KAMPALA, UGANDA — When he told his mother that he was gay, Ramathan Kaggwa says she was shocked but supportive. The next step, the then-18-year-old felt, would be to confide in his pastor.
Kaggwa had spent years reading the Bible and volunteering in his Pentecostal church: ushering the congregation, helping organize services, singing in the choir. But to his dismay, soon after their private conversation, his pastor called him up in front of the congregation and publicly condemned his “spirit of homosexuality.”
“The congregation started looking at me differently, some stopped talking to me,” Kaggwa says. “Parents stopped their children, some of whom were my friends, from talking to me.”
In a country where more than 80% of the population identifies as Christian, the young man tried joining other churches, but rumors and gossip followed him everywhere — leading him to fall into a depression and quit attending services entirely.
After two years of praying alone, he concluded that church should be a welcoming place for everyone. His desire to help others avoid his trauma led him to start Adonai Inclusive Christian Ministries in 2019, an evangelical church that’s open to any Ugandan, regardless of sexual orientation.
Despite years of legal and spiritual rejections, discrimination and stigmatization, Uganda’s “Kuchu” community — people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex — and its allies have quietly created a handful of safe spaces of worship.
The seeds of this movement were planted in 2007 during a visit by Other Sheep, a United States-based Christian organization that engages with traditional religious leaders and faith institutions to stop condemning same-sex relationships, says Samuel Ganafa, executive director of Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, a health and human rights organization serving the Kuchu community.
“The first churches started by LGBTQI people as safe spaces of worship was in 2019, when some members thought it was time to start places of worship where they would praise their God without being cursed out, discriminated and stigmatized,” Ganafa says, noting that it took more than a decade to overcome their fears of going against traditional culture and Ugandan law, which criminalizes homosexuality.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Mainstream clergy who advocate for tolerance or acceptance can pay a heavy price. Even during his retirement, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who is heterosexual, had his remaining clerical privileges and financial support revoked by the Anglican Church of Uganda in 2006 for publicly supporting Kuchu people.
He has continued to express his views on the community’s freedom to worship and against political efforts to further criminalize homosexuality, including in his 2016 memoir, “In Defense of All God’s Children.”
Now 90 years old, he says he is pleased to see more worship services becoming available for Uganda’s Kuchu Christians.
“They are still stigmatized and discriminated, and looked at as abnormal, but in the past few years their voices are being amplified,” he says. “Some are free to come out and say, ‘Yes, I am gay, I am transgender,’ and put their faces to their voices. There are human rights activists who will defend their rights; some parents and a limited number of the public have been supportive.”
Bishop Lubega Banda, founder of the nondenominational Divine Liberty Center Ministries in Luweero district in central Uganda, says that after he publicly admitted his sexual orientation in 2016, he was beaten by armed men, lost members of his congregation, and was defeated in his reelection bid to the Wobulenzi town council.
But his church, which he founded in 2003 and can hold about 200 people, has recovered from the blow. While it doesn’t specifically seek to be a Kuchu house of worship, he says, his reputation has attracted at least six others to join the congregation.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Once a Roman Catholic priest, Wenceslaus Tumuhimbishe lost his church after his relationship with another priest became public knowledge. He is now an employee of CARE Uganda, a national branch of a global HIV/AIDS support organization, and founder and bishop of the town of Rubaare’s Priory Church of St. Athanasius, which offers services with traditional Catholic elements but more inclusive messaging.
“I can’t change myself to be what the church wants me to be,” he says. “I live my truth.”
Father Mukiibi Joseph, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, says the church’s message on homosexuality has been clear and consistent.
“The church has never changed its stance on same-sex relationships and can’t let anyone practice priesthood as an open gay priest, unless if he changes his behavior in respect to the teachings of the church,” he says.
Ruby Nakandi Stephania, who identifies as a non-binary person and uses “they” as a pronoun, remembers hearing sermons that preached against same-sex relationships whenever they attended Pentecostal services in Kampala with their female partner.
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“Attending that church was unsafe for me and my partner because people would look at us every time the pastor preached against homosexuality,” Stephania says. “We felt unwelcome.”
They now attend Adonai Inclusive Christian Ministries, where Kaggwa offers services four times a week.
The congregation meets in an office building or online, depending on coronavirus restrictions. They have about 40 regular members; when more show up in person, they gather outdoors. At any time, passersby on the busy street can hear the gospel music and testimonials, Kaggwa’s preaching, and the sound of parishioners clapping and shouting “Amen.”
They don’t advertise their inclusive message. When asked about their mission, they identify themselves only as “a group of young believers.”
“We had to move our church from one area to another when local leaders of the village in which we had established the church became suspicious,” Kaggwa says. “They approached us one day and asked if we were a church of homosexuals.”
He adds, “But at least we have to start somewhere, because to us the freedom to praise and worship our God without fear of being judged is very important.”