Saturday, July 19, 2008
” . . . the light of the world is Jesus. Come to the Light, ’tis shining for you . . . ”
Today, the words of this popular missionary hymn, and others like it, which I used to sing in our little up-state New York Baptist church Sunday evenings with soul-winning zeal and worldwide vision some forty years ago when I was young, soured in my stomach – or, something like that. I really don’t know how to put in words what I felt. Of course, my feelings are directly tied to my journey as a gay man within evangelical fundamentalism – from self-denial and self-hatred (although I’ve never called it that before now) to complete self affirmation.
You see, today I stood in a hotel conference room before 35 pastors (Pentecostals mostly, some Baptists) all from within and around Kigali, Rwanda. Each came with Bible in hand to hear “Pastor Steve and Pastor Jose from America” speak at “a Gospel minister’s seminar” (topic withheld!). The invitation read “[full name withheld] Ministries, in partnership with Other Sheep ministries, has the honor to invite” [here, a space left for the name of the pastor who was being invited] “to a Gospel ministers’ seminar.” The day before the three hour seminar, two runners had distributed the invitations by hand using public transportation.
Can you imagine the surprise when the projector splashed on the huge wall before them “Other Sheep . . . presents: Rwanda, the Bible and . . . ” The next frame read simply “Homosexuality.”
This was our first time in Rwanda and our stay is short: only seven days total – three days remain, then on to Uganda. This seminar was being presented on a Saturday morning. Jose and I had arrived the Tuesday evening before on a flight from Nairobi. With no other plans than to introduce ourselves to as many pastors and priests as possible, Jose and I, while asking for directions to a low-budget restaurant that was recommended in our Lonely Planet travel book, unknowingly “bumped” into a well-known (“everyone” on the streets was greeting him) and – we assume by the results he achieved – a well-respected Pentecostal pastor of Kigali, Pastor [name withheld], Senior Pastor of [name of church withheld].
Soon after we left him, he circled around to catch up with us after having read our business card which indicated the names of three “Reverends” in East Africa who are associated with Other Sheep for the summer seminars in Uganda and Kenya. He greeted us with as wide a smile as any I’ve seen in East Africa. Immediately he pulled from his large date book, which is perhaps the greater part of his office, his certificate and credentials and photos of his graduation from a Bible institute in Nairobi, Kenya. With preachers as common as the hills here, I suppose one must carry his credentials if he is a serious preacher. He’s a young, focused, energetic man of about 30 years who looks over the top of his glasses when talking to you. And when you ask about the genocide here of the 1990s, he tells you, with a look more serious, how at the age of 14 he escaped from death more than once. And when he finishes, he ports his wide shinning smile again.
We invited our new pastor-friend to join us at the end of the day in our hotel for a private viewing of our PowerPoint presentation on the Bible and homosexuality. He met us at 6:00 p.m. sharp as agreed. After viewing the introduction on the misuse of “sodomite” in the 1611 KJV Bible and part of our presentation on Sodom and Gomorrah, he immediately formulated a plan to present “a Gospel ministers’ seminar.”
The following morning we rehashed the plan over breakfast at our hotel advising him to go slowly and to look at the idea of having only a few pastors meet first to advice him after seeing the material themselves. We warned him about the negative fallout he could experience within his own circle of preacher friends giving the examples of Rev. Kimindu and Rev. Makokha of Nairobi. We crossed examined him on the message of Other Sheep, being very explicit with him about same-sex sex. We wanted no misunderstandings. “Yes,” he said, “I understand fully your message.” Finally, when I said I recommend small meetings over a full blown seminar, he emphasized his independence and his autonomy and his commitment to God and to God’s message apart from any entanglement with men. I saw that his church government left him free of any fear of hierarchical backlash. (I was reminded why I was a Baptist.)
So, here we stood before a room full of Rwandan pastors (35 had registered their name, church, phone number and email address upon entering the room). Our opening slides showed the work of Other Sheep in Kenya so that the “problem” of homosexuality could be seen as an African thing and not a western thing imported; then we asked participants to respond to the overhead written questions so that they could express where they are in their understanding and “feelings” about homosexuality; then we gave simple definitions and explanations of terms like “sexual orientation.”
I taught in English and my new pastor-friend translated. He translated as vigorously as I taught. He stood right at my side and looking from the audience to the overhead, back to the audience, he gave a lively translation. The room became just as lively in return. Whatever he said, it kept them satisfied, even at times when I thought we just might lose it.
“So, what is your message in a sentence or two,” someone asked. Already, and expectantly, what the Bible says was upper most in their minds. After all, this was a “Gospel ministers’ seminar.”
I replied, slowly and deliberately, “Just as Christians persecuted the Jews during Reformation times; just as Christian Englishmen enslaved the African; and just as Christian men subject women even today – and have used the Bible in every case to justify their discriminations, so today in Africa is the Bible being used to justify the abuse of another people-group – they are called homosexuals. And if you will give me just another fifteen minutes, I will demonstrate to you how your Rwandan Bible has incorrectly infused the word homosexual into five Old Testament texts. I will demonstrate that the Bible you hold in your hands is misleading you in five Old Testament verses, giving you supposedly God’s authority to mistreat homosexuals. I will demonstrate how the 1611 King James Version Bible played a part in bringing to Africa the Englishman’s bias against homosexuals.”
As my pastor-friend translated, without a single change in his determination – a copy of myself in this message of liberty. I saw their faces respond with a resolve to give me audience, to see if my claim could stand the test of their scrutiny at least in these five verses.
As I looked out upon the faces of the pastors, it appeared to me from the group discussion, that for many, his only education was the Bible he held which had been translated into the only language many, if not most, spoke: Kinya Rwanda.
And that’s why my stomach soured. Their precious Rwandan Bibles followed the errant 1611 KJV translations of Deut. 23:17; I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; and II Kings 23:7.
One participant had come a bit early. He was early enough to watch me do a dry run through my PowerPoint on these five errant Old Testament verses. He was fluent in English. Making good use of the time, I interacted with my new-found Bible student and the PowerPoint presentation before him. He asked questions and I carefully taught him. At one point I asked him to read Deut. 23:17 in his Rwandan Bible. There it was in his own language: “homosexual.” The Hebrew word kadesh, which means temple prostitute – a reference to Canaanite fertility practices, had been wrongly translated homosexual in his native language. My heart sank. Bible translators (I assume heterosexuals) had, without any thought of the Hebrew word, brought the English word sodomite – an incorrect rendering of the Hebrew word – over into the Rwandan Bible. I thought: That so much darkness could come from a book that is considered to give so much light. My naïve youthful impressions of missions – once again, shattered; my stomach soured – and not so much because my ideals were dispelled, but because we – missionaries with a book – had failed a whole continent and turned heterosexuals against homosexuals with one simple, loaded, pejorative, discriminating, unrelated-to-the-text word: “sodomite.”
This early, eager student, asking questions as he followed the Hebrew text along side of the Analytical and NIV translations, eventually asked the inevitable: “What should we do?” “As for these verses,” I said, “draw a line through the word ‘homosexual’ and point back to the earlier word in the verse where the same Hebrew word is correctly translated (temple) prostitute.” He understood.
During the actual seminar, I had the pastors read each of the five verses from their Rwanda Bibles after demonstrating from Deut. 23:17 that kadesh is incorrectly translated homosexual. At II Kings 23:7, they read “And he brake down the houses of the homosexuals, that were by the house of the Lord . . . ” “There is nothing in this verse that speaks about tearing down the houses of the homosexuals. This translation is incorrect,” and I reiterated why.
Later over lunch with the pastor who sponsored us and with a friend from Uganda who observed the meetings, the pastor said, “By tonight, 2,000 people will be told the story that their Rwanda Bible incorrectly uses the word ‘homosexual’ in five Old Testament verses.” And we preceded to discuss how to train pastors to teach on the Bible and homosexuality, an extremely important task if we are to reach full inclusion of LGBT people within their African churches.
Rev. Stephen R. Parelli, formerly an ordained evangelical Baptist minister who pastored in the states of New York and New Jersey, became the Executive Director of Other Sheep in 2005. Other Sheep (othersheep.org), founded in 1992 in Latin America by Rev. Dr. Tom Hanks, an American missionary, author, and contributor to the Queer Bible Commentary (Romans and Hebrews), is a multi-cultural, ecumenical Christian ministry that works worldwide for the full inclusion of LGBT people of faith within their respective faith traditions.