About mid-way through our four to five week stay in Nairobi, and while walking behind Jose on a wide strip of median that divided a busy avenue, I quietly stopped, stood still, looked about me and sensed a feeling I had never felt before: so this is how the apostle Paul must have felt.
With matatus (private vans used as buses), public city buses, trucks and cars hedging us on both sides, Jose, answering to my call, turned and looked towards me standing a short distance behind. He retraced his steps while I slowly caught up to him. “I feel like the Apostle Paul,” I said. Immediately I qualified my statement, wanting him to understand perfectly that I did not think myself to be an Apostle Paul. “I feel how the Apostle Paul must have felt,” I clarified.
Jose was in charge of the cell phone. Everyone we dealt with in Kenya communicated by text messaging. He had just read out loud to me another text message which precipitated my first-century, Paul-abroad feeling. The message was a kind of “final straw” of an accumulating affect of non-stop multi people experiences with LGBTs, straight allies and strangers, too.
It wasn’t, however, the “multi people experiences” per se that affected me. By that I mean, it wasn’t the happening or the event around each people experience that one could log in a journal as “events of the day” that affected me.
Such events may occur any time in history and in most any place. For example, like Paul, we suffered an “uproar” for 15 minutes in a public bus, with men standing to their feet, shouting “all at once,” denouncing us. Like Paul, we “argued daily” in our apartment “expounding from the scriptures” that God does not condemn all homosexual activity. Like Paul, we went first to their “synagogues” and with grace “confronted” Christian leaders (Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Nazarene, Christian Orthodox) in their church offices and church foyers: one church leader “gave us ear” and viewed our power point presentation on homosexuality and the Bible; another church leader came to our apartment to hear in person the collective testimony of 17 gay Christians and one gay Muslim; and another pastor wrote a two page discourse rebuking and contradicting our view of scripture and distributed it to his congregation of more than 500.
Like Paul, we were “in the market place” and the “public places of discourse,” that is we were live on public radio explaining over the Nairobi airwaves the scriptures as pro-LGBT and we were published in the paper giving testimony to an inclusive God. Like Paul, we were “warned” on more than one occasion to be careful for our safety. Like Paul, many who needed our message sought us out: one Anglican minister who already publicly was known for being pro-LGBT came and identified himself with us, being with us almost daily. Like Paul, we labored to leave behind a group that would continue the ministry after us, thus we worked with MCC, established an Other Sheep East African board with mission and vision statements, and established a PFLAG. Like Paul, on our last day and just before two brethren took us away by car to the airport, we parted from “the company of” LGBTs like the Ephesian elders had parted from Paul – with tears and long embraces.
And, if you will allow, on a less serious note, like Paul we suffered “shipwreck” – well, it wasn’t a ship, but a bus. On two different occasions we had to abandon the bus we were riding and wait for a replacement. Also, on a less serious note, like Paul with his John Marks turn back experience, Jose came close to completely backing out of any further work, wanting to return to the USA, when it was misreported that the police had put out a public notice for our whereabouts. (Unlike Paul, I choose not to separate from Jose!)
But none of these events, per se, caused me to feel like Paul.
There was a certain qualifying factor in these events that impressed itself upon my mind and in turn enraptured me with the thought, this is like Paul. Though some of the incidentals were a like experience between Paul and us, none of these was the qualifying factor: foreign land (our first time in Africa), universal language (English – they could understand me, unlike our trips to Latin America), common religious background (more evangelical than mainline), opposing cultural norms (as a society, tolerance for LGBTs is very low), radical new message (God is inclusive), and radical new community (homosexual and heterosexual Christians in one religious community, the “new” body of Christ).
What, then, was the qualifying factor that made me feel like Paul? This: What is happening here in Kenya is happening here for the first time. Each contact, every discussion, meeting after meeting, without stop, one event unfolding into the next – we hardly slept, it seemed – and it felt, to me, as though it was happening here for the first time.
That is not to say that there are no Kenyans working for the human rights of LGBTs. There are many. That is not to say that nothing significant has happened before our visit to Kenya for the advancement of LGBT rights. Much has taken place. We are a small, though significant part. What appeared to me to happen here for the first time was a gathering of people of faith (who became a coalition of people of faith) who assembled together for the first time to affirm before one another their identify as Christian or Muslim and their identify as queer, that these two identities are not mutually exclusive, and to embrace both identities equally, integrating the two aspects of their being (spiritual and gay) into one whole person; and, to reiterate, doing so in community with one another. This was certainly a first for most of the individual Kenyans we worked with, if not for all. Someone told us, “We’ve never told our story before, even to our fellow gay friends. We just don’t talk about our stories. This is the first time I’ve told my story. We need to continue these experiences with one another.”
Perhaps it was the age group with which we worked that made it seem like its happening here for the first time. Most were in their 20s. A few in their 30s. Two or three older. We’ve collected over 80 email addresses. Most came through our apartment. Most participated in group discussions. Some were outing themselves for the first time: one, a school headmaster outed himself in a group meeting, another outed himself before a straight friend he brought with him to the group, others came because a friend told a friend, or they heard the radio broadcast. But they came, they talked, they shared their common experiences of faith and being gay.
Now, the Apostle Paul was never my favorite Bible character, though always admired. I never had any lingering wish to be like the Apostle Paul. His writings were hard to understand (ask Peter), and though he demonstrated tenderness at times in his writings, he had a side to himself you didn’t want to cross. Give me David and his poems; give me John and his love. I’ll take the character of Job (“dust to dust”) over Paul (“everyday I bring my body under subjection”). Job seems easier to understand and to identify with. No, I never had inklings towards Paul.
But there I stood, in the middle of the capital of Kenya, and the feeling that came over me was: I feel like the Apostle Paul with this qualifying statement that what is happening here is happening here for the first time. “Look at us,” I said to Jose, “we are just two evangelical outcasts, and look at the blessing that God has allowed us to experience, working in this vineyard of Kenya.” I felt something was happening beyond me. I didn’t feel like the Apostle Paul the man, nor the Apostle Paul the Christian, not even the Apostle Paul the vessel filled. I felt more like an empty instrument which for some reason at this brief moment in time, God was happy to use. Jose and me, instruments (more like the rod of Moses than the person of Paul), to do something here that was happening here for the first time – what the Apostle Paul must have experienced.
Those we worked with and ministered among told us again and again, “thank you, thank you, your coming to Kenya has changed my life forever.” The day we left to return to the States, a Christian gay couple wrote this in a card they gave us: We thank God for sending Jose and Steve to this country in such a time. We’re blessed and going back to the glory that we’d left because of ignorance.
It was an epiphany moment standing there on the medium in the middle of a Nairobi avenue, just feeling. Jose looked at me and smiled. He knew what I meant. He understood. We experienced it together. Certain things of the spirit and faith were happening here for the first time. A kind of apostolic experience, so I felt.
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.