|Director & producer Roger Ross Williams
Photo Credit: Marc Yankus
Roger Ross Williams’s curiosity about people who hate him led to his three-year project as director and producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary film, God Loves Uganda
. The result of his journey is a revelation of the connection between the Christian evangelical movement in the United States and Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill which would make homosexuality punishable by death. Roger Williams is openly gay, although he was not open about this while filming in Uganda.
His background laid the foundation for this curiosity. He grew up in a black Baptist church and sang in the choir, his father was a religious leader and his sister is a pastor. But, he says,
For all that the church gave me, for all that it represented belonging, love and community, it also shut its doors to me as a gay person. That experience left me with the lifelong desire to explore the power of religion to transform lives or destroy them.
For the filming, Williams and his team followed the International House of Prayer (IHOP, but no relation to the restaurant chain) proselytizers from the U.S. to Uganda. Through the camera we see young people from the IHOP plan and pray as they prepare to go on a religious adventure to teach Ugandans the Bible and to persuade them to accept Jesus. Evangelists believe in their mission as do many Americans who pour contributions into missionary work there.
Last night I saw a screening of God Loves Uganda at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center as part of a series of events, a partnership between the Maryland Film Festival and the local public radio station WYPR’s Spotlight Series. As I watched the story unfold on the screen, this story of missionaries in Africa, some childhood memories flashed in my mind.
In my early life, I was a faithful member of our neighborhood’s Trinity Evangelical United Brethren Church, which preached the joy of spreading God’s word. We thought we had important answers and that we were saved by our faith; it was God’s will and our duty to spread the word to poor enlightened souls in Africa and other parts of the world. Some of the money in the collection plate passed around every Sunday went to help our missionaries.
As a child, the first hint I had of something askew was a story I heard of bras sent to missionaries in Africa so that the indecent bare-chested women could cover up. The African women, happy to receive these presents, began to wear the bras around their waists as purses and to use the cups as pockets to carry items.
|Trinity Evangelical United Brethren Church in Baltimore
The second hint I had that things were not as I had perceived was when I was twelve. At a Sunday service, we had a guest preacher, an African missionary. My church and school were not integrated and I had recently read a story about David Livingston in Africa, so I was especially curious about this guest. I was living in a neighborhood fearful of blockbusting tactics beginning in Baltimore–tactics by greedy real estate speculators who used bigotry to profit. This particular Sunday, I listened closely to the sermon given by a “colored” man in my white church. Even at the age of twelve, I recognized that he was a dynamic speaker who had much to say. This is why I was surprised to hear parishioners grumbling to one another as they left at the end of the service, “What makes him think he can tell us something?” Even as a child, I understood the translation: “What makes a Negro think he can come into our church and talk to us white people as an authority figure?”
These memories came back to me as I watched God Loves Uganda and as I saw the enthusiastic young people preach to Africans about how they were not living an acceptable life and how they needed to change their beliefs.
The sinister part, however, is how evangelists use the Bible to show what they believe to be the evilness of homosexuality: homosexuals have a “choice” and if they accept Christ and stop their sinful life style, then they can go to heaven. This has grown to become a them and us thing which has led to shunning, hating and legislation in Uganda’s parliament to make homosexuality a crime, punishable by life imprisonment or death. David Kato, a Ugandan gay activist who was interviewed by the filmmaker, was bludgeoned to death before the project was completed. There are powerful scenes of his funeral in the movie.
Pastor Scott Lively also appears in the film. An American author and activist who takes credit for inspiring Russia’s anti-gay laws, Lively testified in the Ugandan parliament and helped inspire Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” Bill. He has been sued in U.S. Federal Court by the organization Sexual Minorities of Uganda alleging that he incited persecution, torture and murder of gays and lesbians in Uganda.
|International House of Prayer meeting in Kampala, Uganda. Photo Credit: Roger Ross Williams
This film goes much deeper than my brief introduction here. It shows how American dollars are tied in with the evangelist movement and how rich some of the African clergy are because of it. We see how a religion that is supposed to be spreading love is instead spreading hatred with calls for murder. We see self-righteous, well-meaning young people trying to change a culture. Uganda had one of the highest AIDS rates until a successful condom campaign began to turn things around. Then the religious right in America started preaching abstinence as the only way and the funding options on this distant continent took a turn. Condoms were not needed–only abstinence. God would help people be strong, help them to abstain. The AIDS rate then sky-rocketed again. American missionaries teach children to read in the schools they create and to heal those who are sick in the hospitals they build but they also promote dangerous religious bigotry.
The film’s press kit says it succinctly:
As an American influenced bill to make homosexuality punishable by death wins widespread support, tension in Uganda mounts and an atmosphere of murderous hatred takes hold. The film reveals the conflicting motives of faith and greed, ecstasy and egotism, among Ugandan ministers, American evangelical leaders and the foot soldiers of a theology that sees Uganda as a test case, ground zero in a battle not for millions, but billions of souls.
After the film last night, soft-spoken Roger Ross Williams was interviewed by Tom Hall for a future radio segment on WYPR radio. Afterward, the audience had a chance to ask questions. I was engrossed in both the documentary and what Williams had to say after the screening. The interview will appear sometime soon on WYPR. (Tom Hall is arts and culture editor for Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast on 88.1 FM between 9 and 10 a.m. weekdays.)
God Loves Uganda will be opening across the country in October. It is paced beautifully through the photography and editing, allowing not narration but the participants to reveal the truth to us. It is a must-see documentary that will make you question your religious perceptions.
Watch the film trailer:
Find it on the map.
- Population: 34.5 million (2010)
- Area: 93,072 square miles, about the size of Oregon
- Official languages: English and Swahili
- Life expectancy: 54 years men, 55 years women (2010)
- Fifty percent of the population is under 15-years-old.
LGBT rights around the world:
- 78 countries have legislation that persecutes people on the basis of sexual orientation.
- Homosexuality is a criminal offense in 85 countries.
- In 7 countries, homosexuality is punishable by death.
- In 113 countries, homosexuality and homosexual acts are legal.
- In 2011, 85 countries signed a United Nations Declaration to decriminalize homosexuality.
- In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the first resolution on LGBT rights, condemning homophobic discrimination, violence and hate crimes.