His family firebombed, African activist finds friendship in DC

In this excerpt from a longer column, the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle tells how a retired couple is supporting change in Africa through personal contact with a priest from Malawi who was one of 26 LGBT activists who visited Washington, D.C., in July through Ogle’s Spirit of 76 Worldwide program. 

The Rev. Macdonald Sembereka (Photo courtesy of Nyasa Times)
The Rev. Macdonald Sembereka of Malawi (Photo courtesy of Nyasa Times)

I returned to DC this week, six weeks after the event, to see what impact these people and their stories had upon the shepherds [host families] and their congregations. I discovered that the impact was quite profound. One retired married couple had provided a base for Macdonald Sembereka, an Anglican priest living in Malawi. He is HIV-positive and part of an international network of 7,000 HIV-positive religious leaders called INERELA.

As a straight advocate for LGBT inclusion, Macdonald experienced so much stigma from his faith community that he now works to alleviate it for everyone. When he began to speak out in favor of decriminalization of LGBT people in Malawi, the mob turned on him. As legislators added lesbianism to the anti-gay penal code, someone firebombed Macdonald’s home last year while his wife and children lay sleeping. This did not deter him from working to reduce discrimination against LGBT people and he focused largely on the homophobia within the churches and began to organize conference for religious leaders and politicians to discuss this issue.

Albert Ogle
The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle

So we assigned Macdonald to [the Church of the] Good Shepherd in the hope there would be good chemistry and, sure enough, the report last night from our two retired teachers was extremely encouraging.

Macdonald had been invited to D.C. to take part in a meeting of the Presidential AIDS Program (PEPFAR) and he wanted to stay with his new friends in Silver Spring. So they were sitting at the dinner table when Macdonald’s cell phone rang and he answered it. He excused himself and began talking energetically and used the word “Excellency” a couple of times. As the new presidential adviser on Non Government Organizations, Macdonald was speaking with Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi. She was in New York trying to raise support to feed her 1.3 million starving people and was now on her way to Washington to build more support for her case.

At Clinton Global Initiative 2012 meeting, from left to right, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda; the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle; Trevor Manuel, minister of national planning in South Africa; and Joyce Banda, president of Malawi.
At Clinton Global Initiative 2012 meeting, from left to right, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda; the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle; Trevor Manuel, minister of national planning in South Africa; and Joyce Banda, president of Malawi.

Macdonald passed the phone to his host to say hello. Mary was eating her ice cream and didn’t have to time to figure out she was speaking to a head of state. She remembered to call her “Your Excellency” and they had a conversation about her Presbyterian past and the mission she was on in the USA. She told the president how Macdonald had changed their awareness about so many international issues and how impressed they were that she was one of the few African heads of state willing to look seriously at repealing the anti-gay laws on her countries books.

Mary’s congregation raised almost $3,000 to support the Spirit of 76 program to bring 26 international visitors and an additional $1,000 to support a little orphanage Macdonald was helping. A little money for uniforms and school fees went a long way. The couple laughed and recounted how excited he was to shop at our bargain department stores for shoes and clothes for his orphans. He was particularly proud of one who had made it to medical school.

The Silver Springs congregation is now supporting his work and Macdonald is welcome any time in Mary and Paul’s home. Their tangible support of this one man is helping to change a country and simply by opening hearts and homes, Macdonald was able to find kindred spirits and the bread of angels to sustain him on a difficult journey towards equality.

Read the full column, “RGOD2: Finding kindred spirits with straight allies in the faith community,” in the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, and editor/publisher of Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at info@76crimes.com.


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