April 16, 2014
NAIROBI, KENYA ‒ It is rare to find the Christian cross and the gay pride flag in one place in Kenya, where many churches denounce homosexuality as a sin. But a gay pride flag featuring a cross is visible upon entering Riruta Hope Community Church.
“This perfectly summarizes who we are and what we do,” says the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Makokha, pointing to the logo on the pulpit in which he preaches.
The 43-year-old cleric has sparked controversy by welcoming gay people to his church in Racecourse, a slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. His bold assertion that homosexuality is not a sin has caused him to lose parishioners, staff and even a home.
In 2009, Makokha’s neighbors in Riruta Satellite, the Nairobi neighborhood where his church and home were originally located, threatened to move if their landlord did not evict him because they said he was promoting homosexuality. The landlord told Makokha he could not afford to lose all his tenants and asked him to leave. So Makokha moved his family and church to Racecourse.
The landlord could not be contacted for comment.
Makokha denies accusations that he promotes homosexuality. He simply practices love, which is at the core of Christian teachings, he says.
“I believe I was called to serve all people regardless of their background or sexual orientation,” he says.
Makokha’s church currently has 100 members. It is difficult to track any trends in attendance because the size of the congregation fluctuates, he says. New members join, while old members who are intolerant of gay people leave.
Makokha’s stance on homosexuality also affects enrollment at the primary school run by a charitable organization that his wife founded. Many parents have pulled their children out of the school, which houses Makokha’s church, accusing him of attempting to recruit them to homosexuality.
Beyond the church, Makokha also runs an ecumenical organization, Religious and Sexuality Institute Kenya. He visits churches and mosques across the country to encourage Christians and Muslims to accept members of the gay community. Although most organizations are willing to host him to teach about sexuality, they become hostile when he begins to discuss homosexuality, he says.
Makokha was a high school teacher for five years before he quit to pursue preaching, which he felt was his true calling. He began studying theology in 1998 at Africa International University in Nairobi, where he developed an interest in understanding homosexuality.
“There was a lot of homophobia in the school,” he says. “Everyone spoke hatefully about these people. I started reading about homosexuality to understand what it was all about.”
A gay relative of Makokha’s also inspired him to champion gay rights, albeit indirectly. The relative, now dead, lived a miserable life trying to hide his sexuality, Makokha says.
“He had to marry a woman just to conform to social expectations, but he was not happy,” Makokha says.
When Makokha graduated from the university in 2004, he joined the Free Methodist Church as a pastor. But he says he found the church too conservative because it did not tolerate gay people, so he left after two years and became a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
At the same time, Makokha founded Other Sheep Africa-Kenya. He has since renamed the organization Religious and Sexuality Institute Kenya because he felt the word “other” set the gay community apart, undermining the organization’s key mission of integration.
Makokha could not register his organization as a gay entity because homosexuality is illegal in Kenya. Under the nation’s penal code, anyone “who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” is guilty of a felony and liable to imprisonment for up to 14 years. Accordingly, Makokha registered it as an ecumenical organization that conducts sexuality programs.
After Makokha worked for the United Methodist Church for two years, the church found out about his advocacy of gay rights and excommunicated him and his family. The bishop of the United Methodist Church has not responded to multiple interview requests.
Makokha then decided to start his own church to welcome all parishioners regardless of their sexuality.
Peter, a 30-year-old pharmacist, has been attending Makokha’s church for seven years, and fellow parishioners know he is gay. But he keeps his sexuality a secret outside the church, so he asked that his surname be withheld out of fear of physical danger and stigma.
Makokha’s church is the only place where people accept Peter as he is, he says. When he attends other churches, such as an Anglican church in Nairobi where he sings in the choir, he cannot let fellow parishioners know he is gay.
“I cannot!” he says, lowering his voice. “That will be equal to inviting hate and humiliation.”
Choir members at the Anglican church occasionally make degrading comments about gay people, Peter says. To avoid blowing his cover, he refrains from criticizing them.
“Very few people practice what Christianity is about, which is accepting and loving people for who they are,” he says. “What Makokha is doing is great. I wish other religious leaders could emulate him.”
If churches allowed dialogue about homosexuality, their members would gradually understand and accept gays and lesbians, Peter says.
About 40 people have left Riruta Hope Community Church after finding out that gay people attend services there, Makokha says. Locally, the gay pride flag is not commonly recognized, so the one at his church does not typically tip off members initially that it accommodates gay people.
Makokha’s former deputy, Titus Makusi, left his church last year after working with Makokha for five years. Makusi says that although he is not against accommodating gay people in church, he believes homosexuality is a sin. He believes that Makokha should be preaching to gay people to change their sexual orientation, not encouraging them to remain as they are.
“Homosexuals have deviated from God’s original plan regarding marriage,” Makusi says. “I would encourage them to come to church to hear the word of God so they can change.”
Makusi has founded his own church, Christian Mission Ministries, in Kawangware, a slum in Nairobi.
Wellington Mutiso, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, an umbrella body that represents 52 Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic churches in Kenya, also says that pastors should only invite gay people to church to change them. To him, homosexuality displays the highest level of unbelief.
“Homosexuality is an abomination of the highest degree,” he says. “This is the sin that made God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.”
But Makokha sees no need to encourage gay people to change their sexual orientation.
Religious leaders misinterpret the Bible, he says. He asserts that the Bible does not attribute the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to homosexuality.
“The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people lacked hospitality,” Makokha says. “A whole crowd of people wanted to sleep with two gentlemen. They were practicing mob justice, and that’s why God destroyed them.”
Christians are called to love, not to judge others, he says.
But Mutiso says pastors such as Makokha have compromised their moral values in their quest for tithes from gay church members and funding from foreign nongovernmental organizations that promote gay rights.
Makokha calls the accusation that he is motivated by money baseless. He does not receive any funding to run his gay advocacy programs, he says.
“I think I would receive funding if I was promoting homophobia, but I do the opposite,” he says.
Makokha’s wife, Anne Baraza, has supported him even when his advocacy work has put their family and her own work at risk. Baraza is the chief executive officer of Riruta United Women Empowerment Programme, a charitable organization that runs a school and health programs that address HIV and AIDS awareness, malaria and human sexuality.
Baraza has lost about 100 pupils since her school opened in 2008 because of rumors that she and her husband recruit children to homosexuality, she says. She enrolls about 158 children every year.
“We had an incident where a church donated money to the school, and when it found out about my husband’s work, they demanded their money back,” she says.
Baraza shares an office with her husband on the top floor of the school building, a semipermanent structure made of iron sheets and wood. A counselor by profession, she supports her husband’s work by counseling gays and lesbians under his ecumenical organization.
Despite the challenges Makokha and his family face, he will not stop championing gay rights, he says.
“This is a calling from God,” he says, “and I believe he called me to serve all people.”