compassion is more than a feeling – it’s a calling