During my time at the General Conference 2019, several people asked me how I was doing and coping with what was going on. I told everyone I was fine, but I could tell by their reactions and body language that they wondered how I could be okay when the Traditional Plan passed as the way forward for The United Methodist Church.

But many of them don’t know that I have been through worse situations that involve life and death. As a Christian in Africa, I struggled with my sexual orientation and I faced hatred from my own church settings. I lived in a setting where family, social identities, and religion were rigidly defined.

Living as a gay man in Africa still comes with a heavy price to pay. I have been threatened, beaten and tortured by Nigerian police. Luckily for me, I survived it. The attacks, killings, and jail terms are part of the struggles that many LGBTQIA persons endure in Africa, but all these challenges have made me stronger. The church was my place of refuge, where I worshipped with other Christians, and a community I trusted. I always looked forward to attending church services because church was a place where I found peace.

Unfortunately, the people in the church whom I trusted ultimately betrayed me. Some members of churches in Africa believe that LGBTQIA people are not welcomed in the church and should undergo a form of conversion therapy before being welcomed back into the church.

I was able to find my way to the United States where I believed there are laws that protect people like me. I came to America to be safe as a gay man, but now I feel at risk here as a black African man. America is a complicated country that makes me wonder if it is safer to be here with the possibility of being targeted by the police and gang-related homicide or urban crime, or if it would be safer to be in Nigeria where there is a possibility of me being jailed or killed because of my sexuality. This tension has made me realize that there is no place that is safe for everyone, but with our trust in God, we can continue to work to change this. No one should have to choose which part of them to protect.

Despite the challenges of being a gay African man in the U.S. and in my home country, I have seen the connections that can form between U.S. and African members of The UMC.

As the African Central Conferences Coordinator for Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), I have been directly involved with building relationships between African and U.S. members of The UMC. I have led several teams of people to West Africa to spend time in UMC communities and learn what their concerns were. At the end of these trips, I felt the glory of God shining on the people of Africa.

Irrespective of all the challenges the continent is going through, their faith remains strong. I have been amazed by the successes and growth of these African United Methodist communities and humbled to watch their leadership in action. I am grateful for the partnerships we are forging as we seek to live out God’s love in the world. We surely experienced the hospitality, faith, and graciousness that come from God through our siblings in Africa. The team left Africa grateful, inspired, and full of enthusiasm for the work ahead together. It was truly the beginning of something beautiful, and we give God thanks!

The United Methodist Church is a global Church consisting of many cultures, beliefs, and practices, which makes us a diverse and stronger church together. As an African, I believe that the Church should be a place where everyone is welcome irrespective of their race, culture, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. God did not call us to be the judge but to love our neighbors as God loves us.

Personally, I felt betrayed and shocked that my fellow Christians mostly people from the central conferences voted for a plan that does harm to people and exclude people like me in the church. As an African and United Methodist, I do not support a plan that divides the Church or excludes people from the Church.

I am so disappointed that The UMC spent over four million dollars to gather people in St. Louis to decide who can or cannot be a part of the Church. These actions are sins before God and as Christians, our role is to show love and do no harm to one another. The millions of dollars wasted to organize General Conference to vote on a plan that may be deemed unconstitutional could have been used instead for positive change in the lives of God’s children. There are more important issues facing the Church today, and these issues warrant the Church’s attention. For instance, the Church should focus on the Flint water crisis, supporting refugees at the border, healthcare for vulnerable populations locally and in developing countries, or addressing other social justice issues such as racism and gender inequality affecting the United Methodist Church.

My beloved LGBTQIA+ community: though we are not happy with the decision reached at the special General Conference, I know that these decisions do not define who we are and cannot keep us from God’s Kingdom.

One of my greatest takeaways from the General Conference was seeing how united and strong the progressive movement is. I was glad to be part of a team that looks after one another and showed love to people around us. I was blessed to see how diverse our Church is, and it gave me a sense for how beautiful the Church can be.

I am not ready to give up on the Church I have come to love. At this moment, I have hope for a better future. This is a time for us to come together as one family to fight against those who want to destroy our church. In part, we do this by building stronger relationships with our allies in the Central Conference.

This is not the time to give up or leave the Church. Rather, this is the time to prove to our enemies that we are stronger together and our Church will remain a global Church where all are welcome irrespective of who you are. I am a gay African man, and The UMC will remain my church. I have decided to stay and continue the work of loving everybody around me.

Dennis Akpona

Dennis Akpona is an LGBT activist originally from Nigeria. He was granted asylum from Nigeria where he fled persecution as a gay man. While in Nigeria, Dennis worked for seven years in the nonprofit sector for a number of organizations including Journalists Against AIDS, Initiative for Equal Rights, and Population Council.

Since arriving in the United States, Dennis has not stopped working for, and on behalf of, LGBT individuals. He volunteered at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and is a co-founder of Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program or CLASP. Knowing first-hand the difficulty arriving asylum seekers face and the lack of resources available to them, Dennis took it upon himself to organize and start CLASP to assist LGBT asylum seekers while they await the long and complicated process of applying for asylum. Due to his love for giving back and helping others, he completed a bachelor's degree at Northeastern Illinois University in Social Work and a bachelor's degree in Accounting from Lagos State University in Nigeria. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Social Work from University at Buffalo.

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