A Letter re: Kenya Quakers & Homosexuality

by David Zarembka

Dear Quaker Theology,

I read with interest the various comments on the homosexuality issue in Kenya in the last issue of Quaker Theology [Issue #23]. I have some additional comments that might help clarify the situation. I was at the FWCC [Friends World Committee for Consultation] World Conference in Nakuru [in 2012] and wrote the following in my comments on the conference:

        “Naturally there had to be controversy. The homosexual issue was expected. Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Queer Concerns [FLGBTQC] in the United States, like ten or twelve other Quaker groups, sent an epistle to the Conference. All these epistles were posted on the wall outside the main auditorium where we met. On the fourth day, someone tore down this epistle. The next morning after the opening worship and reflection on the theme, Liz Gates from Lancaster [PA] Meeting in the US and clerk of the conference committee, came to the podium and said that Friends were breaking her heart with this act of hate and violence. She was aware that there were strong differences in opinion on this subject as well as many others, but that everyone was a child of God. When she finished, most of the white folks clapped vigorously, while most of the Africans didn’t clap.
        “The next night Zablon Malenge, the General Secretary of the Friends Church in Kenya [FCK], the organization that unites all the yearly meeting in Kenya together, announced a short meeting at the end of the evening presentation by Nancy Irving, the outgoing General Secretary of FWCC. As a member of Lugari Yearly Meeting, I felt I had a right to attend and so I did. The meeting was in Swahili and essentially Zablon said that the Kenya Church knew where they stood on this issue (i.e., homosexuality is sinful), but they should not let this incident destroy the conference. The Friends Church in Kenya would take up this issue at their next meeting in June and then would forward their statement to the yearly meetings. He asked if this was acceptable and there was agreement.
        “Then one man got up to speak to the issue and the women began to murmur. When a second man got up to speak, all the women walked out in protest. As they were going out, I heard them say such comments as “Why are we discussing this issue as we know it exists?” with the attitude that this was really no big deal. “Why should this be a concern to us?” “We know that some of these men are gay.” Unfortunately, the June meeting will be attended primarily by men and the few women, as is so common in the world, will be intimidated into silence. This confirms my observation that the grassroots Friends in Kenya are not particularly interested in the homosexuality issue since the women have much more pressing issues such as domestic abuse, poverty, and gender discrimination.
        “This then led to the opportunity to discuss the issue in the [FWCC Conference] home groups. I asked a number of people what happened in their home group. My home group and one other in which a participant related the details [to me] did not discuss the issue. At the other extreme one home group was almost completely destroyed by acrimonious debate. In the others, the topic was brought up and discussed respectfully. A number of the informants commented that they were surprised how open many of the Kenyans – particularly the women and younger men – were. A number of Kenyans felt that homosexuals should not be excluded from church as is the current policy. In some cases, they did feel that they should be allowed to attend in order to realize [and change] their “sinful ways.” I heard about one group where an American woman indicated that her daughter was a lesbian. In this case the Kenyans were sympathetic as family relationships clearly were of higher importance. One person told me that none of the Kenyans had ever met even one person who is openly gay or lesbian. Their concept was [that of] the male prostitute in Mombasa living off tourists who come in on cruise boats. My conclusion from this incident is that there are opportunities in Kenya for dialogue on the issues of homosexuality.”

        At that June FCK meeting indicated in my report, some people in attendance wanted to have me arrested and thrown out of Kenya. The charge was that I had instigated that FGLBTQC letter that offended the Kenyan Quakers. Frankly I had nothing to do with it, but I think that some FCK members were offended by the report I reproduced above (some of them are on my Report from Kenya listserve). The real issue was that my report indicated that their official FCK stance was not accepted by all Kenyan Quakers and so this challenged their hierarchical authority. Others in attendance did remind others that my wife, Gladys, was related to them (which is true) and that I was doing important peacemaking work in Kenya. One Lugari Yearly Meeting leader who reported this to me indicated that he strongly supported me since Gladys was “our sister.”  The idea [of having me arrested] was dropped and I have had no negative repercussions since then.
        To expand on this report, the first item of interest is that in Kenya men and women are still very separate as was the case in the US in the nineteenth century when meeting houses were built with a women’s side and a men’s side – I think the women were on the left – with a folding door between the two sides. At Lumakanda Friends Church where I am a member, the women sit on the left side and men on the right with the middle reserved for the few couples like my wife, Gladys, and I who sit together and many overflow young women from the women’s side. As far as I know, in the seventeen yearly meetings in Kenya, there is not one women who is a presiding clerk, general secretary, or other high official, although Lugari Yearly Meeting (my Yearly meeting) has broken tradition by having a female recording clerk. [However] each yearly meeting has a [female] clerk of United Society of Friends Women (USFW) which is extremely strong as the women work together. Gladys attends the local Lumakanda USFW meeting on Thursday morning when she can. As a result of the domination of men in leadership roles, the Friends Church in Kenya (FCK) (please notice the “in”) is also male-dominated. Therefore women have little input into the homophobic stance of FCK.
        Second, the Friends Church in Kenya is an active member of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) with Zablon Malenge, as presiding clerk of FCK, being the Quaker member of the NCCK Board. NCCK is strongly influenced and supported by the same right-wing evangelical groups that are supporting the anti-gay bill in the Ugandan parliament. Let me give an example of this dynamic:
        During the 2010 vote on the new Kenyan constitution, the NCCK was strongly opposed, mostly because they felt that the new constitution would allow more abortions and legalize homosexuality. This then became the official position of NCCK and the Quakers were listed in the newspaper as one of the religious groups that opposed the new constitution. This [position] was determined by the Quaker leadership in Nairobi which controls FCK. Yet out in the countryside where I live, I would estimate that 90% of the Quakers were for the new constitution (which, for example, gave significantly increased rights to women). Chwele Yearly Meeting’s executive committee unanimously opposed the “no” stance of FCK.
        The point is that in Kenya there is no seasoning of policy statements through monthly and yearly meetings that FCNL [the Friends Committee on National Legislation], for example, does so well in the US. The new [Kenyan] constitution passed easily with over two-thirds of the vote. In other words, abortion and homosexuality were not game-changers for the majority of Kenyans.
        Third, even I was surprised about how open many of the Kenyans were at the [FWCC World] conference to accepting gays in the church. We are not talking about gay marriage yet, but the first step is acceptance, even if the intent is to try to change their behavior. Over time as the [Kenyan Friends] learn the humanness of gays, they will learn to accept them as they are. The first step, though, in Kenyan society is to end the violence against gays and lesbians.
        Fourth, [the African Great Lakes Initiative] AGLI [the international peace project I work within Africa] has had a number of open lesbians as volunteers. On the other hand, as far as I know, there has been no openly gay volunteer, but this is explained by the fact that 75% to 80% of our volunteers are female and many of the men who do attend are attending with their wives and sometimes children. The feminization of Quaker peace work in the US is an issue that I think needs to be addressed.  Those lesbians who have gone to East and Central Africa with AGLI have never reported to me of any problems or discrimination against them.
        Fifth, I have just finished [in November 2013] an AGLI speaking tour in the US and I am sometimes asked questions about the homophobia issue among Kenyan Friends. At least two gay men indicated to me that they were boycotting Kenya (and the rest of Africa except South Africa and Botswana) because of its homophobia.
        While I completely understand their stance – I boycotted South Africa as long as apartheid existed – I think that there are opportunities for engagement. There is a non-Quaker gay church in Nairobi and now a few [Non-Governmental Organizations or] NGOs working on gay issues. While there is a long way to go, this is a beginning. Things in Kenya are changing on this issue. We have no idea what might happen next, but the relationships need to be established. I don’t think Americans should go to Kenya as “missionaries,” but to encourage, to stand with, to be available for those in Kenya when something does happen. What happens, for example, when a prominent Quaker gay is outed? This could be true or used as character assassination. Our support in such a situation would be important – the crucial step of peacemaking work is to show up to establish those relationships.

                                                            David Zarembka

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