Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dinosaur bones, African mammal exhibits, and the marginalized of East Africa

by Rev. Stephen Parelli, Executive Director, Other Sheep

“The greatest religious problem today is how to be both a mystic and a militant; in other words how to combine the search for an expansion of inner awareness with effective social action, and how to feel one's true identity in both.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

From the C train to a classy burger joint, and business talk

Rev. John Makokha at
 the Museume of Natural History,
New York City, 2010
see photos
After having spent the morning hours working on Other Sheep at our respective laptops, I met up with Rev. John Makokha, Other Sheep Coordinator for Kenya, and took him to the Museum of Natural History.

First we got a bite to eat at Shake Shack on Columbus Avenue. We had what I would call backyard-grilled hamburgers -- the way we would do it in the suburbs when I was a boy. The place was crowded (I have a feeling it always is, because the hamburgers are the best you'll ever have), so we ordered "take-out" and with the metal tray they provided to carry the food, we made our way across Columbus Avenue and sat on a sidewalk bench along the museum grounds.

And we talked. About Other Sheep Kenya. About family. About raising funds. About the United Methodist Church. About Other Sheep in Asia and Latin America. About grants and the financial history of Other Sheep in the USA. About the staff that was in the making in Nairobi for Other Sheep Kenya. And more.

The vital intersecting of the needs of all the marginalized and LGBT concerns

A school for children in Uganda, 2008,
visited by Steve Parelli and Jose Ortiz
Together, as John and I talked, we found that there was wonderful agreement between us on what Other Sheep should look like, especially in developing countries like those of Africa. Following our visit to the museum, and as we returned together on the subway and discussed this item further, it was evident that my four years of travel in East Africa and Asia had prepared me and seasoned me to understand how the general social needs of a populace often vitally intersect with LGBT concerns. (Part of my lack of insight is due to the complete sheltered life l had lived in evangelical academia in the 70s and especially in the 80s during the whole AIDS crisis, when evangelicalism was generally adverse to positive social action.)

A gay Christian’s activism is radically inclusive of all the marginalized

The Obunga slums, Kisumu, Kenya, 2008.
I remember our very first summer in Kenya, 2007. The poverty I witnessed in parts of Nairobi was impossible to describe, and the horrified feelings it left me with were insurmountable. One had to block the memory of what he or she saw in order to espcate the terror of the vivid images. Some of the LGBT community of Nairobi discussed then that whatever pro-LGBT actions gay Christians may take, that gay Christians must be actively engaged in the work of social justice for all marginalized people, not just for the gay community, but for the poor, the orphaned, those infected and affected by HIV-AIDS, the rights of women, and others.

What legitimizes an LGBT organization in the United States? And, is it the same in other regions of the world?

Children in the Obunga
slums, Kisumu, Kenya, 2008
In the United States, an LGBT organization can have legitimacy just by acting on the single issue of same-sex marriage, for example. Or, on the single issue of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In other certain regions of the world, however, it appears to me that a pro-LGBT Christian organization like Other Sheep would address other human rights and needs while keeping in balance its organizational LGBT objectives in order to have the impact it would desire. I would not want to make this a hard fast rule for every region of the world in that my experience is limited; and I would want to appeal foremost to LGBT leaders within their respective countries to vouch for, or to redirect, my thinking. However, in talking with the Rev. John Makokha and others, and in seeing first hand in my own travels the devastation caused by poverty and HIV-AIDS for example, I see more and more that wherever human dignity is reduced in any one person or people groups, it is the voice of the activist that must speak up for one and for all, whatever that activist’s special interest may be in activism.

Steve Parelli with Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks,
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2006
What I am suggesting about Other Sheep is not really new to Other Sheep. I have only to read the earlier newsletters of Other Sheep before I became the executive director in 2005 to learn how the Other Sheep board in St. Louis has, in its past, at times, seriously addressed HIV-AIDS. And, in coming to know Rev. Dr. Thomas Hanks, the founder and theologian and mission director of Other Sheep, I have had, through him, some of my first glimpses of HIV-AIDS activism and women’s rights awareness.

The call to activism that comes from seeing and knowing first hand

Jose Ortiz t0 religious leaders in
Kisumu, Kenya bringing awareness
about what psychology says
about same-sex attractions, 2008
Jose Ortiz (left), acquiring awareness
about the Obunga slums,
Kisumu, Kenya, 2008
It is perhaps more often the hands-on experiences of life, and the maturity that the passing of time brings, rather than the lectures of the classroom, or the call from the pulpit or the editorial page, that grip the heart and call us to be one with humanity. Some do hear the cry of the suffering human spirit from afar; theirs’ is the heart that all human beings were meant to have: to love thy neighbor as thyself. Others, like me, may fail to recognize as fully as they should the hurting segment of humanity, whether afar or close at hand, until they’ve stepped onto another continent or into another realm of living. In this realm, life does not exist on the plane that is sane, human, and dignified, where all should live, including even the very least of these of the marginalized.

And so it was today that . . .

Rev. John Makokah
at the Mueseum of Natural History,
New York City, 2010
see photos
In visiting with Rev. Makokha today (October 25, 2010), we discussed this item and, through his eyes and experience, we envisioned Other Sheep Kenya as the activism it is for LGBT concerns, but also to see the LGBT religious community actively engaged in the Christian endeavor of working on behalf of all the marginalized, to be one with those whom are lost, because the world - though hardly all - has left them where they are to struggle hopelessly alone.

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