By Jono Hall
At the Sundance Film Festival this year a film premiered entitled God Loves Uganda. The showing of this film resulted in a universal demonization of the the Christian ministry of which I am a part, the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Described as “A vehemently anti-gay church…crazed, hateful cultists…. (who preached that) homosexuality… can be cured by prayer.” who “demonize homosexuality” spending “two of three months in Uganda spreading anti-gay rhetoric, then return to America when their work is done.” I also read the surprising news that IHOPKC had been “successful in undermining the UN’s anti-HIV program, which promotes condom use”. And this was simply the tip of the iceberg of the untrue vitriol spread about the ministry. I was needless to say quite apprehensive to view the film. I had helped the Director, Roger Ross Williams and their production team in good faith in Kansas City and Uganda and now I was in Christian-speak about to “enter the Lion’s Den”. I travelled to New York on a snowy March day and viewed the film with Roger, Julie Goldman (the producer) and Carolyn Hepburn (the line producer). What follows is my annotated synopsis and thoughts concerning the viewing.
The film opens with a Zambian Anglican Priest, Kapya Kaoma, who is seemingly in exile in US due to the fact that it is unsafe for him to work in Uganda. The virulent anti-gay feeling in this country and his opposition to such sentiment has meant that he now feels unsafe to work there. “I love Uganda,” says Kaoma, but, “something frightening is happening that has the potential to destroy Uganda.” His foreboding prophecy ends with his foreseeing “a lot of deaths” and the cause of those deaths which lie outside Uganda. Cue the International House of Prayer, a large controversial ministry in the heartland of America. We are introduced to Jono Hall (myself), the Media Director and Lou Engle, one of the senior leaders of this ministry. We are shown the broadcast of the prayer room and a message from IHOPKC, we are told that Uganda holds a special place for IHOPKC as a country that it send its missionaries to, and shown a prayer meeting for Uganda which also somewhat unnervingly intersperses strange manifesting people in the midst of the passion and the music. I think this is to enhance the feeling of the religious and emotional passion of IHOPKC, but it also makes the meetings seem quite strange. One commentator of the film noted that showing religious fervor out of its original context is an unnerving and I might add an unfair experience.
Lou Engle holds a “special place” in the hearts of the liberal and LGBT community and we are introduced to the messaging that has brought him much notoriety, particularly a comment where Lou talks on camera about the “sexual insanity” of the US at an event in California to support Proposition 8 in California. Combined with Jono’s statement about the sexual ethic of IHOPKC – “Sexual union outside of the marriage covenant is SIN,” we are introduced to the topic of the film; missionaries spreading their message of sexual morality which excludes certain other members of society and which has seen devastating and violent results in Africa.
The film now switches back and forth between Kapya Kaoma as an Episcopal Priest and academic in Boston trying to maintain his African culture in a foreign land and a group of young missionaries from IHOPKC who are preparing to go to Uganda. While the film is verité in nature, the voice of Kaoma becomes that of an authoritative narrator which somewhat negates the objectivity of the piece, particularly as he continually sets up straw man denunciations of Lou Engle and IHOPKC (and those like them, whom we never see), which is then juxtaposed with the footage from IHOPKC. Such editing is the first and main method to demonize the actions of IHOPKC. It is somewhat like the school yard bully highlighting the foolish actions of a “victim” then telling his audience to watch. Whatever action the “victim” does next will be undoubtedly ridiculed and viewed in light of the accusations of the bully.
The team from IHOPKC travel to Uganda and team up with Jesse and Rachelle Digges from Tororo, Eastern Uganda. The introduction of Jesse and Rachelle is quite warm-hearted as we learn that Jesse has pursued his bride since the age of 11 when he prayed to God he could have her and then they married aged 18. We see some of the work as the team arrive in the country, as they paint the new prayer room. Again we are introduced to the sexual morality beliefs of the people in the film. We are also introduced to other characters in Uganda; Robert Kayanja is introduced as the pastor of the “Largest Church in Uganda”, a prosperity teacher who is thankful for the missionary work of Americans, because his church would never have been built without the financial help of these kind benefactors. We conveniently see the financial offering happen in his church and the opulent lifestyle he leads in Uganda. America is sending money, America is sending ideas….
We are introduced to the religious environment of Uganda by being shown street preachers who are preaching Jesus and denouncing homosexuality at busy street intersections. We are also introduced to a Ugandan Pastor who is obsessed with denouncing homosexuality, Pastor Martin Ssempa. Pastor Ssempa is featured showing gay porn in churches, but is the living embodiment of American Evangelicalism according to the film(Kaoma says he is an “American with Ugandan skin”). Finally we are introduced to one of the main reasons this issue has been ramped up to untold heights in Uganda: a “marginalized” US Pastor named Scott Lively, of whom we have “secret” camera footage from Kaoma who was in church meetings with him in Kampala. Lively promoted political activism to stop homosexuality in Uganda and then preached to the Ugandan Parliament for 5 hours which resulted in the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill proposed by Hon. David Bahati, which includes the death penalty for repeat offenders of homosexuality.
We are introduced to David Kato, an LGBT activist who speaks about the persecution he receives and later to Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an elderly Anglican Bishop who has been seemingly defrocked for his insistence on welcoming those in the LGBT community, not condemning them and not asking them to change.
Moving back to the young missionary group from IHOPKC we are introduced to a missionary who has been in Uganda since 2002, but became an intern at IHOPKC in 2009 – Joanna Watson. We hear about her belief that homosexuality should be kept out of Uganda as an “abomination” and see her denouncing sexual sin. We then see an event she organized in 2010 soon after the bill was proposed and caused international outrage – TheCall Uganda. In this prayer rally, where Lou Engle came to “stand” with the people of Uganda in their fight for righteousness, the footage seems to indicate Engle is supportive of the bill (something which is not true). We further find out that both Lou Engle struggled with pornography as a younger man and Joanna Watson engaged in lesbian relationships, but Jesus “healed” her.
The film goes between the political scene in Kampala to Kapya Kaoma in Boston and back to the young missionaries who go on a missions trip to a remote area. According to Kaoma these naive youngsters are simply parroting Engle’s “messages of hate”. The film lightly mocks the missionary’s attempts to engage the locals as they get “chicken on a stick” from food vendors beside the road (as this scene has been moved out of the chronology of the real time events, there is a perception created that this is a missionary tactic of the group rather than small talk with a food vendor). The group then move on in the film to speak with more rural individuals in adobe huts about the gospel, where we learn that the group believe in hell. Meanwhile we hear more about Bishop Christopher’s hard life with his first wife dying then his embracing of the LGBT community. We also see the aftermath of the murder of LGBT activist David Kato and the fiasco that surrounds his funeral with frayed tempers between the church who are denouncing him to hell and his LGBT compatriots. Finally Bishop Christopher decides to step in at the burial, he consigns Kato to the grave and to heaven where he will undoubtedly be.
The film finishes with the IHOPKC missionaries breaking bread together with their Ugandan counterparts and then praying for a couple of native Ugandans as they are sent into the rural areas of Uganda and beyond spreading their gospel message.
After watching the film we had a friendly conversation with Roger, Julie and Carolyn about their aims to start a dialogue over the issues raised in the film. Pondering the storyline, the making of the film and the subsequent conversation I posit several thoughts:
1. The Evangelical Church is a wide and diverse body of people representing many varied viewpoints. The movie does not in essence deny this, however the implications of Kaoma’s statements juxtaposed with the actions of the International House of Prayer state very strongly that these young people are the naive foot soldiers spreading a message of intolerance and hate in Africa. They represent at the very least a large part of the evangelical community. Then lumping IHOPKC with other entirely unrelated individuals and a bad piece of legislation creates a truly scary proposition, guilt by association, a conspiracy which every reviewer who has seen the movie understandably believes, but which is quite frankly untrue. IHOPKC has no relational or financial connection to any of the other ministers featured in the film and for that matter has very little to do with Uganda at all. While all missionaries have things to learn in becoming more Christlike in their presentation of the teaching of Jesus, there is no united conspiracy to spread American conservatism. Evangelicalism found a home in Africa due to the missionaries of the nineteenth century; perhaps as a result Africa is a very conservative culture. I would agree that ideas from the US culture war are being exported, however I would contend they are being exported by both sides in the debate and the last time I looked the liberal side of the argument is not acting like a shrinking violet.
2. A simple viewing of the film leads any uninformed viewer to think that the International House of Prayer sends a lot of money and missionaries to Uganda and that they are a significant force for political change in the nation. IHOPKC is now apparently sending missionaries out to this and other African nations to help win the culture war there as the culture war is “lost” in the US. One academic review of the film states “the International House of Prayer have been training and sending missionaries to Uganda for many years, viewing it as a place full of possible converts to be won for Christ. Their efforts have been rewarded by the conversion of many Ugandans.” The truth is that the crew from “God Loves Uganda” followed the first and only missions trip from the IHOPKC Missions School to Uganda. This was not just the first missions trip to this nation, it was actually the first group of students from the school period, the Missions School only beginning during the making of the film. We have not sent or supported other missionaries in Uganda before or since (and actually didn’t support this group – my own travel expenses for the trip were actually funded by the filmmakers). We have no indigenous presence. Although Joanna Watson did attend a 3 month internship at IHOPKC in 2009, she was not sent from IHOPKC, is not financially supported by IHOPKC, and is not even known by the majority of IHOPKC leadership. Likewise while Jesse and Rachelle Digges did attend the bible school for a year in 2001 and are friends of many at IHOPKC, they are in no way organizationally or financially connected to IHOPKC. As we have no representation in Uganda, it would make it rather difficult to have been successful in converting many Ugandans.
3. A simple viewing of the film leads viewers to think that all that missionaries are preaching is Christian sexual ethics and the need for locals to abide by such ethics or be damned, also that the ideas and the money sent are to support this end. Due to the nature of the film’s message this would have to be the case. If this were not true the film’s main premise would be entirely weakened. Although the stated purposes of the film may have been to investigate the impulses and work of missionaries, the film is clearly aimed at exploring a more narrow purview: the views of sexual morality as it relates to missionaries. Several news outlets have taken this as the message of the film claiming that the missions teams from IHOPKC spend time spreading “anti-gay rhetoric” in Uganda. I would contend that this is far from the truth. The only team that visited in 2011 spent time in prayer, in humanitarian work and in evangelism. This evangelism never included any kind of “hate speech” against gays or for that matter any speech about sexuality. It did however focus on calling people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The core of this gospel message is not a call to change someone’s behaviour. It is perhaps more offensive: a call to surrender our old identity, whether that is based upon what we do, such as our job or our family or even our sexuality and have Christ replace that with a new identity based upon who Christ is and what he has done. We believe Christ calls all to surrender the old identity and accept the new identity in Christ. We do believe that if a person accepts the grace of Jesus and becomes a disciple of Jesus it will by necessity bring about lifestyle changes. An individual’s entire approach to life, to work, to relationships and even to sexual union will change. This transforming, redeeming work is something the scripture calls salvation or being “born-again”.
4. While I cannot speak for the entire Christian or even the evangelical world, evangelism (Christian’s speaking to those who don’t know about the offer of a new life in Christ) should never be demonizing and for that matter is never concerned with changing the world’s sexual morality. I am certain this is true of all Christians I know. The process of discipleship in the Christian church however is a different matter. Christians according to New Testament writings are to call each other to “sexual purity”. For those outside the church we are told by Paul to not spend any time concerned with their morality, as he said in his letter to the church in Corinth concerning sexual immorality, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” This means he would not pass any judgment on unbelievers, but did seek sexual purity amongst the believers. This would be true of IHOPKC and many bible believing Christians.
5. I disagree strongly with many of the provisions of the 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill and have written as such in other blog posts and even stated my opposition in the times I was interviewed for God Loves Uganda. I do believe if enacted it could bring about victimization, a culture of fear, suspicion and even death. I am also firmly opposed to any violence or victimization against any sector of society. I firmly disagree with many of the disturbing actions of certain individuals in Uganda who promote and fuel such victimization (I think particularly of the actions of the Rolling Stone Magazine). I would also agree that sometimes the language that we as evangelicals employ is in need of refinement. Words have power and I would advocate changes to some sloppy language (especially as it relates to the seven mountains/spheres of influence) to reflect this. However, I do not agree that the message of the Gospel of Jesus and of the majority of evangelicals (including the young missionaries from IHOPKC) leads to an ideology of hate within any culture. Indeed I would contend the very language of Human Rights comes from within the Christian community.1
6. I would also agree with the Variety magazine summation of the film that, “while the film outwardly endorses (a message of toleration) it “doesn’t entirely embody it as far as evangelicals are concerned”. The film is trying to provoke dialogue, but there is no dialogue in the film between the main detractor – Kaoma and the main protagonist – IHOPKC. Kaoma’s statements are taken at face value and as such targets IHOPKC as its victim.
The bottom line is that I and my brothers at IHOPKC are opposed to violence and victimization of any sector of society (wherever that society may be) and are opposed to ideology that feeds violence and victimization. This must be said first, foremost and loudest. However, I do not feel as a Christian believer that believing in the sexual ethic laid out in the Bible and the corresponding belief in the authority of scripture as understood for thousands of years leads to such views. I was finally persuaded to be involved in this project as I was told it would not pursue the same polarizing view of liberals opposed to evangelicals. I wanted to demonstrate friendship to Roger and the crew even in a limited way and that we as believers are not the caricature so often portrayed in the media of the imperialist, bigoted religious right. I was clearly not successful as it relates to the film portrayal. I hope that the friendship I extended is still welcomed, and I will in some way be successful in extending the love of Christ outside the film rather than in it. I bear no ill will towards any of the film makers or indeed any of those writers who have reviewed the film and have extended extreme vitriol towards our actions as portrayed in the film. I pray that we will all walk a little closer to the light as we carry on our journey.
Endnote 1 –
“In his history classes, C. John Sommerville used to demonstrate to students how thoroughly Christianized they were, even those who were atheistic or anti-religious. He would list the values of shame and honour cultures (like those of pagan northern Europe before the advent of Christian Missionaries) and include values like pride, a strict ethic of revenge, the instilling of fear, the supreme importance of one’s reputation and name, and loyalty to one’s tribe. Then he would list the corresponding Christian values, which had been hitherto unknown to the pagans of Europe – things like humility, forgiveness, peaceableness and service to others, along with an equal respect for the dignity of all people made in God’s image. Many of Somerville’s most anti-religious students were surprised to learn just how deeply they had been influenced by ways of thinking and living that had grown out of biblical ideas and been passed on them through complex social and cultural processes.
His point was that much of what is good and unique about Western Civilization is actually “borrowed capital” from a Christian faith, even though the supernatural elements of faith have been otherwise neglected of late in the public sphere.” From Timothy Keller, Center Church, Zondervan, 2012 quoting C. John Summerville, The Decline of the Secular University (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 69-70.