Ellen Chademana was in the worst place you could be in her home country of Zimbabwe: the Harare Central Remand Prison. The rotting jail was dark and overcrowded, with no toilets or running water. The floors were filthy, covered with feces from thousands of people. No one cared about the conditions or the people trying to survive there.
The government viewed these "inmates" as less than human because President Robert Mugabe had said that gay people are "worse than dogs and pigs."
The good news is that Ellen Chademana escaped.
I am proud that she now serves on the board of directors of Soulforce in the United States.
She is here on asylum, thanks to the compassionate and persistent intervention of people around the world. You can learn more about asylum cases at AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.
In our recent board meeting in Atlanta, Ellen told me that she is sad that she cannot safely return to Zimbabwe to see her family, but her presence there would put them at risk for their lives, and she surely would not survive.
Her story reminds me that none of us is really safe as long as any one of us is not safe.
What was Ellen's offense in her home country?
She was arrested for her work with Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a community center that offers education and support for LGBT people in the country's capital city of Harare. GALZ and its employees and clients were under constant harassment from the country's regime.
As if the unimaginably cruel conditions of the cells themselves weren't enough, Ellen was brought in each day for questioning by police. She was beaten with rubber batons, kicked in the stomach and made to stand in stress positions, squatting without support for up to an hour. The torture had one purpose: The police wanted Ellen to reveal the names of LGBT people in Zimbabwe so that they could be arrested and imprisoned. For five days Ellen endured brutality and refused to give their names. On the sixth day a police captain handed Ellen a piece of paper and a pen and said, "Just write the names of the people who come to the center."
Ellen began writing: "Beyoncé... Rihanna..."
"Who is Beyoncé?" the Captain shouted. "Who is Rihanna? Where can we find them?"
Ellen told the captain that they were pseudonyms, that no one at the center used their real names.
"This is no good," the captain said.
And, thankfully, he eventually gave up, and Ellen was released.
As terrible as Ellen's story is, there is another side to her story that should make us think deeply about our national complicity in the cruel fate of gender-nonconforming people in Africa.
Zimbabwe is a majority Christian nation. Radical, U.S.-based religious-right leaders have encouraged Zimbabwe's leaders to develop anti-gay provisions in the nation's new constitution. The details are spelled out in a landmark report by Anglican priest and Zambian native Rev. Kapya Kaoma, "Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right Is Transforming Politics in Africa."
According to Rev. Kaoma, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm started by Pat Robertson, has set up offices in Kenya and Zimbabwe with the intention of influencing the developing nations into fundamentalist Christian strongholds.
The ACLJ, headed by Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, is working to have same-sex marriage explicitly banned in the Zimbabwe constitution.
But why? Same-sex relations of any kind are already illegal under the country's sexual offenses code. In fact, a person can be arrested for just seeming to be gay. The ACLJ claims that it simply wants Christian voices against same-sex marriage to be heard during the country's constitutional drafting process.
This equal-voice strategy is on the rise amongst all the fundamentalist groups in the United States. Just tune in to any National Religious Broadcaster's affiliate stations and listen for a while.
Another notorious fundamentalist, Scott Lively, promoted the same "kill the gays" concepts in Uganda. Thankfully, he was recently brought to court by the Center for Constitutional Rights for crimes against humanity, specifically persecution, under the Alien Tort Statute.
I am ashamed and grieved that American Christians are involved in hate mongering and violations of human rights in Zimbabwe and Uganda. There is ample evidence that financial incentives have been extended to Zimbabwean leaders who agree to support anti-gay legislation.
The Jesus I know must be weeping to see such a mockery made of his name. Images of soldiers casting lots at the base of the cross and the cruel betrayal of Christ by Judas come to mind when I think of Christians bribing people to pass legislation to imprison or kill gay people.
And I am grateful that there are Christians who still long to please God rather than man. They rarely show up in the headlines, but they shine in my eyes.
My son, Rev. Joshua Love, and I have been privileged and blessed to know them and, on occasion, serve with them in creating safe spaces for orphans in Zimbabwe. These good people don't go to promote a political agenda. They don't go to proselytize or colonize. They go to do the real work of Christ. They lead clinics for people who need medications. They feed them bread and help provide clean water. They build shelters. They pray and sing and worship together with the children and their caretakers, and they gently dig graves for the children who die and celebrate their lives within their communities. There is a beautiful documentary about this work, We Who Are One Body; it shows orphans gathering wildflowers and planting them on the graves so that life persists in their flowering. You can learn more about this special work in a book entitled Uncommon Hope: A DVD-Enhanced Curriculum Reflecting the Heart of the Church for People Affected by HIV/AIDS.
I pray that the Christian-identified lawyers of the American Center for Law and Justice will see how much harm they are causing and then repent. They continue to misappropriate the abundant resources donated to them by Christians and churches concerned with family values. They continue to impose our American culture-war politics on Africa and cause real harm to people like my friend Ellen Chademana, a beautiful and brave saint.
As Rev. Kaoma says, "It is shameful to see the bill pushed on the premise of defending Christian and African values. Persecution of another person is neither a Christian nor an African value."