Diversity is Not Disbelief: UMC Minister Risks All for GLBT Rights in Kenya

United Methodist Church (UMC) Rev. John Makokha of Kenya has worked tirelessly to bring “education and understanding” of homosexuality to a country where gays and lesbians face church-sanctioned discrimination and physical persecution. This brave straight ally and his wife Anne have suffered financial hardship and ostracism for their open and affirming stance, and now it appears that church leaders are conspiring to force him out of the ministry.

Makokha is the Kenya coordinator for Other Sheep, an international ministry that supports gay Christians in East Africa and beyond. Below are some excerpts from Other Sheep co-founder Steve Parelli’s interview with Makokha in their latest e-newsletter. Behind the Mask, cited below, is an African webzine that promotes GLBT rights. 

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: John, according to the January 29, 2009, article by Behind The Mask, “you may face an axe from the United Methodist Church” at the next annual conference this April (2009) because of your “positive stance on homosexuality.” How likely is this, and do you think it could take place this April?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Well, it is anticipated that the next East Africa Annual Conference may be held during this time. The Bishop has the prerogative of making any appointments but with recommendations from each member country leadership. Looking at the way UMC leaders in Kenya have been strategizing and scheming against me, there is a strong concerted spirit of isolating and discriminating against me further during this session due to my positive stance on homosexuality. This session is likely to give homophobic and homohatred leaders an opportunity to shoot.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: So, you could “get axed” by your denomination. Does that mean you’ll be defrocked? Do you have any recourse? What will this mean to you financially? What will happen to the church you are now pastoring?

Rev. John Makokha replies: You can call it defrocking, or anything, but this is only a human decision. I will only be worried if I loose Christ. They are not the ones who called me in this ministry. They will not shut my mouth. I will raise a red flag using the social principles on affirmation of LGBTI persons in our UMC churches and the Great Commission. We talk of open hearts, open minds and open doors in the UMC. We need to be welcoming congregations, not unwelcoming. Discrimination is sin. I have affirmed my belief in an inclusive church, that is, a church that welcomes all of God’s children, that is free from any discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation or gender identity. If I am stopped, this church will dearly miss an affirming spiritual leader but the mission field is wide. The workers are few but the harvest is plenty. I will also miss my all- inclusive sheep that I have trained and preached to so far. Financially, it will not change my position since I have not been on any salary from the UMC. God has been providing for us in His own ways, through the gifts of his people. I am sure He will continue providing for my family through caring people who will choose to support us financially. God has been faithful and keeper of His promise.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: You’ve been involved with Other Sheep, an ecumenical Christian pro-LGBT international organization, since December of 2007. Is that when you first became pro-LGBT, or was it before then? Briefly, what is your history in speaking up on behalf of LGBT people of faith?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Thank you for that good question. Before joining Other Sheep, I had been actively involved in the LGBTI ministry for more than 5 years. I have conducted capacity building seminars ecumenically for ministers and laity on mission/evangelism work and human sexuality as a component in Eastern Africa region. I have counseled pastors, youth and married persons on sexual orientation. I have taught in Bible study sessions and preached sermons for inclusion and affirmation of LGBTI persons.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: Some Kenyan Methodist ministers, according to the article by Behind The Mask, have accused you of “promoting” homosexuality in the church? Of course, no one can “promote” a sexual orientation. A person either does or does not have same-sex attraction. What you are doing is “promoting” education on the topic of homosexuality for the sake of learning and understanding because the gay Christian community — a marginalized people — is being spiritually abused by the church by its outright complete social rejection of LGBT people. Would you agree that you are “promoting” education and not homosexuality?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Oh! My God, no one can promote homosexuality. Sexual orientation, according to scientific research, has shown that it is innate and cannot be changed. You only promote what is outside. You cannot promote what is inside. What is happening, so far, is ignorance on matters of human sexuality that has caused a lot of suffering to LGBTI. This has perpetuated both physical and spiritual violence in Africa. I have been promoting education (awareness) and not promoting homosexuality the way it has been alleged; through capacity building programs such as seminars and distribution of materials. I have also been carrying out counseling of LGBTI and PFLAG. We have been requesting dialogue and praying for tolerance and not intolerance. Inclusion and not exclusion.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: So, what are you doing to bring “education and understanding” about issues relating to homosexuality to the United Methodist Churches in Kenya? How are you accomplishing this?

Rev. John Makokha replies: I am not only reaching out to United Methodist Churches, but working ecumenically. So far, almost all United Methodist Church leaders have received handouts and books on the Bible and homosexuality. I am passionately involved in organizing interdenominational seminars and workshops for clergy and laity. I have also been initiating dialogue with them. Counseling clergy and laity who are LGBTI. I have distributed resource materials to seminary and university students and professors. Lastly, I have been involved on KISS 100 radio and a TV talk show on the topic of homosexuality and social and religious justice.

This will create safer spiritual communities for LGBTS persons, their families, and their friends. I am confident that Jesus will break down all dividing walls of hostility and discrimination.

We are telling the church leadership that diverse understandings of Biblical texts is not disbelief.

Rev. Makokha has been ministering without a salary for the past two years because of his pro-gay stance. His wife was also fired from her job as a part-time lecturer at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, from which they both graduated. Makokha says, “Our children were told not to mix with others because they would ‘recruit’ them into LGBTI ministry. We were also advised to seek alternative housing elsewhere because of the nature of our ministry. We prayed, God opened a window and we moved out. But we still love our school.”

He adds that it is difficult to start a dialogue about sexuality within the church, as many people fear reprisals for speaking out. “We organized a seminar for the clergy in Nairobi but ministers feared to attend. It is a pity that even some resource materials donated to some evangelical colleges have sometimes been returned to us due to disapproval on the basis of phobia and lack of academic freedom.”

If you would like to ask the UMC leadership in Kenya to show grace to Rev. Makokha’s ministry and consent to an open dialogue about sexuality and spirituality, please email Mrs. Winnie Adhiambo, the lay leader of Riruta United Methodist Church. To help support the Makokha family, click here for the Other Sheep donation page.