One of the leading African American ministers in the country stood in his pulpit to eulogize Ugandan gay advocate, David Kato, who was murdered after having a death threat against him published on the front page of a local newspaper. The Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, head pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, announced to the 150 people gathered at the memorial service on Monday, February 7, 2011, that he was “beginning the conversation” to engage Black church leaders to save the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender leaders such as David Kato.
"Tonight we make an important first step in bridging the chasm that separates gay & straight people in the church," Butts proclaimed. "This discussion on human sexuality should have happened a long time ago and if it had maybe Kato's and many many other's lives would have been saved."
Frank Mugisha, Executive Director of Sexual Minorities of Uganda, who worked closely with David, said, "Being here tonight inspires me and gives me strength to carry on David's work advocating for gays and lesbians, bailing them out of jail, providing financial support and protection. Before coming here I did not know that a religious leader could stand up freely and support gays and lesbians. In Uganda when a pastor did that he was excommunicated."
Uganda has been under international scrutiny as it continues to consider a law that would included the death penalty for gay people. Conservative Evangelicals have been documented spreading anti-gay sentiment to Uganda so that Ugandan LGBT people are now having to flee their homes due to threats and persecution.
"So long as these laws remain in force millions of people will continue to live their lives under the threat of arrest and in some cases even execution. These laws legitimize homophobia by giving it a government sanctioned seal of approval,” said Charles Radcliffe. "Our first challenge has to be the decriminalization of homosexuality." Mr. Radcliffe is the chief of global issues for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
New York City Speaker Christine C. Quinn, in a written statement read by a representative, called Kato's death "a reminder that every single individual has the power to promote equality and stand up against injustices both near and far.”
Pastor Joseph A. Tolton, Pastor of Rehoboth Temple and organizer of the service, praised Dr. Butts for his leadership in this critical moment. “The gay and lesbian African American community had a historic homecoming in this memorial service for David Kato. We found ourselves welcomed home to the cradle of the Black Church. We are clear that we all walk under the banner of love where our community will work together and not allow ourselves to be divided because of sexual orientation or gender identity. This is our first step in a long journey.”
The service, reminiscent of those held for the many martyrs who paid the ultimate price for freedom in the US, included a solitary portrait of Kato bearing the words "Demand Justice" positioned in the front of the church. Local church choirs and a featured solo from violinist Juliette Jones brought the gathered community to their feet with tears in their eyes. The memorial was one of two memorials held in New York City just two weeks after Kato was murdered in his home in Uganda. His death captured international attention and yesterday's memorial will certainly carry forward the discussion of homophobia in Uganda, the United States and the 70 countries that still imprison or execute gay and transgender people.