This history of Africa is unfortunately one that has seen exploitation of its people, land and resources. Though it contains a wonderful diversity of people and culture, even to this day, the riches it contains that can be monetized are targets for outside influence. But what Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams presents in his documentary “God Loves Uganda” is a unique, disturbing case of what could arguably be called spiritual exploitation. A country still finding its footing after decades of dictatorial and military rule, and continuing to try and embrace democracy even as corruption runs rampant, Uganda is fertile ground for anyone hoping to influence a vulnerable public.
Enter, the International House Of Prayer aka IHOP, yes, just like the restaurant chain, though by the end you’ll wish they just served pancakes. Led by Lou Engle, a self-confessed former porn addict who found God and never looked back, this is a highly successful, financially resourceful, almost corporately structured powerhouse of Christian fundamentalism. (Jono Hall, Media Director for the organization notes IHOP has over 1,000 full-time staff, managing over 80 departments; it’s huge.) And it’s Africa that the constantly energized Engle views as a “firepot of spiritual renewal and revival.” It’s a place where they can do good, honest charity work, but Uganda also represents a place where the ultimate Christian empire can be built.
That’s the suggestion made by Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a priest and former Ugandan now residing in the U.S., whose research into the influence of the religious right in his native country has made it impossible for him to return without putting his own life in danger. And what he describes is a perfect storm of opportunism and policy that have spiraled into a heartbreaking chronicle of how sexual intolerance is bred from the ground up. But perhaps more unnerving, is the role of U.S. policy and groups such as IHOP, in stoking those flames. The combination of George Bush‘s administration pushing abstinence-only HIV prevention in the country, a clear influence from his supporters on the religious right, combined with groups like IHOP taking an active stake in building Uganda’s infrastructure, providing schools, orphanages, healthcare facilities and more, gave leaders incredible leverage to push the message they wanted.
And that message, delivered by healthy, bright-eyed, mostly white, midwest American youths from IHOP, to a country where over 50% of the population is under fifteen years old, is that Jesus saves … unless you’re gay. As the title of the film suggests, “God Loves Uganda,” but the moral and ethical vacuum in the country has been filled by religious leaders both from abroad and at home (though trained in the West) who have the captive ear of politicians. And this unfiltered message that homosexuality is a perversion to be prosecuted has led to bills, such as the one introduced by David Bahadi, that would make gay sex punishable by death. And pushed by folks like Martin Ssempa, who shamelessly preaches alongside a slideshow of scat pornography while claiming it to be some kind of accurate depiction of the “homosexual lifestyle,” has created a climate of pure fear for gays in the country.
As you might imagine, Williams’ film is as frequently upsetting as it is fascinating, but it’s not without its share of heroes fighting the tide. Kaoma is certainly one, who continues his research in Boston, while Ugandan priest Christopher Sengonjo continues to speak out for the human rights of LGBT people, an act that has left the former bishop excommunicated. Their bravery makes the contrast to young believers and missionaries such as Jesse and Rachelle Digges all the more defined. Their well-meaning work is also blindingly oblivious, while skirting culturally insensitive at times. Living mostly on a compound of likeminded individuals and training them to spread the good word in Uganda, the machinery of their operation is, unsurprisingly, rather soulless.
Running a tight 80-odd minutes, Williams’ documentary is as concise as it is affecting and powerful, but he leaves just enough room for some indirect hits at some of the more loathsome subjects of the documentary. There is an unspoken emphasis that there is tremendous financial gain to be found in this systemic oppression of gays and lesbians, underscored by the quiet reveal that mansion-owning and influential Ugandan minister Robert Kanyaja, is also one of the five wealthiest people in the country. And the film’s closing shot of an elderly, rural Ugandan woman’s distrustful eyes taking in the eager words of a new missionary, ends the movie on an appropriately sardonic note. When you can’t weep, you can only laugh and shake your head. “God Loves Uganda” surely, but the people in power aren’t actually preaching his word. [B]