Friday, September 06, 2013

Africa, Reconciling Ministries, and The United Methodist Church

Winning over Shanti= serious reconciling work 
Last week was the Reconciling Ministries Network’s convocation (translation for non-United Methodists: the movement seeking full-inclusion of LGBTQ in the denomination), and one of the workshops there was titled “Will Africa Always be Anti-LGBTQ?” Not surprisingly, I found myself in an off-the-record conversation reflecting on the question and the mindsets of those who have been earnestly asking it.*

For reasons unrelated to where I stand on the debates around gender and sexuality, I have not been active in the Reconciling Network or the other side of the coin, the Confessing UMC Movement, despite having longtime friends involved in each. I’m not certain how many of those reasons I should share on this blog, so I’ll let those who can read between the lines do so.

I'm realizing, however, that it is time I stick my neck out and start going on-the-record in response to some misconceptions of many folks in both movements. Perhaps some talking points will suffice for now. Some of these may sound like common sense, but I wouldn’t be listing them if what was coming out of American U. Methodists suggested that these things were understood.
  • Africa is a huge continent. To say “Africans believe that…” or blaming something on “African culture” is even more ridiculous than saying “North Americans believe that…” or "North Americans are anti-gay because that is their culture."
  • In 1995, there was a missionary-pushed motion to have the Tanganyika Conference (part of the North Katanga Episcopal Area) vote to join the Confessing Movement. It didn't succeed. Again, just saying.

  • While googling “gay rights Africa” leads one mostly to stories of African gay rights leaders being assassinated, there wouldn’t be headlines like this if there weren’t also grassroots gay-rights movements that these martyrs were helping lead.
  • When you examine the places in Africa where homophobia and violence against those perceived to be homosexual or gender queer are most extreme, I suggest you follow the money to see who is funding these campaigns. It will often lead you back to the USA
  • Speaking of the growing reports of violence against suspected homosexuals across Africa, I'd like to remind readers that 


  • For much of rural Africa, 21st century "Western" understandings of the purpose of marriage and gender roles within it are relatively foreign, but in many places are being rapidly adopted (especially with the inundation of Western films and television shows). Congolese friends my age tell me that for their parents' generation and for many living in remote areas, a barren wife is viewed as defective and should be replaced. Polygamy is often used out of economic necessity.  A barren woman is worthless, and a man without children is doomed, for who will take care of her/him in old age?  You can imagine how crazy the idea of a same-gender marriage would sound in such a context-- especially when the American missionaries and televangelists have been saying that such things are an abomination. Again, not every African sees things this way, but this is often the basis of those notorious speeches from General Conference (which, FYI, offended many African delegates too).
  • America is adopting new cultural norms too.  How quickly some of us forget what our dominant culture recently was. My great-grandmother who helped raise me had 12 siblings. When she was growing up, women weren't allowed to vote. The options available for an abused wife? The social status of a childless woman? Yeah, not so much. As recent internet virals have reminded us, even the spanking of wives was socially acceptable in the 1950s. And the dominant American culture's openly expressed opinion of non-whites and homosexuals until very recently (and even today)? Oh, come on, do I really have to remind you? Please understand that while Americans are looking down their noses at the rest of the world, much of the rest of the world is looking down its nose at us for our backward behaviors (when they even think twice about us, which is another conversation). 
In my home conference of North Katanga (DR Congo), those leaders at the frontlines of human rights struggles are pushing back against mass gang rape, child abuse and massacres, and are calling for the access to public infrastructure (potable water systems, electrical grids, roads, schools etc.) in return for the billions of dollars worth of resources removed from their land by high-ranking government officials and rebel armies. The work of United Methodist leaders in North Katanga in the area of peacebuilding has been truly heroic, which is why I reacted with a strong "Oh no you didn't just say that" when I read Bishop Carcano's statement last year:
Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others. UM Reporter
Were there some General Conference delegates from Africa who I think are immature, ignorant and/or borderline sociopaths who obtained their delegate spot through unethical means? Yes, and I have African colleagues who would concur with this assessment. Now ask me what I thought about some of the delegates from the USA, and I'll give you the same response.

Among those African delegates, though, were people who I hold in such high esteem that to say they need to 'grow up' just because of how they voted on a controversial issue (especially when voting machines at tables didn't exactly give them privacy) is like trash-talking my mother. Anger surges up within me. 
   
Grow up, you say? Yes, next time I speak with my colleagues who have committed financial suicide by agreeing to serve in communities that have been burned down and covered in landmines-- or to those whose family members were gang raped, murdered or taken as sex slaves or to those who risked their lives by bicycling into the camps of warlords to negotiates peace accords, I'll pass along your advice, Bishop. Next time I speak with Friendly Planet's Country Director Rev. Mulongo, the pastor who was elected by his peers to lead North Katanga's delegation to GC, I'll ask him to put "growing up" on his to-do list.  He's a bit busy, however, what with building a nursing school, coordinating several grassroots development projects, and making pastoral visits into Mai Mai territory. If you don't read all my blogs, you might not be aware that the reason why there haven't been Mai Mai attacks in the Mulongo area in quite sometime is that Rev. Mulongo has become the pastor of Shanti (aka The Shooter), the #2 in Lord Venti's Mai Mai army but widely known as the brains of the organization. She has a reputation of being a vicious killer who 'emasculates' her enemies. She's the worst of the worst some say, and I've met her. She walked two days to Rev. Mulongo's house to see if she could be of assistance when she heard there was about to be a big church event. She hopes to enroll in the nursing school this year--just like Lord Venti's daughter. 

OK, so now that I've gotten that rage response out of my system, I'd like to give one more talking point that has been a major blindspot of both the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Confessing Movement thus far.
  • Instead of thinking of the African General Conference delegates as pawns in a political game that need to be manipulated, educated or won-over to your team, consider that they have more to offer you than just a vote every four years. Consider what they could teach you about confessing and reconciling strategies when the stakes are life or death. Many of the delegates from North Katanga, for example, know quite a bit about helping people confess their truly heinous sins against humanity and reconcile them back into the community, and they'd be happy if you came to visit them so that they may have a chance to teach you and perhaps even win you over to their movement.     
Let those who have ears hear.  Amen.

*Author's Addition: This post in NO way is intended to be read as a criticism of the folks leading the above-mentioned workshop. They chose the workshop title in order to bait people into attending it, and according to my friends who were there, they did a brave and honorable job at trying to raise attendees' awareness of many of the issues I touched upon in this post. My intention in this post was to extend the conversation beyond the confines of that room and add my additions/spin on the topic. Lots of Love!




7 comments:

Christopher said...

Thank you for this. There is much here we need to hear and consider. I'm a new reader to you're blog and have only recently become aware of your mission. You all are certainly doing heroic work. Be encouraged.

Pastor Jan said...

Amen Taylor, Amen. Thank you for being who you are and for stepping up and calling all sides into accountability. It is always wrong to generalize a culture. We live in a very grey world, nothing is simple. Thank you. Prayer with you and for being who God is calling you to be.

Nicole Melki said...

I was at the reconciling ministries convocation and attended this workshop. It seemed to me that the intent of the workshop was to dispel the myths that African is homophobic. Everything you discussed in your article was discussed in the workshop.
It would seem to me that before attacking or assuming that one means wrong by a title, one should actually open the book and read it. Otherwise we are no better than those who stereotype Africans.
For example, take Handels Messiah. Everyone assumes he wrote this for the good of God! Based on the title it would seem so. This was in fact written only for money and had no religious meaning to the composer, and it riddled with irony throughout the composition. One example would be the movement, "every valley" the chords and progressions of the melodic line move upward when they should downward and chords on happy words are dark. This irony lies in the fact that people listen to this and praise god for such a wonderful composer when it was written out of corruptness.
Perhaps having a title and also attending the class would help you to see that some titles are meant to draw those in who were curious. I know for me, the title I assumed would be about how Africa is holding us back, and the irony was that we as Americans were holding them back.

Sarah Chapman said...

Thank you and I'm ashamed of myself. I'm a pastor of church and for full affirmation and I have repeated the line "The African Bishops will never let it happen"

In all other areas of my life I consider myself so progressive and racial/gender aware that to hear my own words from this viewpoint was powerfully painful.

Thank you for holding up the mirror.

Paul Fleck said...

Thank you for your lucid and insightful statements. We need to first seek to understand before seeking to be understood. I was a Legislative Coordinator for the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (which included the Reconciling Ministries Network) to the Global Ministries Committee. I surged with pride when an African delegate in that Committee spoke in favor of voting down anti-LGBT legislation because he believed we needed to be in ministry to everyone. He was proclaiming the Gospel in his words and actions. I know better than to paint anyone with a broad brush. Your blog has even further convinced me of that.

Taylor Walters Denyer said...

Thanks all for your comments. (Nicole Melki: I hope you see the addition I have since made to the post).

K Chali said...

Hi Taylor,
Glad to know you and your family are making Algiers your new home. I guess I never read your blog before, I always read your comments from face book. Your article on the confessing movement and the reconciling ministries is right on target. I’m sure there are several African United Methodists who would express same feeling around these misconceptions.
Often times when I show up at social justice events in the US, I hear similar comments regarding African United Methodists. The assumption, although misrepresented, is that Africans are all extreme conservatives. Unfortunately this mischaracterization has become the chorus of several persons in the western world. When we do not have personal relationships with different people from the continent, we can easily make uninformed characterization. I’m reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on “The Danger of a Single Story” which brings to the surface what many African intellectuals have been saying in various ways. Africa is not one country nor is African represented by a single story.
Like you, I have several friends who have given their life, ministry and carrier to challenge issues of injustice both in the church and in the community. Our challenge is to not fall into the same mistake that western feminism did, assuming that there were the only ones fighting sexism. Throughout the world women (and some men) of different cultures and races, in their own ways, were challenging and continue to challenge laws and systems that promote discrimination against women. It would be helpful to identify prophetic voices among African United Methodists and stand in solidarity with them. While some may be passionate about different justice issues than their counterparts in the US, there are always common grounds and areas of collaboration and solidarity, because justice issues are interconnected.
We run the danger to alienate a minority who is fighting for a just community in the most hostile and difficult circumstances when we overlook the efforts being made by our friends in several African countries. How many times in the US media or even in our UMC news one hears about same-gender marriage activists in a country like Uganda where they can go to prison for life because of challenging such laws?
Good topic of discussion for our global UM community.
Peace,
Chali